The Astonishing Basis of Our Addictions

We can overcome addictions by understanding our emotional issues.

It’s curious that we humans get addicted to both substances and activities. On the substance side, people get hooked on drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, and fat. We can also become addicted without substance abuse, in activities involving gambling, shopping, promiscuity, pornography, video games, and even work.

Experts offer a range of theories to explain the causes of addictions, and they can disagree to a contentious extent with one another. The causes are attributed variously to neurological disorders, brain chemistry, genetic factors, and low self-esteem. One expert, psychologist and author Stanton Peele, says we become addicted because the “delivery systems”—hypodermic syringes, nicotine-packed cigarettes, ubiquitous online porn, pocket-sized game consoles, chemically flavored food, seductive marketing messages—have become so effective at breaking down our resistance.

These theories are all worthy of consideration, yet I believe we really can’t understand addictions fully without understanding deeper elements of human nature. An essential cause of addictions derives from our lack of consciousness. We’re harboring psychological weaknesses that we’re failing to recognize or understand.

Addictive personalities experience themselves through unresolved emotional issues that produce inner weakness and a lack of self-regulation. In my view, the particular substance or behavior to which they’re addicted is secondary to their compulsion to experience the emotion of helplessness. In other words, they’re determined unconsciously to experience their powerlessness in conjunction with their cravings for some substance or behavior. This constitutes an emotional addiction to the feeling of helplessness. This helplessness factor can be observed in boys who become addicted to playing video games: They can be drawn especially to violent games in which they relish the thrill of exercising ruthless power as a compensation for (or a defense that covers up) their underlying unconscious choice to embrace helplessness and passivity.

Behind a substance or behavioral addiction is an addiction to the emotional core of some unresolved conflict in our psyche, usually to the feeling, impression, or sensation of helplessness or powerlessness. Through unconscious dynamics, this passivity is libidinized (processed through the pleasure principle) in such a way as to produce a second-rate or third-rate form of bittersweet gratification.

This theory helps us to understand why people become addicted to such a wide range of substances and behaviors, and why they continue helplessly down this path despite the obvious self-defeat. A condition in our psyche—inner passivity—is the underlying cause of this unconscious addiction to the negative emotions of helplessness and powerlessness. Inner passivity can be difficult for us to sense or to feel directly. It becomes apparent through circumstantial evidence and through our growing sense of it as an undesirable influence in our personal life. It originates out of our unconscious ego (which is weak and defensive in the face of superego aggression), and it can affect us adversely in many ways other than through addictions.

So addictive personalities are tempted or compelled to go looking for some way (through alcohol, drugs, gambling, video games, or whatever) through which to act out their unresolved entanglement in the negative emotion of inner passivity. This pattern of behavior is based on the psychological axiom that we’re tempted, if not compelled, to act out whatever is unresolved in our psyche, unwittingly producing suffering and self-defeat.

In other words, behind the substance or behavioral addiction is an unconscious compulsion to experience this inner weakness. Inner passivity, as mentioned, is an ingredient in human nature, and all of us in varying degrees are challenged by it. Those who sink too deeply into the mire of this passivity risk becoming, from among many variations of self-defeat and failure, addicts or addictive personalities.

Let’s look at the widespread problem of video-game addictions to see the possible role of inner passivity. I believe a lot of young people, boys in particular, are in danger of delaying the development of their will, integrity, and sense of self as they’re captivated emotionally by the technologically stunning allure of video games.

Despite the marvel of this technology, the essential addictive element is not the delivery system but the unconscious passivity in the human psyche. That passivity, because it’s unresolved, yearns to be experienced. It can be understood as an offshoot of Freud’s repetition compulsion, whereby in a kind of childish innocence we’re compelled to repeat an inappropriate action or behavior that triggers our unresolved conflicts and emotions. In playing video games, young people (and many adults) easily succumb to the temptation, familiar from the prolonged biological helplessness of early childhood and the dependence of adolescence, to feel “taken over,” overwhelmed, or “psychologically possessed” by some force, directive, or influence beyond their capacity to offset. It’s normal for people to sometimes “lose themselves” in some activity such as a pleasant hobby. If we go overboard, however, the activity becomes compulsive and obsessive, causing self-defeat and suffering as we lose perspective, balance, and self-respect.

How much easier is it for children, given the deposits of inner passivity in human nature, to be overwhelmed by the brilliant offerings of technological devices? Certainly, many parents have expressed legitimate concerns about the influence of inane and violent children’s television programming. The visual drive is a powerful emotional stimulant. (So is the death drive which is a powerful influence in alcohol and drug addiction.) In any case, our psychological Achilles’ heel—inner passivity—makes it easier for children to become too cozy and familiar with the feeling of being overpowered and overwhelmed. They might become, as one danger, weak citizens unable to protect democracy.

This theory of inner passivity is not recognized by the psychological establishment. A website that addresses video-game addiction, for instance, offers a variety of other possible reasons for the problem, including the addictive design of video games, low self-esteem, and the influence of dopamine levels in the brain.

My theory helps explain why compulsive video-gamers can be drawn especially to violent games in which they feel a scintillating sensation in being able to shoot and kill the bad guys. This sense of power feels pleasurable because it’s a compensation—as well as a psychological defense—for their underlying passivity. The psychological defense produces, as part of its effectiveness, an emotional thrill or pleasure that makes the aggression seem real and appropriate.

The defense goes like this: “I’m not passive—look at how much I enjoy having this power.” A variation on this defense might be presented in this way: “I don’t feel overwhelmed by life (a symptom of inner passivity). Look at how I relish being so much in control of my video landscape.” This thrill or pleasure may be related to science’s findings concerning addictive behavior in relation to the neurological reward system of the brain.

Even adults, in puzzle and mental games such as crosswords or scrabble, get a thrill from the power of their mind as it tackles the challenges. However, some adults can become addicted to such games—online scrabble, for one—and begin to experience their inner passivity in a way that becomes uncomfortable and distressful.

Although psychologist Stanton Peele, the addictions expert quoted earlier, doesn’t subscribe to the theory of inner passivity, he does precisely describe in a recent post the passive experience of video-game addicts (“iPhones, Games and the Addictive Experience”). He writes: It’s the ability of video games “to take us away from what is meaningful that underlies their ability to absorb our attention and to produce the repetitive engagement and escapist gratification that are the essence of powerfully addicting experiences.”

Experts such as Peele can see the passivity in the behavior of addicts, but they can’t see the passivity in the psyche of addicts. After debating the causes of addiction for more than 100 years, scientists still have no definitive answer. They tend to support remedies that emphasize our dependence on interventions such as medical drugs, religious beliefs, structured programs, or the expertise of others. This is an authoritarian rather than a democratic approach. It’s time to look into the heart of our psyche in order to raise our consciousness and tap the power of inner freedom.

I describe some features of these psychological weaknesses in my 1993 book, Secret Attachments: Exposing the Roots of Addictions and Compulsions. I expanded on the theory in a recent post, “The Helpless Trap in Addictions and Compulsions.” The phenomenon of inner passivity is described more fully in my 2002 book, The Phantom of the Psyche: Freeing Ourself From Inner Passivity.