How to Know If You Have an Addiction

woman smoking addictionHow can you know if you have an addiction? If you’re reading this, maybe you’re struggling with a particular habit that you’re afraid is getting out of hand. Maybe you’re wondering if you’re addicted and how to tell if you’re dealing with one.


Whatever your habit is—whether it’s sexual behaviors, pornography, using a substance, gambling, shopping, or something else, there are ways to tell if it’s becoming a significant problem.


Therapists and addiction specialists use criteria to assess whether or not addiction in present in someone’s life. But there are three hallmarks of addiction that are good measures of how harmful or serious a habit may be.


Below is a short clip from a presentation on sex addiction I did a few weeks ago at Fuller Psychological and Family Services in Pasadena, California. It’s a bummer that the audio (and well, the video too) is bad, so I thought I’d write up a few thoughts to go with the clip.



So what are the three telltale signs of addiction?


1) Preoccupation: You Obsess in Unhealthy Ways About the Habit

When we’re passionate about something, we think about it a lot, don’t we? It gives us life, energy, and enthusiasm to pursue what we’re passionate about. If passion goes far enough, some might even call us obsessed. Our passion becomes the focus of our thoughts, drive, and efforts. When we’re obsessed, some might call us a little crazy. But even then, this obsession can be healthy. When we devote ourselves wholly to an endeavor, it can make us more motivated, energetic, and devoted to mastering that passion.


The obsession that characterizes addiction, which is also known as preoccupation, is nothing like this.


Obsession becomes unhealthy when we begin to think about engaging in our habit in order to escape difficult or painful feelings or circumstances. People who struggle with addictive preoccupation ruminate on their habit in order to escape emotional pain.


So, for example, they begin to think about pornographic images, getting home to have that drink, or recalling the rush of the last win at the blackjack table and looking forward to the next in order to alter their state of mind. When they feel unpleasant feelings and want comfort, without even thinking about it they may start ruminating on engaging in their habit.


Preoccupation is the first stage of the addictive cycle and often leads to the rituals that culminate with engaging in the addiction (e.g., using a substance, acting out sexually).


2) Loss of Control: You’ve Tried and Failed to Control Your Habit

Maybe you’ve told yourself again and again that you’re going to stop. Maybe you’ve set dates that you’re going to quit, only to see yourself blow past them. Maybe you’ve acted out or used longer than you intended to. Perhaps you’ve tried using your spiritual beliefs to limit or stop your behaviors, leaning on prayer or meditation. Or perhaps all of these have been true for you.


All of these are signs that a habit is getting beyond one’s control. Loss of control is a significant criterion for a number of reasons:

  1. Loss of control indicates that the reward center of the brain has probably been altered in response to the habit. As the brain wants more and more of the delicious neurochemicals associated with the habits (i.e. dopamine), the impulses associated with the habit become harder and harder to control.
  2. Loss of control also indicates that someone else is in the driver’s seat. That is, the part of the user that doesn’t want to use is no longer calling the shots. True addicts call this part “the addict,” and they’ll ascribe to him all manner of horrors (“The addict made me do it,” “That was my addict talking”). This doesn’t get them off the hook, though. It just means that when the addict is focused on the habit, they may not care at all about anything else.


3) Continuation Despite Adverse Consequences: You Keep Doing It Even Though It’s Harmful to Your Life and Relationships

If you have an addiction, it’s impacting your life. Guaranteed. You’ve lost control, and as you’re no longer fully in the driver’s seat, your driving is getting a bit reckless. People close to you are getting hurt. Your work or academics is suffering. You don’t pursue the hobbies or enjoyable activities that you once used to. You’re not caring for yourself very well, either. And on and on.


If you’re struggling with sexual behaviors, chances are you’ve really noticed a lot of shame and guilt over what you’ve done, and that your marriage or intimate relationship is suffering too. Your partner might wonder if you’re okay, or they sense that you’ve been distant. Or you’ve been fighting more because she knows something’s wrong, and you lie to cover it up.


So how can you know if you have an addiction? Maybe you’ve identified with one or all three of these criteria. Whatever the case, maybe it’s time to take a good look at how your habit is affecting you and your life. What do you notice? Do you like everything you see? If not, it may be a sign that your habit is creating problems for you.

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If you’re struggling with habit that you’re concerned about, the hardest step is the first one: reaching out for support. Please, don’t be afraid to seek out the help you need, whether it’s from a trusted, solid friend, a pastor, or a counselor.


If you’d like to speak with me about what’s going on for you, I’d love to hear from you. Please give me a call at (805) 256-3497 or email me at

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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