We have more and easier access to addictive chemicals than ever before. Moreover, we now know the addiction potential of the refined sugar and flour in the food many of us consume on a regular basis (Ifland et al., 2009). The old street corner drug dealer now competes with the Internet and schools where students saturate the hallways with narcotics they find in their medicine cabinets at home. Fast food, junk food, and sugar drinks are cheap, legal, convenient, and available. Our society is slowly growing desensitized to the real dangers of all addictive chemicals as we see legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, Hollywood romanticizing drug and alcohol use, junk food advertisements everywhere, and a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry telling us which chemicals we need.
In nearly a decade of working in a therapeutic setting with clients who have various problems, addiction seems to be the most misunderstood. Although advances in technology and medicine continue to enhance treatment options, the underlying cause of addiction is ambiguous at best. Science has discovered through research that there is a genetic component to addiction, while many self-help programs have helped us understand there is also a behavioral and social component. However, as much as we know about addiction, we still do not know much. We only have educated guesses as to why one person can stop behavior before they become addicted while another may engage in a behavior and never stop until they suffer catastrophic consequences.
It is because of this uncertainty that treatment for addiction has become a practice rather than an exact science. Many practitioners are using treatment methods focused on abstinence, relapse prevention, support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. While these treatment methods all have merit, they do little to address the actual cause of the addiction. These “Band-Aid” approaches leave people with methods on how to deal with the symptoms of the addiction, rather than how to attack the cause.
We must move beyond challenging thinking, lecturing consequences, selling pharmaceuticals, and pushing AA and NA. We must consider looking at addiction from a different perspective and seeking to understand what drives the addictive behavior in the first place. In doing so, we can change the problem where it begins, not where it ends.
It is time to develop a different understanding of addiction—an understanding that dives deeper than thinking errors, behaviors, or self-help slogans. One which could possibly be the key to unlocking the brutal cuffs of addiction. In this article, I would like to present to you such a perspective. I will begin with a brief discussion on how I believe addictive tendencies form within the psyche. I will then identify the three components critical to sobriety and provide examples on how to apply them.
Early Experiences and Relational Style Development
Much like when treating many other forms of pathology, one cannot ignore the full history. For addicts, the relational dynamics that are present early on help develop addiction long before a chemical is introduced. Almost everyone has become an accommodator to some degree. We simply do not live in a world that is always safe, comforting, and accepting. There are multiple influences, varying in importance and intensity, giving us constant feedback on what or how we should live our lives. Any deviation from family, school, employment, or societal expectations is met with judgment, criticism, confusion, or concern. However, many of these expectations and standards can go far beyond what is necessary to govern behavior and puncture the development of individuals.
In ideal family settings, when children are born they become the center of focus. Every quality, feeling, urge, dream, desire, and need is tended to by the earliest caregivers. The children would be given the freedom to explore their own true selves, experience a spectrum of emotions, be assertive with their needs, and feel the power of desire. Given this freedom, the burden of the sacrifice then becomes the caregivers’ to bear.
As these children grow, make mistakes, learn likes and dislikes, discover dreams, and explore personal power, their family units would fully support and help foster this independence. The children would not hesitate to state an opinion, express an emotion, or explore personal interests. In fact, all of these endeavors would be encouraged and supported. Not one part of the children’s sense of security would be threatened by being true to who they are. Extending beyond the family, an ideal world would replicate these experiences. In this world, socialization is still a healthy expectation. Just because children have their true selves honored and validated does not mean they get everything they desire. It simply means they are allowed to own all the elements of their true selves and receive love and support from those around them.
The reality is that we grow up in a world of expectations. Even while children are in utero, parents make bold predictions for their future NFL superstars or neurosurgeons. Well-intended parents will continue to project their expectations and hopes as they plan for room decorations, toys, colors, books, and even the “best” daycare centers. When the children are born, parents buy clothes, toys, and books that they deem acceptable for their beloved infants.
As children grow and begin to communicate, parents learn their children’s interests, how they express feelings, and their likes and dislikes. What if they do not match what their parents wanted? What if the son who was expected to be a brilliant physician has no natural aptitude for math or science? What if the daughter who was supposed to be the athlete hates sports? The result is often rejection. Although the manner or magnitude of the rejection may be subtle (or small), children feel it all the same.
