The One Emotion Addicts Do Not Want to Feel

Why do addicts become addicted?


It’s an enormously complex question. We could answer this question in a number of different ways, couldn’t we?


From a neurobiological perspective, we could argue that addicts crave increasing amounts of the substance or behaviors to which they’re addicted in order to get more and more of a dopamine kick, the delicious chemical the brain releases when we do anything pleasurable.

From an epigenetic perspective, we might say that the addict’s family history influenced his or her genetic makeup, altering the brain’s reward pathways in the addict that, when paired with environmental exposure to substances or a potentially addictive behavior like having sex or watching porn, resulting in increased vulnerability to addiction.


From an environmental or family systems perspective, we might suggest that addiction is associated with significant physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and that such trauma can strongly influence one’s decision to use drugs, alcohol, or a behavior like gambling or video games as a coping mechanism.


We could go on.


Addictions of all stripes, whether they be process addictions such as sex, food, or shopping, or substance addictions like heroin or alcohol, are mood-altering. So while addiction is an incredibly complex phenomenon, one thing is certain.


One of the most important functions of addiction is to help the addict manage his or her emotional life.


But why would an addict start to use a substance or behavior to do this?


“Ouch!” Trauma, Narcissistic Injuries, and Addiction

In an article entitled “Addiction, Helplessness, and Narcissistic Rage,” Dr. Lance Dodes* argues that addicts use or act out in order to regain control of their feelings.


Addicts, as the argument goes, have lost control of their ability to manage their feelings because of the trauma they’ve experienced, trauma that fills them with powerful, overwhelming emotions beyond their ability to manage.


(Often this is because their caregivers didn’t help or teach them to regulate their feelings, which is why addiction thrives in families that are chaotic or abusive.)


These traumas inflict what are called narcissistic injuries. The term “narcissistic” here has nothing to do with the grandiose, self-absorbed, Tony-Stark-like individual who doesn’t have an empathic bone in his body. Here, the term simply refers to the self; it’s a wound that grievously injures a person’s sense of worth or value.


This blogger puts it this way: “Someone says or does something that hurts deeply. You feel unseen, betrayed, invalidated, or simply criticized. . . . You are having a tough time recovering. It eats at you. The hurt somehow sticks.” As he rightly points out, you don’t need to be a narcissist to experience these injuries—everyone gets hurt like this sometimes.


Most addicts have experienced a lot of these kinds of injuries, which makes them feel worthless and unlovable. Sometimes without even realizing it, they’ll often hold beliefs about themselves such as:

    • “I’m a failure.”
    • “I’m a f— up.”
    • “I’m alone in the world.”
    • “People I love will turn on me.”
    • “It’s all my fault.”


Ouch, indeed. Such beliefs are often so painful that they are out of the addict’s awareness, subtly distorting their thinking and influencing their actions. As the addiction progresses, the addict’s life becomes increasingly chaotic, mirroring the darkness of the emotional wounds that feed the addiction.


Helplessness and Reasserting Control

Overwhelming feelings of worthlessness or being unlovable leave the addict helpless to manage her own internal states. To ward off feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, the addict turns to a mood-altering substance or behavior.


Again, whether they know it or not, most people who struggle with addiction have been emotionally injured and often abused in some way over and over again. The resultant emotional pain and feelings of powerlessness to manage that pain are highly specific to each individual.


To paint with broad brush strokes, though, let’s consider for a moment a few possible examples**:

    • People who have a great deal of anger and have experienced a lot of trauma tend to gravitate toward heroin, as it’s an opiate that’s particularly good at reducing emotional pain. Heroin addicts may feel helpless to control their emotional pain and turn to heroin to feel better.
    • Cocaine users tend to prefer the drug as they want to experience elation or restlessness, sometimes as a way to combat feelings of depression.
    • Alcohol is known for its disinhibiting effects, and so it’s no surprise that people who use alcohol usually inhibit their emotions, not letting themselves fully express or feel their feelings. Alcohol users may consume alcohol as a way of getting access to feelings that they’d otherwise not be able to experience.


If you’re reading this and struggling with some kind of addiction, maybe you’re thinking, “I didn’t use to medicate emotional pain. That doesn’t fit for me.” That makes so much sense to me. People who struggle with addiction are especially good at finding ways to not experience intolerable feelings, very often banishing the feelings from their awareness entirely.


I’d invite you to consider the possibility that you may not know what you don’t know. Addictions are by their nature mood-altering, so what do you know about the moods you were trying to alter? This is the often difficult question that invites us to get to know our pain, our selves.


Where Does Sex Addiction Fit In?

Just as substance abuse runs the gamut from heroin to alcohol to cocaine, so too do sexually compulsive behaviors. Sexually compulsive behaviors include high-risk sex with prostitutes, isolated fantasizing and masturbation, pornography, sexting, Tinder hookups, and online sexual chatting chat rooms. The list goes on and on.


Just as substance abusers tend to unconsciously gravitate toward their specific drug of choice to remedy their unique emotional pain, sex addicts almost certainly take interest in their ways of acting out for the same reason. I’ll address a few possibilities over the next few weeks in blog posts to come.


*Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. 59, 1990

**Self-Medication Hypothesis: Connecting Affective Experience and Drug Choice By: Suh, Jesse, J., Ruffins,, Stephen, Robins, C., Edward, Albanese, Mark, J., Khantzian, Edward, J., Psychoanalytic Psychology, 07369735, January 1, 2008, Vol. 25, Issue 3

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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