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What function does the addiction serve? An exercise

We all have addictions.  One way I sometimes look at life is a process of eliminating addictions so that we can be at peace.  If we were all 100% addiction free, we’d be blissful simply sitting still and doing nothing most of the time, and also blissful when we take care of business (eating, sleeping, working, etc).

Because most of us most of the time assume that life is just hard and stressful by default, we don’t realize that we even have addictions, which I might define as compulsive behaviors and thought/emotion patterns that we frequently and automatically employ to avoid the painful and uncomfortable work of healing.

Why healing?  Why isn’t a smoker just trying to stop smoking?  Well, why is the person smoking to begin with?  Because when they stop for too long, uncomfortable feelings arise.  Those uncomfortable feelings are the painful uncomfortable work of healing.  It’s not merely a chemical dependence.  That becomes a part of it after becoming a smoker.  But why was smoking taken up before the chemical dependence?  Because we all have an emotional avoidance dependence.  We use anything and everything – even redundant and circular thinking – to avoid unpleasant emotions.

At the very least, most of us are addicted to some degree to our technology – phones, social media, internet, etc.  The sky is the limit these days when it comes to addiction options: video games, porn, TV binges, food, drugs, alcohol, love, sex, and even activities normally considered healthy like exercise, working, and socializing.

What makes it an addiction is the reason we’re doing it, and the effect it has on us. If we were feeling restless and 1) we engaged in the activity to escape the restlessness, and 2) doing so was successful, then it’s what I’d call an addiction.

A first step in overcoming addiction

Once we’ve identified an addiction, we can start freeing ourselves from it.  It’s unlikely that we’ll free ourselves from a trap we don’t know we’re in.

A basic, bread-and-butter technique or practice that I’d recommend for any addiction you’ve identified is this:

  • Wait for the next addiction “urge”; the moment that you find yourself about to (smoke, drink, scroll, eat, etc).  Even this can be hard to do.  Often we totally miss the urge phase and don’t realize we’re caught until we’ve already practiced the addiction.
  • Get something to write with, like paper or a computer, and start writing.  Write down the thoughts you are having, and the thoughts you were having before those thoughts.  Trace them back… what’s bothering you?  It’s often subtle, elusive, chronic.  Sometimes it’s obvious and acute, in your face.  It might be a specific situation from a specific setting (work, family, marriage), but often with addictions it’s more vague and general, like some existential angst or loneliness or sense of lack or not feeling okay.  Write about it.  If you don’t know what “it” is, just write.  Whatever thoughts are there.
  • Notice how your body feels.  If you have an urge to do the addiction, odds are your body doesn’t feel super duper.  It’s probably not in agony, but it has a negative valence that you were subconsciously trying to shake off, cover up, or dispel.  Let yourself just feel those “meh” and “yuck” feelings for a few minutes.  Write a little more if more thoughts come up.  Feel more body yuck if that comes up.  Do this as much as you’re willing and able to.
  • I say 5 or 10 minutes because I think that’s usually a good challenge to start.  But like an exercise program, it will likely be helpful to increase in duration with practice, if it feels like there’s more to say.
  • After the journaling and body awareness, you can go ahead and engage in the addiction, if you still want to (often the urge passes and that is fantastic when it does).

The point of such an exercise is at least twofold:

  1. To practice using willpower to gain control and freedom of choice
  2. To let blocked and suppressed feelings be released (this is the main healing work), so that we don’t need to manage them and escape from them with the addiction anymore
  3. To find insights (in the writing) about root causes of the discontent, about our needs, and about creative ideas for getting our needs met

Addictions are generally long-standing, well-practiced habits that take sustained discipline to kick.  Also, if we don’t realize what function the addiction serves (what it is helping us escape from), we’ll be susceptible to simply replacing it with another addiction.  For example, we might stop smoking but then pick up alcohol more often.  Or we might quit substances but then go to excessive internet use.  It becomes a game of whack-an-addiction-mole.

But if we pay a little less attention to our particular flavor of addiction (which has a lot to do with simply access, what is available, what we’ve been exposed to, and randomness), and pay more attention to the fundamental unease and discontent that arises before the addiction is fulfilled, then we’re searching much closer to the root of the problem.

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