However, many children grow up in families with overt rejection, neglect, and abuse. The expectations in these families are that children be quiet, behave, and comply with everything and anything the caregivers want. In these environments, there is no parental sacrifice, no nurturing, and no safety for children to develop their true selves. The children are expected to sacrifice while the parents fulfill their own needs, desires, and urges.
Because children instinctively know their survival is dependent on their caretakers, it becomes crucial to comply with this dynamic. So what happens to the children’s unique, true, and authentic selves? As a survival mechanism, they go underground and into the unconscious of the children’s psyche. They are essentially hiding their true selves in order to accommodate those who are caring for them. If this continues long enough, these true selves will be hidden from everyone, including the children themselves. This results in lack of self-esteem or self-identity, poor feeling identification and expression skills, and difficulty building and maintaining healthy boundaries.
This does not only happen in childhood, or only as a result of abuse or neglect. Major traumas such as the loss of a parent can result in children unconsciously suppressing elements of themselves in an attempt to avoid causing any additional stressors within the family. In adulthood, people may suppress characteristics of themselves in an attempt to “help” loved ones.
As people lock away aspects of their true selves to accommodate others, they become buried deep in the unconscious. For accommodators, three buried characteristics play a major role in the development and treatment of addictive disorders: anger, trouble making, and selfishness. All three of these characteristics have been used to describe those who are addicted in a scornful way. However, I have come to believe our negative perspectives on these characteristics are misdirected and inappropriate.
This is because every human characteristic has a “shadow” version. The shadow version is an evil, pseudo, or clumsy manifestation of an otherwise healthy and necessary component of the true self. When people are overwhelmed by a shadow manifestation, they often experience it without owning it as part of them or have a “That is not me” moment. They may feel as if experiencing the emotion or behavior happened because they were taken over by something outside of themselves. While it may be true that they are “taken over,” it is not from some outside force, but rather from what is very much a part of them. Some of our biggest problems arise by pretending we do not have a certain feeling, urge, desire, or behavior. The truth is, we all have access to all of them. We all experience anger, sadness, embarrassment, fear, dreams, urges, and desires. It is only when we refuse to acknowledge them that they permeate deep in the psyche’s shadow. When these characteristics emerge from the depths of the shadow, we often do not like to face them. This sudden emergence of intense emotion happens primarily because we are out of balance.
The Psyche’s Shadow
In order to completely understand the shadow, we must first understand the psyche’s ego. For the purposes of this article, the ego can be viewed simply as what we are consciously aware of about ourselves. The ego is how I define and/or describe who I am. It is everything I acknowledge as part of me—all the feelings, thoughts, behaviors, interests, and beliefs that I allow myself to own.
As previously mentioned, as children we often are taught, both directly and indirectly, and learn, both consciously and unconsciously, what is acceptable for our ego. In order to survive, we adapt and own “acceptable” qualities which add substance to our ego. Conversely, we are forced to deny or suppress “unacceptable” qualities. These suppressed feelings, urges, dreams, and desires get pushed deep into the unconscious and out of the ego’s awareness. Moreover, the ego becomes unwilling or unable to own any of these characteristics as part of the self. The psyche is not able to kill off parts of itself, and hides it instead. This dumping ground for the disowned characteristics is the shadow. However, the ego will not be able to sustain the task of suppression and the power of the shadow will eventually erupt.
So what happens when a little bit of these suppressed emotions comes out? It will come popping out of the psyche with no predictable course or intensity. It is because of this that we learn to fear these characteristics and work even harder to suppress them.
What happens when we try to keep anger, selfishness and trouble-making below the surface? All three are enormously powerful and cannot be removed from the human being. When three powerful components of the true self are submerged together, it becomes a recipe for disaster. The ego is not strong enough to keep all three buried in the unconscious. When these three come together to erupt, what lies in the wake is an ocean of destruction. The destruction is often addiction.
We must challenge our view of anger, selfishness, and troublemaking. It is important to acknowledge that although all of us are capable of projecting or displacing shadow versions of our true selves, owning the authentic, pure quality of each human characteristic is healthy. More importantly, acknowledging these qualities is essential for maintaining health and sobriety. If we are willing to accept that anger, selfishness, and troublemaking are actually misunderstood and learn how to access these qualities while sober, we will significantly increase our chances of full recovery from chemical dependence.
