Much attention has been paid to the physical factors that influence addiction, such as tolerance and withdrawal effects. Far less attention has been devoted to understanding the psychological influences that get people stuck. So let’s have a discussion about one of the most common factors that can keep people stuck in addictive behavior: their thinking
Disturbing, confusing, troubling events occur to everyone, even those who have had relatively protected lives. Let’s think of a traumatic event as one whose memory continues to be troubling even though the event is long finished. Just recalling the event triggers painful emotions that affect thinking and behavior. Life begins to go off track and the person is stuck in pain and despair. Addictive behavior often begins as the solution to the hurt. When painful memories are neutralized by effective psychological treatment, energy is released that automatically fuels positive behavior change.
The human mind, because it is protective, will remember all the details of a disturbing event and be on the alert for any detail that looks similar. The problem is that what is noticed as similar is perceived as the same. This explains why the firecracker outside causes the decorated Army combat veteran to dive behind the couch shaking with fear. Even though this similar-same confusion operates on a subconscious level it can be corrected with effective treatment.
Painful emotions are often the legacy of traumatic experiences. Anger, grief, fear, and guilt consume huge amounts of energy and drain a person of enthusiasm and motivation. These emotions are almost always worse than useless and contribute in a major way to stuckness. Although many people may not realize it, painful emotions can be eliminated rapidly with effective treatment.
How we think about who we really are is a big deal. A negative identity almost always contributes to unwanted behavior. Traumatic events often lead to a distorted and negative perceived identity, the person’s takeaway being ‘I’m just a worthless piece of crap’ or something similar. If behavior is confused with identity, positive change becomes difficult or even impossible. Even experiences intended to be therapeutic can cause harmful distortions in perceived identity. For example, the time-honored requirement to own the behavior and state ‘I am an addict‘ can have disastrous unintended consequences. The key phrase is of course ‘I am’. Identity is usually perceived as unchanging and permanent. So if one ‘is’ something, how does one not be it? Confusing identity with behavior is a huge contributor to being stuck.
Many addicts get stuck in some area of life. The human mind, especially the more primitive subconscious mind, doesn’t deal well with negation. It’s sort of like asking your server in a restaurant to not bring you chicken. It’s a good start but needs to be followed by what you do want. Speaking and thinking only in negation keeps people stuck.
The only animal on the planet that attaches meaning to events is the human animal. We’re really good at it and we do it all the time. If the meaning is positive there’s usually no problem. However, when the meaning is negative, it can be a big problem that causes even more painful emotions. Therefore, the meaning the human mind attaches to events is, of course, a major source of false beliefs that can keep them stuck in their lives and mired in addiction.