Mental Matters: What Addiction Really Means

Eckhart Tolle says “addiction begins and ends with pain.” More specifically, addiction is a compulsive attempt to escape from pain through a behaviour that brings short-term relief, but over the long term actually adds to the original pain and thus creates more need for the addictive behaviour. This pattern is called the addictive cycle, and it is tremendously destructive.

What do we mean by pain? It’s usually a mix of some very difficult emotion (like feeling stressed about work) that also triggers the activation of unprocessed painful memories and emotions (like feelings of shame from when your dad called you stupid for not understanding your math homework). It’s not that hard to recognize every day distressing emotions, but most of us are completely ignorant as to how much old stuff we’re hauling around with us — and how fundamentally it shapes our worldview and our responses to the present.

Since society does an absolute shit job of educating us on how to deal with such pain, we usually just avoid it and let it stack up until it’s silently running our lives. Consider for a moment how much of human behaviour is governed not by values like authenticity or compassion, but by the avoidance of pain. Addictive behaviours, then, are the strategies we use to anesthetize ourselves to the pain we were never taught how to handle effectively.

When most of us think of addiction, we think of substances like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or alcohol. Some of us also think of behavioural addictions like gambling, pornography, or overeating. But really anything can be an addiction: compulsive sex, codependent relationships, achievement, status, buying stuff, working. What makes something an addiction isn’t the behaviour itself, but the purpose of the behaviour. If you’re doing it to escape pain, and it feels like you have no choice, and it only works temporarily before you have to do it again, that’s an addiction. Which means, interestingly, that the meth addict actually has a lot in common with the investment banker who feels compelled to make another million this year.

If we understand addiction from this perspective, then the conventional wisdom of “just stop doing it” doesn’t make sense. If someone simply stops doing what’s functioned to keep their pain at bay, they will suddenly be overwhelmed by everything they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In that case, they’ll either relapse or find another addictive behaviour to replace the original one.

Rather than just stopping a behaviour, addiction has to be treated at the level of the underlying pain. On a day-to-day level, we need to learn grounding skills to deal with overwhelming emotion, mindfulness, and self-compassion skills to learn to lean into pain, and self-care skills to recognize and respond to our needs. On a deeper level, we need to heal our unresolved issues, which is best done with the help of a professional who has been trained to treat trauma.

Addiction can’t be beaten by gritting our teeth and shaming ourselves. Instead, we must gradually learn to walk compassionately and courageously into that which frightens us most. When we do, we’ll discover that Rilke was right when he said, “perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that needs our love.”