In this last section, I will discuss anger, selfishness, and troublemaking in more detail and provide examples of how to access them in a healthy way.
With the exception of love, anger is the most powerful form of energy we have access to as human beings. Anger is linked to great passion. When we are passionate about something, we are likely to fight for it. Anger is also a defender of boundaries; its purpose is to allow us to hold and push through limits. Anger is the power that fights through pain and allows us to study rather than party, exercise rather than watch television, and challenge ourselves beyond our limits. Our ability to state an opinion, have a voice, and stand up for and protect ourselves and others is dependent on having access to this energy. Anger is the ability to say “No” to unhealthy relationships, unnecessary spending, and destructive foods or other chemicals. Without access to this energy and the ability to harness it for healthy use, we feel powerless, tired, and fragile, get walked on, and voice no opinion. Anger is not an enemy, but a tool, a weapon, and a friend there for us in order to keep ourselves safe and healthy. Without having a vehicle to utilize this tool, we have no limits, no boundaries, and nothing standing up for our own well-being.
For those suffering with addiction, access to healthy anger is severely compromised. There is no security either within themselves or in their physical space. Their limits are easily penetrated by chemicals and there are no boundaries in their personal relationships. Rather than suppressing this energy, they need to experience and express it while sober. In doing so, they will learn how to harness it in order to set limits, maintain boundaries, and feel safe and secure.
Let us take a closer look at some specific things we can do to access, harness, and use anger. In doing so, we can learn how to use it to our advantage, set limits, hold boundaries, go after what we want, protect our true selves, and feel more powerful and secure.
In order to use the energy of anger, we need to explore how we experience it within ourselves. Writing about irritations, frustrations, or things that make us angry can help. If we are willing, we can try to write down instances, people, or other things that make us angry. The triggers can range from a minor annoyance to a life situation that enrages us, and we can begin to pay attention to all things that bring up angry energy, whether big or small.
Occasionally, we are not actually aware of what annoys, irritates, or enrages us. In this case, we focus on body sensations particularly in the chest, neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. If we feel tension, tightness, or pressure, focus on the frequency and intensity of the sensation. Rather than moving away from it, we go into the emotion and learn more about how it presents within us. If we can, we try to give the sensations a color, shape, or other adjectives. Recognizing these body patterns can give us clues to what triggers our anger. If we are clued in, we can learn to recognize it and emote it appropriately.
We can practice saying “No” to people. It is a great way to feel the energy of creating a boundary.
There are many exercises which will effectively give us the capability to physically express ourselves. I tend to teach three specific ones, as I believe they are the most effective. The first is an adult temper tantrum exercise in which we lay on a bed or mattress and essentially throw a tantrum. This allows us to be consciously aware, moderately in control, and safely feel this energy that has been locked up. The second exercise involves us kneeling down in front of a bed or couch, holding both hands together as if praying and holding our arms above the head. We come down with a stabbing motion, hitting the mattress or pillow, and repeat several times. Lastly, I have often asked people to buy a heavy bag and hit and kick it ten to fifteen minutes per day. All three of these exercises move the energy in the direction in which it was designed, rather than directed internally. We can also be creative with this process.
Healthy selfishness is not the same thing as being self-absorbed, arrogant, or narcissistic. There is a healthy way to focus on ourselves and take into account others as well. I understand why many people may be resistant to the idea of needing to be more selfish.
Developing a healthy self involves being selfish and demanding quality time with those innermost desires, feelings, and urges. It is about consistently paying attention to ourselves. Here are some methods to begin to know and understand more of our wants, desires, needs, and feelings.
We can go to a shopping center and start pointing to things we like. It is important to note that we do not need to buy anything. In fact, we can encourage ourselves not to buy anything. This is just an exercise to develop an internal focus of our own opinions and likes.
Remember, there is no actual interaction (i.e., trouble-making) at this point—this is all internal. We do not necessarily have to go to a store either; we can practice on the Internet or looking through a magazine. The important thing is to practice actually having an opinion that comes from within. If we can, we should try to notice what we actually like about the items we pick. The more we can practice holding these opinions, the better equipped we will be to hold opinions on more important issues.
