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.

Addict, Alcoholic? Keep Calm and Recover On

Primitive reason says that if you have an addiction then you are an addict and if you are addicted to alcohol then you are an alcoholic. Addict, alcoholic: words that still carry highly negative connotations. They commonly infer a pitiful fringe of “proper” society. Inferior, undisciplined, weak-minded, unpredictable, unreliable. It’s a hard profile.


Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon

Without surprise, then, we can see why those who suffer from the more painful addictions do not want to admit to the condition. This denial saddens me, first because you cannot heal what you cannot face, but secondly because there is a missed opportunity to open a big door that leads to a smaller door into the larger recovery room of emotional sobriety, which we all need.

It is almost axiomatic that only great suffering will knock you off the treadmill of life and onto the path of human transformation – the spiritual journey, the next level of consciousness, continued maturation, or whatever you want to call it. Without a crisis, it is too easy to stay on auto-pilot, regarding your emotional addictions as emotional entitlements, to say nothing of the addictions of consumerism, group-think and righteousness.

Thus, the more obvious addictions to debilitating substances and behaviors, while very painful and wholly unfortunate in and of themselves, are also a strange blessing, if they get you in the first door of recovery. Otherwise, finding the second door is very difficult in our present culture. Although the labels of alcoholic and addict may look bad at first, remain calm, get on with your recovery and look forward to something deeper and better than you could have imagined – something that turns these shunned labels upside down. You are still on the fringe of society, but now it’s the healthier fringe! The mainstream remains unconscious in their subtle addictions.

The Twelve Steppers came up with anonymity in order to provide cover for entering the first door. They remain grounded in humility by announcing within the group, for the rest of their lives, “Hi, I’m Joe, an alcoholic.” Yet it’s more than humility. It’s also gratitude, for because of that once awful word, they went on the further journey.


Emotional Sobriety is the End Game for Recovery

Addiction begins in early childhood. We are hardwired to seek happiness that only a perfect union can provide. As the autonomous Self emerges from ages two to four, displacing our primal unitive experience with our mothers, we begin devising strategies for obtaining happiness from the environment. It is a poor substitute for the real thing and, since it depends on others and outside forces, it is doomed to fail repeatedly.


Numb / Overwhelmed

Whence comes many of the afflictive emotions: frustration, disappointment, irritation, sadness, and if those are intolerable, then anger. In the first place, we are dependent on the these programs for happiness. As the addicts say, “You need more and more of what doesn’t work.” In the second place, we are very attached to our emotional experience when our programs are disrupted. Emotion feels like truth; we are entitled to it and we will defend it with great effort. Instead of mindfully reading our emotions as signs of our inner patterns, our emotions are the bottom line; they define us. This relationship is how I understand emotional addiction.

Here’s how two teachers on addiction versus healthy union describe the problem. First, Bill Wilson, writing with reference to bouts of depression in the journal, Grapevine, 1958:

Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.

Suddenly I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.

Then, Thomas Keating, in a little book, The Human Condition, Paulist Press, 1999:

The combinations of … two forces – the drive for happiness in the form of security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control, and overidentification with the particular group to which we belong – greatly complicates our emotional programs for happiness. In our younger days, this development is normal. As adults, activity arising from such motivation is childish.

Thus, the manifest addiction to a substance or a behavior (e.g. gambling), is only the top of the stack. Remove that and you are still left with emotional addiction. Alcoholics call this stage “the dry drunk.” The real end game of recovery is emotional sobriety. I also refer to it as equanimity, though the 12-step groups prefer “serenity.”

We are all emotional addicts. Some people are in recovery.