The Helplessness Trap in Cravings & Addictions

Addicts can break free of the "helplessness trap."

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier post, “The Negative Emotions behind Addictions,” which was published here last October. In this version, I go into the heart of the emotional experience of the “helplessness trap” which addictive personalities experience when (or just before) their cravings strike.

When a craving strikes, we often react with a sense of inner helplessness. Will our intense desire for self-defeat prevail? Do we even have a chance to successfully resist, knowing our history of being overwhelmed by our cravings?

In depth psychology, an addiction is understood to be a self-defeating reaction to unresolved negative emotions. Unresolved negative emotions in our psyche produce inner conflict. Examples of common inner conflict include wanting to feel loved when entangled in self-rejection; seeking success when encumbered by expectations of being seen in a negative light; yearning to be praised and respected when tangled up in self-criticism; pursuing relationship stability when emotionally attached to betrayal and unworthiness; and struggling to self-regulate when undermined by unresolved helplessness and passivity.

In other words, unresolved negative emotions from childhood (including our readiness to feel deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and criticized) produce inner conflict. This conflict in turn produces suffering, self-defeat, and out-of-control emotions and behaviors. We can overcome the disruptive influence of inner conflict, and thereby enhance our capacity for self-regulation, when we see our psyche’s inner dynamics clearly enough.

To benefit from depth psychology, an addict has to identify his or her unresolved emotions. To repeat, an addictive person is likely struggling with feelings of being deprived, refused, controlled, helpless, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, criticized, and hated. Even when an addictive person is, say, not actually being refused or controlled by others or by circumstances, this individual is unconsciously determined to experience his or her life through these unresolved, negative emotions.

At the slightest hint of being refused or controlled, addicts can interpret their experience from the perspective of these negative emotions. We can say, in fact, that addicts have a hidden addiction, and that is to those negative emotions that are unresolved in their psyche. This profound notion entirely escapes the mainstream addiction-prevention community which can understand being addicted to a substance or behavior but not to a negative emotion.

In the minutes or hours leading up to their self-defeating behavior, addicts typically slip into a “helplessness trap,” which is a profound, intolerable sense of mounting helplessness and loss of self-control. Cravings arise for substances such as alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, or food, or for behaviors such as gambling, shopping, or promiscuity that have become compulsive. As the sense of helplessness intensifies, the cravings become stronger.

This feeling of helplessness or loss of self-control is itself an emotional addiction. This means, in one sense, that our powerlessness is something we are so familiar with that we don’t know who we are without it. This emotion is the lingering effect of the helplessness that all us experienced in early childhood when we were totally dependent on parents and care-givers for our survival. Unlike other animals which become independent within months or a few years, we humans experience helplessness in varying degree for many years until we grow old enough to live and survive on our own. This unpleasant feeling is an inherent weakness that practically becomes hard-wired in our psyche.

This weakness can also be understood from a psychoanalytic perspective. The weakness is known as inner passivity which is an emotional and mental default position in our psyche where our consciousness is excluded. Through inner passivity, which is housed in our unconscious ego, we mediate and negotiate in a defensive, often ineffective manner with the primitive, demanding id and the righteous, critical, pleasure-denying inner critic or superego. Inwardly, we are used to feeling weak vis-à-vis our superego.

Whatever is unresolved in our psyche is going to felt by us, whether we like it or not. If we have unresolved issues with rejection, we will be especially sensitive to feeling rejected. If we have unresolved issues with feeling criticized, we will be especially sensitive to feeling criticized. If we have unresolved issues with feeling controlled and helpless, we will be especially sensitive to those unpleasant feelings.

Not only are we sensitive to those feelings, but we unconsciously pursue them. In other words, we are compelled to experience whatever is unresolved in our psyche. We compulsively replay and recycle such emotions. That’s the nature of an emotional addiction. However, addicts are just like the rest of us in that we all have hidden emotional addictions. For addicts, the challenge can be more acute and the self-damage more severe.

Addicts (and the vast majority of us, for that matter) fear to broach these realms of insight. 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.

Let’s now go deeper into our psyche to see what’s happening when cravings arise. Cravings often produce the sensation of one’s inability to resist them. When cravings arise, addicts often know, consciously or unconsciously, that it’s only a matter of time before they succumb to them. Even on the occasions when they don’t succumb to the cravings, their feelings of self-doubt and inner weakness in struggling to resist them can be intense. During the time they are struggling to resist the cravings, addicts can experience a growing, more profound experience of their helplessness and faltering powers of self-regulation. When they do finally succumb, they can collapse even deeper into the helplessness, experiencing a certain degree of dissociation in which they mindlessly carry out the imperatives of their cravings.

The reason they have collapsed into helplessness is because the helplessness itself is the addiction. Consciously, addicts are focused on the object of their desire (drugs, alcohol, gambling), which creates the illusion that they’re addicted to the substance or to the behavior. Unconsciously, however, they’re entangled emotionally in the helplessness itself, that old emotional complication from the past that they never succeeded in fully outgrowing. The more intensely they feel the cravings, the more deeply they feel the helplessness. This is the nature of unresolved emotions and the conflicts they produce: on and off, we feel them deeply and painfully unless they are resolved.

Addicts produce defenses that try to save face and cover up their emotional entanglement in passivity. One such defense proclaims, “I am choosing, of my own free will, to have this drink.” This defense produces the illusion of power, though later on it will create more guilt for having “chosen” such unwise behavior.

Once the emotional addiction is identified precisely, the individual becomes aware of how determined he or she has been to continue to experience this unresolved negative emotion. (My article, “Stop Smoking through Psychological Insight,” offers a perspective on another emotional addiction.) People who are not addicts can, through the same inner dynamics, also experience helplessness and passivity in everyday situations, as well as other unresolved emotions, though the self-defeat may be less obvious or painful.

Our entanglement in unresolved negative emotions is mostly unconscious. These emotions can produce inner conflict that can profoundly influence—often in undesirable ways though also in satisfactory sublimations—our behaviors and decisions. Because these deep negative emotions are unresolved, they act as attachments or addictions. If we don’t have deep enough self-knowledge, we keep experiencing them painfully, especially in life’s challenging moments.