The Primary Addiction That We All Suffer

We all know about substance addictions and we have heard about some “process” addictions like gambling. Recently, more attention has been paid to sexual addictions (a double-hot issue since both sex and addiction are loaded with shame, for some reason). If we have managed to avoid these dreaded conditions then are we in the clear? Nope. We still have the very first addiction, and the most insidious.

Peasants Quarrelling in an Interior - Adriaen Brouwer

Peasants Quarreling in an Interior – Adriaen Brouwer – 1630

Our primary addictions are to serenity strategies, set up in early childhood when the ego is getting organized. Emotion is the energy that keeps us attached (addicted) to our (largely unconscious) strategies. When things go well we are temporarily content. When the world does not cooperate, we have a variety of afflictive emotions and we double down on the strategy. Life is a see-saw battle with an elusive destination.

Thomas Keating identified three serenity strategies that emerge in the child to augment true needs that are lacking in an imperfect world.¹ He called them “programs for happiness.”

  • Safety and security – I need continuity and consistency. I am not a fan of change, risk or the unknown.
  • Esteem and affirmation – I need to be reminded that I am good and valued almost constantly. I am very averse to criticism.
  • Power and control – I need to exert influence. I do not like unpredictability, freelancers and rebels.

Ken Keyes also described three types of primary addiction.² He called them the “lower centers of consciousness.” He proposed an alternative for esteem and affirmation.

  • Sensation – I need a steady supply of pleasurable sensations. I get bored easily.

All of these programs are emotion-backed, which is why we experience them as really important. If the emotional demands to have our programs run well can be down-regulated to preferences, the attachment/addiction can subside. First, though, you have to raise awareness. The world is not thwarting your fundamental right to be happy. When you are unhappy, YOU are unhappy.

Since a serenity strategy or belief is at the root of the addiction, a lot of people call it a “thought” addiction. This picture is also quite close to well-established cognitive personality theory (Beck and Ellis). I am calling it the “primary” addiction because it is prior to any process or substance issue, which are just desperate escalations for a failed core strategy.

OK, but isn’t this “addiction” language a bit over the top? Can’t we reserve that term for the drunkards, the potheads and the like? I think not. Consider how the DSM-5, the bible on abnormal psychology, defines a substance use disorder. Only two are required for a diagnosis.

  1.  “taken in larger amounts … than was intended” – I went overboard on my strategy.
  2. “unsuccessful efforts to cut down” – Your emotions will scream if you cut down.
  3. “great deal of time is spent … to obtain” – I run my strategy constantly and will go out of my way to run it better.
  4. “craving” – I really, really want my [insert strategy here] in this situation.
  5. “failure to fulfill major roles” – I might be more driven by the strategy than the role and they do not always align.
  6. “social or interpersonal problems” – People are irritating me because they are not cooperating with my strategy.
  7. “activities are given up or reduced” – Consider the opportunity cost for my strategy.
  8. “physically hazardous” – Some people risk their health to pursue their strategy.
  9. “physical or psychological problem” – I know it’s not good for me but I do it anyway.
  10. “tolerance” – I need more out of my strategy than ever.
  11. “withdrawal” – I am miserable if my strategy is interrupted for any period.

Addiction really is, as Keating said, the human condition. Thus we are all in solidarity against and recovery from dysfunctional attachments across the spectrum.


  1. Keating, Thomas. The Human Condition: Contemplation and transformation. Paulist Press, 1999.
  2. Keyes, Ken. Handbook to Higher Consciousness. Berkeley, Calif: Living Love Center, 1975.
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