Addiction is a controversial subject, bogged down in political correctness and ‘feel-good’ labels. But, like it or not, America is an addictive society, and many of us have addictions to something. My definition of addiction has grown out of more than 20 years of clinical experience. I call it a ‘shortcut to happiness.’ And it’s a shortcut that’s certainly doomed to failure.
Clinical psychologist and addictions expert Stanton Peele, Ph.D., characterizes addiction as an attempt to, (1) feel powerful and all encompassing, (2) inspire a sense of well-being through an artificial sense of power or control, and, (3) manufacture predictability and safety. According to Dr. Peele, addiction results in negative consequences that diminish the addict’s concern for (and ability to relate to) the rest of life. So what’s the alternative?
A person who is truly motivated to rise above his or her addiction(s) must first develop long-range goals to determine short-range actions, such as choosing to be a novelist, an athlete, a musician, a business owner, a professional technician, craftsman or whatever. Secondly, the post-addict must create ‘mini-goals’ to serve as intermediary steps toward whatever purpose they finally choose for their life. Third, he or she must have confidence in his or her knowledge that there is no ‘mystery’ to accomplishing goals — other than hard work, relentless focus, and passion for achievements both great and small. Lastly, the addict must develop a true sense of power; the kind of power one creates through the attainment of crucial victories of his or her choosing.
The addict’s ill-fated attempt at a shortcut to happiness is intended to bring about feelings of power and control. But these can only be achieved in the long term through effort toward a long-range purpose. In fleeting (yet foggy) moments, the addict may actually feel like the scientist, the writer, the businessperson or the artist they may wish they were. But once the rush subsides, the sad fact remains that reality offers no such shortcuts. Artificial efforts to achieve triumphs are most certainly destined for failure. The stark reality of this ‘hangover’ effect can lead to depression, which makes it even harder to set and achieve goals. When the addict can no longer evade this reality, one of two things may happen: She may collapse in despair, or she might actually begin her recovery from the addiction. I call this revelation an ’emotional course correction.’ It is at this point, both metaphorically and perhaps even literally, where the addict either survives or perishes.
The term ‘addiction’ applies not only to drugs and alcohol, but also to other types of behaviors prone to excess: spending, sex, gambling, eating, and so forth. No matter what the ‘poison,’ the addict is ultimately at the mercy of his or her own self-defeating beliefs. Examples of these might include thoughts and self-talk such as, ‘Happiness should happen to me. It’s not fair that it’s happening to others and not to me. Happiness is a blessing, not an achievement.’ Wrong! Happiness is always an achievement. It’s the result of countless hours of working toward long-range goals and the day-to-day mini-goals I mentioned earlier. It requires continuous effort and a rational outlook on reality.
More self-defeating self-talk might sound like, ‘I’m not meant to be happy. It’s possible for others, but not for me.’ (Wrong! Only you can make yourself happy or unhappy.) Or, ‘I can shape reality by my wishes.’ Well, that’s wrong too. As Francis Bacon put it, ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.’ Wishing doesn’t make it so, and lying to others or oneself doesn’t change the facts. (Addicts are famous for lying.) One of the most powerful tricks an addict can play on him- or herself is to think, ‘Live for today; live for the moment!’ Wrong too. Enjoy the moment, but not to the detriment of long-range goals. Without goals and a purpose in life, it’s impossible to make effective decisions in the present and to really enjoy the here-and-now. Live happily and stress-free today by thinking and planning for tomorrow. The two are perfectly compatible.
An addict will try to convince himself that, ‘Knowledge is a mystery. My mind is impotent to know things, so why even try? If knowledge is not going to come to me easily, then I give up.’ A sad rationalization if there ever was one. Reason is the method by which we know things. Thinking is fallible, but if it’s practiced consistently, you’re guaranteed to gain more knowledge and self-confidence.
The final nail in the self-esteem coffin is the idea that, ‘Living for others is the only way to be a good person.’ Absolutely not. Charity begins at home. You must first take care of yourself, and then (and only then) you can take care of whomever you want.
Ending addiction doesn’t just mean stopping bad behavior. It means changing the way you think. A healthy outlook on life and a respect for reality can help make that task a lot easier.