It is the time of year when resolutions are made in hopes of changing undesirable behaviours. Despite the determined effort, we imminently find the new behaviour difficult to sustain.
As much as we want to stop or even decrease our drinking, spending, gossiping, junk food eating or any other craved substance or behaviour, we cannot. This compulsive behaviour despite negative consequences (e.g., money, relationship, health) is called addiction.
Society tends to judge addiction to certain substances (heroine, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol) and behaviour (gambling, sex) as bad; while addiction to other substances (prescriptions, coffee) and behaviours (work, exercise) are often denied or even valued.
However, all addictions have the same compulsive and pleasuring seeking root. As Jung stated, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” Our rational ego is unable to control the addiction, suggesting underlying unconscious forces are involved.
The key to addiction, as with any unconscious material, is to view it as a symptom of psychic distress, as a way of psyche communicating that there is something deeply ‘off’ or imbalanced. One is not addicted to the substance or behaviour; rather, one is addicted to the internal relationship with the substance or behaviour.
This addictive relationship is about seeking pleasure and getting rewards met. In Latin, the word ‘addictionem’ means “an awarding or a devoting.” Indeed. We would not be compulsively doing the addictive behaviour if it did not fulfill some need or was not pleasurable. What is the reward?
Research has found that the compulsive use of nicotine, alcohol and injected street drugs is related to the intensity of adverse life experiences during childhood. These experiences range from physical and sexual abuse to the death of a parent and to living in a dysfunctional home.
However, adults who have not been traumatized during childhood also become addictive. Further research indicates lack of ‘good enough parenting’ or emotional attunement, as well as the outright lack of parenting, impact brain development.
Early childhood relationships, especially in the first two years, imprint the brain, establish relationship dynamics and form the dopamine-reliant pleasure and reward system. When good enough parenting exists, the child’s needs are met in a consistent manner, and thus, dopamine levels are maintained and pleasure is perceived. The child learns that he or she is worthy of love, support and is capable of self-soothing.
Abusive or not good enough childhoods result in the craving for needs and pleasure. We outwardly look for the inner spirit, meaning and connection we lack. However, like our parental relationship, the substance or behaviour will never be able to satisfy our needs.
We need to turn inward for the answer. Until underlying feelings associated with our past wounds are addressed, and until we identify and integrate pleasurable and meaning-making thoughts and behaviours into our life, merely stopping the addictive behaviour will result in us running back, perhaps in more angst, to our addictive ways.