The Negative Emotions Behind Addictions

I read this definition of an addiction on the internet: “An addiction is an unconscious way of coping with emotions.” Yes, that’s true, but a more precise definition is called for: An addiction is a self-defeating reaction to, or consequence of, unresolved negative emotions.

Unless explored and understood, these emotions produce inner conflict, suffering, and self-defeat. We can overcome their disrupting influence in our psyche, and thereby enhance our capacity for self-regulation, when we see our inner dynamics clearly enough.

Our unresolved emotions have to be identified. An addictive person can be struggling with feelings of being deprived, refused, controlled, helpless, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, criticized, hated, and so on. Even when the addictive person is not actually being, say, refused or controlled, this individual is unconsciously determined to experience events and situations through these unresolved, negative emotions.

With the right knowledge or with in-depth therapy, a particular individual can identify, based on his or her childhood experiences, those negative emotions that “push his buttons.” Once the negative emotions are identified, the individual becomes aware of how determined he or she has been to continue to experience those unresolved negative emotions in the different situations of everyday life.

We can say, in fact, that addicts have a hidden addiction, and that is to those negative emotions that are unresolved in their psyche.

Yet, this is where addicts (and the vast majority of people, for that matter) fear to tread. We have unconscious resistance to looking inward to see our own participation in our failures and self-defeat. Penetrating our psyche to acquire self-knowledge is, technically speaking, not that difficult. The hard part is overriding our resistance to seeing ourselves more objectively.

We have to penetrate beneath the surface layer of negative emotions (such as anger, fear, loneliness, depression, and sadness) to uncover the deeper layer of negative emotions (feeling deprived, refused, controlled, helpless, criticized, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and unworthy). Because these deeper emotions are unresolved, they act as attachments or addictions. We don’t know how to live without them, as if they are part of our identity, and we keep experiencing them over and over, especially in life’s challenging moments.

Much of the time we are unaware of how acutely we are stuck in these negative emotions. In fact, we are unconsciously (secretly) recycling them and provoking situations in which we are repeatedly experiencing them. Before there is a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction (compulsion), there is an emotional addiction to a negative feeling that is unresolved from our past.

I call this hidden dynamic the fatal flaw in my book, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness. The book is available as a PDF file at this website, or as an e-book at and Read the reviews at

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