I started smoking cigarettes when I was 17 years old. Luckily, I stopped within six years. I had become one of the “nicotine slaves” Willie Nelson sings about in his anti-smoking song, “Smoke Smoke Smoke that Cigarette,” who at the Golden Gate make St. Peter wait while they puff another cigarette.
I know now that smoking is a psychological addiction as much as a physical one. I started because I thought it was cool and would give me status among my peers. So low self-esteem—a psychological issue—got me started. We can also have psychological reasons why we can’t stop.
Deep psychological insight reveals a fascinating aspect of the smoking problem. The nicotine in cigarettes does indeed create a strong physical addiction, yet a psychological addiction coexists along with the physical one. Insight into this psychological component can also help people to stop drinking, smoking marijuana, and taking hard drugs.
Smokers often appear to enjoy their addiction, and many of them claim the activity gives them considerable satisfaction But the satisfaction is somewhat of an illusion. What possible satisfaction is available from engaging in an activity that typically produces less pleasure as the risks and symptoms of ill health increase? The satisfaction is at best second-rate if not third-rate.
Smokers settle for this low-grade pleasure or illusion of satisfaction because they have started using smoking as a psychological defense. As such, the need for the inner defense trumps the issue of one’s health or the fact that the smoking itself is a fading pleasure. What does this all mean?
Unconsciously, smokers are trying to “prove” that they want satisfaction. Smokers do this to cover up their inner determination to go on experiencing dissatisfaction and inner emptiness through unresolved emotions involving deprivation, refusal, and passivity that go back to the oral stage of childhood development.
Because of such unresolved emotions, most of us can feel at times that something essential or vital is missing from our life. We often use material objects and the pursuits of pleasure with food, sex, money, and drugs to try to fill that missing something. The sense of emptiness makes it more difficult for us to appreciate ourselves—our uniqueness, goodness, and value—at a deeper level.
Smokers who are trying to quit the habit typically experience a great emptiness, an inner void or a sense that their very being is inadequate and incomplete. Only a cigarette, they feel, can rectify their plight. But their smoking addiction is only a symptom of the deeper issue—that sense that something vital is missing from their life.
In our psyche, we have an instinct to cover up or deny (or to defend against) the inner choices we make to recycle unresolved emotions such as deprivation and inner emptiness. These emotions are sometimes a big part of our sense of self. In their cover-up, smokers produce an inner defense that is largely unconscious. The defense proclaims, “I’m not interested in feeling deprived, passive, or emotionally empty. Look how much I enjoy smoking and the satisfaction it gives me.”
Hence, smoking as a psychological defense produces the illusion that smoking is satisfactory or pleasant. Through the illusion, smokers fool themselves into believing that the craving for the cigarette represents a determination to get satisfaction. Again, this covers up one’s determination to continue to experience and recycle old, unresolved, negative emotions. Smokers need to remind themselves that they are not craving the cigarette so much as the underlying emotional addiction to emptiness and deprivation through which their sense of identity is entangled.
Smoking is also a passive way, as is alcohol or drug abuse, to commit aggression against oneself. Self-aggression is a dynamic in our psyche that is expressed through our inner critic or superego, often in the form of harsh and relentless inner attacks that demean our value and undermine our decisions. The individual who goes on smoking is weak and passive in the area of self-protection. This individual is likely to be absorbing aggression from the inner critic, and he or she unconsciously colludes in the process. The smoker’s psychological defense proclaims, “No, I am not passively willing to absorb pain and harm in the form of self-aggression (cigarette smoking). The problem is that I am addicted to these cigarettes. I just can’t stop smoking because the addiction is so strong.”
The smoker acquires more strength to stop smoking when he or she becomes conscious of how the habit is used as a psychological defense.