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Ontological Addiction: Are You Addicted to Yourself?

Take a quiz to see how much you’re ruled by your ego.

It is generally accepted that there exist two main categories of addiction, namely chemical addiction (e.g., addiction to drugs) and behavioral addiction (e.g., addiction to mobile phones or social media). However, as part of a new psychological theory that I have developed and described in several academic papers, ‘ontological addiction’ appears to constitute a third category of addiction corresponding to addiction to our beliefs concerning who we think we are and how we think we exist.

Ontological addiction theory, which is based on evidence from contemplative psychology as well as other scientific disciples, reflects a new metaphysical model of human functioning and mental health. Examples of supporting evidence include studies showing that meditation techniques intended to undermine the ego and an inflexible belief in selfhood can increase levels of wellbeing and wisdom more than mindfulness. Other examples include research showing that being less attached to the self (and the various phenomena that it associates with) is associated with psychological wellbeing and an increased sense of coherence.

Most psychological models relating to the self and human functioning imply that the self exists as a discrete, independent entity. However, ontological addiction theory asserts that the self (and indeed all phenomena) does not manifest as a discrete standalone entity but relies on innumerable causes and conditions. To take the human body (i.e., a key part of the self) as an example, it exists in reliance upon the wind, rivers, oceans, plants, and animals – we breathe in others’ out-breath and they breathe out our in-breath. The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent (i.e., to the point of being without discrete boundaries) means that they are of the nature of ‘non-self’. In other words, we are ‘empty’ of an inherently existing self but we are ‘full’ of all things.

Ontological addiction is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”. By believing they exist both inherently and independently, the theory asserts that individuals cement their sense of self to a point that they relate to themselves as the centerpiece in a world in which all other lifeforms, objects, and concepts are deemed to be separate and peripheral. Each time this happens, belief in selfhood is reaffirmed and this leads to rewards in the form of a more secure sense of self. People with ontological addiction eventually become addicted to this reward system such that an ever-increasing level of immersion in selfhood is required to sustain their faulty belief in an inherently existing “me, mine or I”. In essence, ontological addiction means that an individual becomes “self-addicted”, and the theory asserts that as they get more caught up in themselves, they become increasingly superficial and unhappy and less able to embrace life in the present moment.

Ontological addiction is distinct from conditions such as narcissism on the grounds that the ego can take on many forms and can still be prominent in people who are not ordinarily associated with having a big ego. For example, while it might be easy to identify a narcissist or somebody with a superiority complex as having a big ego, a person with an inferiority complex could still be egotistical due to thinking in terms of "me, mine and I" (e.g., “I’m not as important as other people” or “that person is better than me”). Similarly, an individual who appears to be kind or considerate might not normally be thought of as having a big ego, but much depends on whether deep-down they are motivated by the possibility of some kind of reward, gain or recognition.

A Quiz to Gauge Ontological Addiction

The following ten questions are adapted and extended from a quiz I prepared for The Sun. The questions are intended to help you reflect on the extent that ego governs your choices, thoughts and behaviours. Respond to each question by answering either: ‘‘never’’, “rarely”, “sometimes”, “often” or ‘‘always’’, and then score your answer as follows: ‘‘never’’ = 1, ‘‘rarely’’ = 2, ‘‘sometimes’’ = 3, ‘‘often’’ = 4, ‘‘always’’ = 5. Higher scores indicate greater levels of ego and scoring 4 or more on at least six of the ten questions could be indicative of ontological addiction.

How often during the last year have you:

  1. Thought of how you could increase your wealth, status, or possessions?
  2. Felt you were right and others were wrong?
  3. Been offended?
  4. Felt superior or inferior to someone else?
  5. Been unable to let go of a situation after being advised to do so?
  6. Thought about how others see you or what they think of you?
  7. Felt regret after doing something kind?
  8. Put your own interests before those of others?
  9. Felt you needed to occupy yourself more to avoid being on your own?
  10. Become tired, stressed or unwell because of keeping up appearances?

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Ducasse, D., Van Gordon, W., Brand-Arpon, V., Courtet, P., & Olié, E. (2019). Borderline personality Disorder: From understanding ontological addiction to psychotherapeutic revolution. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, Advance Online Publication.

Sahdra, B. K., Shaver, P. R., & Brown, K. W. (2010). A scale to measure non-attachment: A Buddhist complement to Western research on attachment and adaptive functioning. Journal of Personality Assessment, 92, 116-127.

Sahdra, B. K., Ciarrochi, J., Parker, P. D., Marshall, S., and Heaven, P. (2015). Empathy and nonattachment independently predict peer nominations of prosocial behavior of adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 263. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00263.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (Eds). (2015). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addictions. Gewerbestrasse (Switzerland): Springer.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Ontological addiction: Classification, etiology, and treatment. Mindfulness, 7, 660-671.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9, 309-318

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Dunn, T., Garcia-Campayo, J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of fibromyalgia: A randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Health Psychology, 22, 186-206.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Diouri, S., Garcia-Campayo, J., Kotera, Y., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). Ontological Addiction Theory: Attachment to Me, Mine, and I. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 7, 892-896.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Dunn, T., Sapthiang, S., Kotera, Y., Garcia-Campayo, J., & Sheffield, D. (2019). Exploring emptiness and its effects on non-attachment, mystical experiences, and psycho-spiritual wellbeing: A quantitative and qualitative study of advanced meditators. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 15, 261-272.

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