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Beyond Drugs: The Complex World of Addictive Behavior

Definition of addiction

Addiction has long been deeply misunderstood. Most people think it's about drugs, but addictions often involve other behaviors, such as gambling, eating, running, or even compulsively cleaning the house! To understand addictive behavior, it's necessary to look beyond the behavior and explore what drives it. Fortunately, addiction, for most people, is highly treatable through psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy.

There are three key parts to understanding how addiction works psychologically

  1. Every addictive act is triggered by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness. Addictive behavior functions to repair this underlying feeling of helplessness. It's able to do this because taking the addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) creates a sense of being empowered, of regaining control. This reversal of helplessness is the psychological function or deeper purpose of addiction.

  2. When anyone feels overwhelmingly helpless, they become very angry. This is completely normal. Nobody wants to feel utterly trapped. And, it turns out that this strong, actually normal, anger at helplessness is the powerful drive behind addiction. It explains the intense urge that leads people to keep engaging in the same behavior, even if it harms themselves or others.

  3. Even knowing the purpose and drive behind addiction, there is still a question of why people drink, gamble, eat, etc., when they're consumed with rage at helplessness. The answer is that all these actions are substitutes for taking direct action to deal with their feeling of powerlessness (we call this "displacement"). Here is an example. One day, a man who suffered from alcoholism didn't get a promotion, which made him feel helpless and furious. He had not been drinking for months, but he immediately went to a bar and started to drink. Drinking did make him feel better because he felt back in control. Instead of feeling helpless, he was doing something to feel better that was entirely within his power. Of course, drinking didn't really help his situation, but in the face of the intense need (a kind of rage, really) to reverse his feeling of helplessness, that didn't matter. His drinking was, in fact, a substitute for taking direct action to deal with feeling helpless, such as writing a complaint to the Human Resources department, calling up his Union representative, or immediately looking online to find another job. Indeed, the name we give to addictions is just the particular substitute action. If people drink when feeling overwhelmingly helpless, we call it alcoholism. If they gamble, we call it compulsive gambling, and so on. This fact helps explain why people can often switch from one addictive behavior to another ("I stopped using drugs, but now I can't stop going to the gym"). They have simply shifted to a different displacement.

Understanding how this works explains how to treat addiction. Once people learn the kinds of things that make them feel overwhelmingly helpless, they can predict in advance when addictive urges will occur, enabling them to have far more control than if they try to control themselves in the moment. And when they can work out in therapy what makes them feel so enraged and helpless in certain situations, they can repair the root cause of their addiction.

For many more examples of how addiction works psychologically and how psychoanalytic treatment works to improve it, take a look at either of the books I've written about this, listed below. And, to address the problem, consider seeing a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

Lance Dodes, M.D.


"The Heart of Addiction"

"Breaking Addiction: A 7-Step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction"


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