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How Self-Inhibition Leads to Addiction

You may be unintentionally setting up your next addictive episode.

Nancy was a 28 year old teacher who addictively used the tranquilizer Xanax. She didn’t take it randomly (addictive actions are never random); she used it almost entirely when her boyfriend Mitch withdrew from her to concentrate on his work, something he had been doing more and more. At those times, she was tormented with an inner conflict. She wanted nothing more than to angrily tell him how alone she felt when he pulled away from her. But she was terrified that she would destroy their relationship if she spoke up. Feeling utterly trapped, she had to do something to undo her sense of helplessness. That's when she turned to Xanax. Each time she decided to use it, she (momentarily) felt no longer helpless, since she could now do something within her own power to make her feel better. As much as taking Xanax was seriously harming her life, at the time that she felt that tremendous drive to take it, she felt empowered.

This example is taken from my first book, The Heart of Addiction, where I wrote it as an illustration of how addiction works: addictive acts are substitutes (or displacements) for taking a direct action that is either frightening or forbidden, when people feel overwhelmingly helpless. In Nancy's case, she didn't let herself confront Mitch because that touched on very old fears of being left alone. But, since it is emotionally necessary for all of us to take some action to reverse feelings of being utterly trapped or helpless, her substitute action was driven by enormous intensity.

I am citing Nancy's story in this post as an example of one of the most common precipitants of new episodes of addictive behavior: self-inhibition. Nancy's old fears about being abandoned make it understandable why she could not speak up more clearly to Mitch. But by holding herself back, she was inadvertently setting up her next addictive episode, because she was actually trapping herself.

Here is another example:

Daniel suffered with alcoholism but was abstinent at the time of this vignette. He had hired a contractor to rebuild his old wooden garage. The contractor started the project but then left it half-done to go work somewhere else. Daniel had paid for almost the entire job in advance, so he couldn't simply fire the workman. He made several calls to him before the contractor finally called back saying he couldn’t return to Daniel’s garage until he completed another project; it would be at least 3 weeks. Daniel protested mildly, which was his usual style, but the contractor said he would just have to wait. Immediately following this conversation Daniel resumed drinking.

Daniel's story (which appears in my second book, Breaking Addiction), is another example of the same issue. When he held himself back from responding more vigorously (which might have included not just a stronger verbal response, but threatening to contact the Better Business Bureau, his State's consumer services department, his lawyer, the local newspaper, and so forth), Daniel placed himself in a helpless position. His way of dealing with that feeling was to drink, in exactly the pattern that defines addiction. As usual with addictive behavior, his decision to get a drink made him feel better since it reversed his sense of helplessness, even though it did nothing to help his situation with the contractor or the garage.

Addictions are psychological symptoms that arise when people feel overwhelmingly trapped, and provide a solution to that feeling, driven by the fury that naturally comes with feeling trapped. When people create their own helplessness by being overly inhibited -- not speaking up, acquiescing to being treated badly, etc. -- they are unintentionally precipitating their next addictive episode. If you recognize yourself in these anecdotes, it pays to be alert to when they occur, and even to anticipate situations in which you are likely to cave in.

One of the points that I have tried to stress in my books is that, even if you cannot bring yourself to act directly when attacked, there is always some step you can take. One man who suffered with alcoholism could not bring himself to speak up in a large meeting and was heading for a drink right afterwards when he realized it still wasn't too late. He got out his laptop and wrote an email to everyone who had been in the meeting saying exactly what he wanted to say. He never did have that drink.

Of course, in the long term, if being too meek is an issue for you, it would be sensible to find a good therapist to figure out why you hold yourself back. But in the meantime, knowing how your addictive behavior works in you can save you from having to repeat it.

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