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Why Addictions Are So Hard To Break

Peeling back another layer of the addiction onion

Today I thought I’d put in my two cents about a question that has been studied and pondered extensively in the psychology field, by researchers and clinicians alike. I join my esteemed PT blogger colleagues who address this question regularly. Why are addictions so hard to break?

There is no single answer to this question, for addiction’s power is multi-layered. We know that there are physical, mental, emotional, social, and even spiritual forces at play. But with each layer of understanding comes a greater opportunity to help those who struggle to free themselves from an attachment that has become destructive. I come to the question as a psychoanalyst, of course, and so I am interested in what lies beneath the surface of conscious psychological life.

One of the most difficult aspects of psychological life in modern times is the challenge of managing painful feelings. Sadness, fear, and anger are at the top of the list. Then there are the slow-burning, gnawing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, insecurity, worry, and irritability. Add boredom and loneliness to the list and you really get the picture. While once we were concerned with dragons and beasts in the outside world, now we must face them within.

Some fortunate people can bear painful feelings without too much distress. With some semblance of inner security that stems from biology, temperament, and upbringing, some people can deal with emotional life on its own terms. They can accept that painful feelings are part of life and find ways to cope with them that are mostly constructive or at least not too destructive. They view life as something they cannot completely control. They roll with the punches. They face problems rather than turn away from them. They can depend on others for help when they need it. They are able to approach painful feelings with perspective—feel them, bear them, contain them, and work through them.

On the other hand, some people are particularly distressed by their painful feelings--due to the biology or psychology of their genetics, or what was present or absent in their upbringing, or usually some combination of both. Because upsetting feelings are so difficult to bear they, understandably, want to get rid of them quickly. They want to control them. And it is difficult for such folks to rely on others for help because that brings in a whole other set of potentially painful feelings, as relationships inevitably do.

There are different ways of managing this vulnerability, but addiction offers a pretty enticing deal. If you can get hold of a substance that immediately takes you away from your upset feelings AND you can give it to yourself, you have discovered an alternative method to dealing with emotional life on its own terms. Some people are drawn to an addictive activity rather than a substance—like work, working-out, sex, eating, or gaming. These activities give you a sense that you can control your feelings. At the very least, you can distract yourself from bad feelings and, even better, substitute a good feeling for a bad feeling. It’s a little bit like magic, it’s that powerful.

Think of it from the point of view of a baby—the point of view that we all have at the base of our personalities. The allure of addiction is that it allows you, in fantasy, to create an artificial mother. You no longer need a real mom to give you milk, comfort, and support. You don’t have to do the real hard work of taking in what she gives and using it to grow emotionally. With an addiction, you get to bypass all of that tough human stuff. You don’t have to wait. You don’t have to suffer. You don’t need what mom has to offer because you can make it yourself. You even can give it to yourself. To put it in vivid psychoanalytic terms, you’ve created a synthetic breast-on-demand.

Who wouldn’t want that? Once you discover it, it’s like discovering the cure for hunger. Maybe now you can see why that would be so hard to give up.

But that's not the whole story. The truth is that it is hard to break an addiction. But it is not impossible. If you can understand the psychological roots, there is a lot of help to be had.

For me, the psychological key is to realize that a synthetic solution is never as good as the real thing, and often a lot worse. Using an addiction to deal with upset feelings creates the very problems it was intended to solve. Addictions backfire. The painful feelings that were to be avoided actually increase a thousand-fold. The deeper you get into it, the MORE you feel depressed, anxious, angry, and hopeless, not less. You LOSE control rather than gain it. In order to break the addiction, you must come to see that it does not deliver what it promises. If you can see it for what it really is rather than what you imagine it to be, then you have the chance to let it go.

Copyright 2012 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. Like it! Tweet it! Comment on it!

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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.