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Why We Use Drugs: The Power of Addictive Tendencies

The Reason We Get Hooked on Substances

Why do people use and abuse substances and what makes these reasons so compelling?

Mainstream thinking about these questions has offered little understanding, instead often blindly adopting an attitude of moral contempt toward people with addictions, seeing them as irresponsible, weak, and having a problem that “other people” have, even though most people have various addictive tendencies. Further, we have learned to treat addictions like malignant tumors— things to be removed, as if their expression has no meaning for the person or the culture. Popular psychology hasn’t gone much further in demonstrating an understanding of the powerful motivations that fuel addictions. Typical reasons found in magazines and books, as well as on Internet sites, include the avoidance of unwanted feelings, self-medication due to stress, dealing with boredom, curiosity, or the desire to feel good—reasons that are devoid of critical thinking and reflect preconceived notions about substance use.

The reasons people use addictive substances are often more compelling than their desire to be free from the suffering and damage addictions cause. Understanding and addressing these reasons is critical to making more powerful inroads in addiction treatment.

Consider the following cases

Krasimira Nevenova/123RF/123RF
Source: Krasimira Nevenova/123RF/123RF

Case 1 - Hallucinogens: I worked with a man in his late teens who lived with his parents who regularly used hallucinogens. He told me that he used these substances because his and his parents’ lifestyle were boring. He would leave his parents’ house, walk up a small hill just minutes away, take LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, and “just sit there.” “What do you do when you sit there?” I asked. He said he thought about life. By exploring his motivation in this manner, I eventually learned that he was quite contemplative and interested in contemporary philosophical ideas, an interest at odds with his family’s view that focusing on utilitarian things was the basis for success.

Case 2 - Marijuana: I also worked with an evangelical Christian man who was ashamed to admit that he couldn’t stop using marijuana, seeing his addiction as reflecting a weakness and lack of faith. To explore his motivation, I asked him to talk about his experience when using marijuana. He said he fixed on the glow at the end of the marijuana joint as his friends inhaled, saying, “It was like a candle,” and described the warm yellow light he saw in his friends’ faces. As he spoke, he teared up, the muscles on his face softened, and he elaborated on the love he had for his friends. Through these observations, I learned that it was not his lack of faith that motivated his abuse of marijuana but a desire for the light of friendship and community.

Case 3 - More on marijuana: Another woman in her mid-fifties, small in stature, and even smaller in her sense of power in the world, loved to drink with her husband, saying it was a way to relax together. But since her husband had heart disease and high cholesterol and couldn’t drink with her, they decided to smoke marijuana to enjoy a “little high” every so often. When I asked her what it was like, she said she hadn’t really felt anything, but her husband had gotten quite stoned. “How do you know?” I asked. “He looked smaller,” she said, an explanation that made me laugh. Her perceptions clearly reflected that her motivation for smoking marijuana had been to feel bigger and freer rather than to address her boredom or cope with stress.

These stories all reflect an essential truth concerning perceptions about addictions. Most people make up explanations about why they use certain substances that are not at all connected to the experiences they have using those substances. The young man believed his use of hallucinogens was a response to boredom, but his experience using drugs revealed that it had more to do with his love of philosophical contemplation and a desire for a deeper inner life, a direction his parents did not approve of. The evangelical Christian man who used marijuana thought he did so because his will and faith were weak, but his actual experience of using drugs revealed he was hungry for the glow of friendship and sense of community. The woman who used marijuana to relax clearly had another motivation – to free herself from the perception that she was a small person relative to her husband.

These people had created armchair explanations of their substance use that appealed to mainstream culture and therefore were rarely questioned by others—reasons not grounded in their actual life experiences. The real reasons for their substance use had more to do with unrecognized inner needs and states of mind independent of their explanations. Their explanations reduced their powerful personal needs to psychological explanations they had learned from external sources, such as through friends, the media, and popular psychology expressed in books, magazines, or on the Internet. Consequently, because these individuals did not connect their addictions with deep personal needs, they treated themselves as if they needed correction, ignorant of the fact that they were searching for lives of greater meaning, power, and fulfillment—lives closer to their true natures.

One of my teachers, Dr. Max Schupbach, said that when individuals can’t find their way home they usually find a hotel that reminds them of home. And sometimes they will even forget they are not home or be too scared to stray from a place that feels like home for fear that their lives will get lost. Addictions are a hotel; they are not home but can remind people of home so powerfully that they won’t easily abandon them without knowing where their real home is and how to get there.


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