I suggest two reasons that people don’t readily identify their addictions:
- Addiction is generally not precisely defined.
- The personal and social connotations of addiction are not positive. People do not brag, for example, about being an addict as they might brag about making a profitable business deal.
So let’s define addiction. Perhaps we could turn to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, which offers standard language and criteria for the classification of mental disorders. The DSM is considered the Bible of mental illness, and yet its description of addiction is so inadequate as to qualify as medieval. The latest DSM includes alcohol and drugs, for example, as addictive substances, but excludes caffeine, even though every health professional and lay person knows that caffeine is addictive and has genuine withdrawal symptoms associated with it. The DSM describes only gambling as an addictive behavior, while the entire world knows that sex addiction is more common than all the substance addictions combined—at least among men.
So it’s regrettable that we can’t turn to the mental health Bible for a definition of addiction. One dictionary does far better: “Addiction is a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble).”
I suggest an even clearer and more useful definition:
Addiction is the use of any substance or behavior (1) that is used to make us feel less pain; (2) that causes us physical, emotional, spiritual, or social harm; and (3) that we cannot easily give up.
Addictions We Rarely Recognize
Now we have a useful definition that enables us to accurately identify a great many addictions that otherwise would elude our gaze. Let’s look at a couple.
Being right. I cannot begin to count the number of people I’ve seen whose progress in life and in relationships is non-existent in great part because they simply cannot admit being wrong. How can we learn anything until we first see how we’re wrong or ignorant? Their insistence on being right helps them to feel less afraid and helpless (criterion #1 above), it destroys their peace of mind and ability to have healthy relationships (2), and they cannot stop this self-destructive behavior (3). I still smile at the memory of a woman telling me what a mess her life was (1 and 2). When I told her that she was addicted to being right, she erupted, “I am NOT.”
Victimhood. Once people are convinced that other people are injuring them, and they experience the sympathy and complete lack of responsibility that are victimhood’s rewards, the addiction can become lifelong.
An Example of Unrecognized Addictions
I recently worked with a couple, Mark and Josie, who presented because Josie had admitted to an emotional affair with another man. I soon learned that she’d had multiple sexual affairs, was minimally involved in her children’s lives, spent money as though there were no end to it, and more.
Mark was confused. When he learned of the extent of her extra-marital sexual activities, he said, “She sounds like a sex addict.”
After I confirmed his suspicion, he said, “But she almost never wants to have sex with ME—always has an excuse—so how could she be addicted to sex?”
“I apologize,” I said. “I didn’t explain that very well. Sex is just ONE of MANY addictions for her. When she’s with another man, she uses sex, because that’s a very easy way to get the attention she craves. When she’s with you, sex isn’t nearly as productive, so she just avoids you. Her real addiction isn’t to any particular behavior. Her real addiction is to eliminating her emotional PAIN—all the time and in any way she can.”
Let’s look at just a few of her addictions, and how they’re all related to pain:
Sex gets her the attention that diminishes her pain of feeling worthless.
Avoiding sex gives her control over her husband, so she doesn’t have to face the pain of being completely irresponsible as a partner with him, emotionally and otherwise.
Being right. When she argues and wins, she feels more powerful, or—more accurately—less weak and worthless.
Motherhood. While potentially the grandest calling of all, Josie uses it to give HER a sense of worth. Few things give more instant value than the adoring look of an infant. Josie was overwhelmed with the demands of one child, but the attention and sense of value she got from pregnancy and motherhood prompted her to have another, then another, then another—and she neglected all of them.
Neglecting her children. Whenever her children’s endless demands—recognizing that endless demands are simply what children do—became too much, she avoided them, passed them off to babysitters, and so on.
Shopping. If you ever want to feel instantly important, walk into a department store nicely clothed, and carry a platinum credit card.
Spending time with her friends. Josie was involved in an unending list of social activities. Her friends affirmed her lifestyle and made her important. When there was a choice between disappointing a child or a friend, Josie didn’t hesitate.
Sadly, addicts are not eager to examine their behavior. Of necessity, accompanying every addiction is the addiction to lying. If you’re addicted to a particular behavior, you can’t say, “Oh, I do that because I’m addicted to temporarily reducing the pain that overwhelms me every day.” No, you have to come up with some great reason—one that no one would argue with—for your behavior. You have to make excuses. You lie.
Josie lied about everything she did, and addicts are accomplished liars. They also tend to be in relationships with people who are weak and easily manipulated, so it was no great surprise that Mark believed her lies. He became her great enabler, so he continues in a relationship with a wife who cheats on him and ignores him and their children. The price of addiction is death—always emotional and sometimes physical.
Addiction is about treating pain in the short term. We use our addictive substances and behaviors because for at least a moment they WORK, but in the process we are distracted from pursuing the only real cure for our pain—Real Love.
Learn more about overcoming addiction!