Journaling is one of the best ways to totally turn our attention toward ourselves. There are no rules and no grading for punctuation, grammar, or spelling. The process is not about how we write, but what we are feeling is necessary to write. Through journaling we can write down feelings, entertain fantasies, and explore desires. Journaling can be free and disconnected or structured. We can write letters to ourselves or symbolically to others. It can take the form of words or images. Many people keep a sketch pad and draw or color what they feel within them. This is a time where we can honor anything that is happening within us and only for us. This is a sacred space that nobody gets to penetrate. It allows us to be totally selfish and completely raw
As I have already stated, feelings are a large part of the true self. Part of having a healthy sense of selfishness includes knowing our feelings. By exploring our feelings fully, we are in a better position to actually label it. Once we label it, we can express is clearly.
Meditative practices have been used for centuries. In more recent years, scientific advances have allowed us to have actual proof of its efficacy (NCCIH, 2019). In spite of both wisdom and science, most people have not incorporated a meditative practice into their lives and focus on people, chemicals, material goods, money, stressors, and many other things outside themselves. Meditation brings the attention back inward toward the self. Having a regular meditative routine can reduce or even eliminate problems such as intrusive thoughts, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other problems.
Redefining Trouble Making
Remember that the accommodating relational style develops out of necessity. The infant and toddler brain does not have the ability to make rational decisions or consider logical conclusions. The part of their brain responsible for rational thinking, the frontal cortex, is still developing and will continue to develop well into early adulthood. Therefore, children must rely on instinct—a “gut” feeling or programmed response.
Since children have very limited function in the part of the brain that deals with rational thought, the following conclusion develops in the unconscious: “If I express my feelings or thoughts, I will cause trouble. If I cause trouble, I will be shunned. If I am shunned, I will not survive.”
This adopted negative definition of “trouble making” and survival become intertwined deep in children’s psyches so much so that even as adults they can literally feel terrifying panic at the very thought of standing up for themselves or expressing any feeling, thought, opinion, urge, or desire.
A large percentage of people cannot identify or express emotions, have no idea what they desire, pay no attention to dreams, and are ashamed of their urges. In some cases, they have never even held an opinion. That would be considered “trouble” and is consciously avoided at all costs.
However, it is a necessary component of sobriety to understand how to make trouble and follow through in relationships. As previously stated, this means we are standing up for our feelings, needs, and desires. We are owning an opinion and setting limits. The specific action steps to practice are limitless. Here are some methods to help you begin making trouble by stopping your accommodating.
Putting up Limits
Truthfully, putting up limits does at times inconvenience people, and that is ok. We are not responsible for getting others out of their dilemmas. Setting limits is not about intent to harm others, it is about identifying what personal space we want to protect and not allowing others to penetrate it.
Getting in touch with what we need or feel is not in and of itself enough. We need to stand up for our inner selves with assertiveness. In doing so, we are allowing ourselves to experience and express emotions, take care of our needs, and follow our dreams and desires.
Being assertive involves being direct with our communication. We can no longer use body language, sarcasm, or any other passive methods to communicate. We will have to speak our minds in a firm and direct way, which includes asserting our thoughts, opinions, feelings, and needs. It requires us to know what our positions are on topics and issues, anything from what we would like to eat to a political or religious stance. We have to be willing to state our opinions and/or feelings and stand firm.
Expressing ourselves also involves asking things of other people. I am not referring to money or any material things money can buy. What we need to ask of others is that they give us time, acknowledgement, and respect our boundaries.
It is too easy to fall into the trap of labeling ourselves and others based on behavior. In the case of addicted behavior, these labels are misleading. This will happen if we are not able to separate who people actually are versus what their behaviors are creating a picture of. We must redefine characteristics in order to utilize them for our advantage. In the case of addiction, its anger, selfishness, and trouble making that lie in the depths of the shadow. We have the power to resurrect these characteristics and use them to our advantage. We can give ourselves the power to recover!
Timothy J. Wulff, LMSW, ACSW, graduated with a BS from Grand Valley State University and earned an MSW from Michigan State University. He began his career working with overeating and food addiction, and soon began working and specializing in chemical addiction, trauma, and mood disorders. In 2015, Mr. Wulff completed training in EMDR therapy in order to help clients heal from intense trauma. In his free time, he enjoys exercise, art, spending time with his family, and sports.