There’s an essential reason alcoholics are sensitive to this allegation that character weakness is behind their out-of-control drinking: Inwardly, this accusation is directed at them on a daily basis by their inner critic. The inner critic (superego) is a primitive, aggressive agency of the human psyche, and it berates alcoholics with allegations that range in intensity from “You should be trying harder to stay sober!” to “You worthless, no good loser! Look at you! You’re truly disgusting!”
Everyone has an inner critic or superego, and for many of us that part of our psyche has assumed the role of the master of our personality. It can harass and scorn us for the slightest misdemeanors. Our inner critic can attack us for a wide variety of alleged “crimes,” most viciously for the idea that we are somehow a failure or a loser. In some people, the inner critic is an absolute tyrant that causes much of their unhappiness and suffering.
Unconsciously, we give credence to these allegations. We become inwardly defensive and absorb emotionally the negative charges directed against us. As alcoholics struggle defensively to deflect these charges, they might say, “It’s not that big a problem” or “I’m trying, it’s not my fault, I don’t know what comes over me.” Even as they defend in this way, they still “buy into” the allegations or harassment dished out by the inner critic. This means they absorb the negative criticism and take it to heart. Consequently, they can experience considerable shame and self-loathing.
All of us have inner weaknesses, and we usually can overcome them when we understand them. If we want to excel at some endeavor or sport, for instance, we work on our weaknesses. With tennis, for example, a person might have to work on a weak backhand or weak serve. If we want to play the game of life and excel at it, we have to consider what weaknesses might impede us. Some people are weak athletically, or intellectually dull, or socially awkward. Alcoholics are weak in emotional and behavioral self-regulation, as are people with many other kinds of psychological challenges. We can empower ourselves with deeper self-understanding.
For the most part, alcoholics could just as easily be addicted to drugs or struggling with an eating disorder. Their addiction is not about alcohol per se. The heart of their addiction lies in their inability to stand up to the cruel and unjust allegations of their inner critic (superego). They don’t know how to live in inner freedom or how to liberate themselves from inner conflict. This is a psychological weakness, not a moral or character weakness.
Alcoholics and other addicts are attracted to the disease theory of addictions because that theory provides them with a psychological defense against the inner critic. This theory says that addiction is a disease of biological, neurological, or genetic origins. By embracing it, they can, at least temporarily, deflect the inner critic’s harassment. Through their unconscious defense system, they are able to say, “But it’s not my fault! I have a disease. If I didn’t have this disease, I would certainly be doing better!”
The theory of addiction to which I subscribe is based in depth psychology. It recognizes that our psychological weakness can be exacerbated by genetic flaws or other biological factors, yet it identifies unconscious conflicts in our psyche as the main problem. When we understand these conflicts, we can resolve them. Doing so strengthens us on an inner level, producing enhanced self-regulation. As part of this inner strengthening, we learn to keep our inner critic at bay. We see the inner critic more objectively as a part of us that has no business holding us accountable or passing judgment on us. We also see the part in us—inner passivity—that serves as an enabler of the inner critic. As we acquire insight and strength, we no longer give credence to the pronouncements of the inner critic. The inner critic retreats into the background and becomes less problematic.
I don’t at all wish to emphasize the idea that alcoholism is an “inner weakness.” Alcoholism arises, at least in part, out of inner conflict, and all of us, not just alcoholics, have some degree of inner conflict. Alcoholics can become emotionally stronger and experience self-regulation by seeing more clearly the roles that their inner critic and inner passivity play in the weakening of their resolve. We all have an inner critic in our psyche, along with inner passivity, and we all struggle at times to maintain emotional equilibrium and to practice healthy self-regulation.
Factors cited for causing alcoholism include high levels of stress, anxiety, tension, or emotional pain. Yet where do these high levels of distress come from? They can certainly arise when a harsh inner critic is bullying us and getting away with it. Our challenge is to understand clearly the nature of this major conflict in our psyche. Our inner critic or superego dishes out self-aggression while our unconscious ego traps us in inner passivity. When we learn to stand up to the self-aggression emanating from our inner critic, we’re in the process of resolving the inner conflict. That conflict can only continue when, through inner passivity, we allow the inner critic to get away with its unwarranted and frequently cruel intrusions into our life. Our inner critic has no business butting into our business and passing judgment on us. Yet due to our inner weakness it gets away with bullying us. To become stronger, we have to stand up to it.
Tormented by their inner critic, many alcoholics descend into self-loathing, self-condemnation, and even self-hatred. Unable to connect with their own goodness and value, they can’t recognize or affirm the goodness and value in their family members, nor can they protect them from emotional instability, financial danger, and social disgrace.
A report published this year says that former alcoholics who feel shame about past drinking are more likely to relapse. That shame is produced by an inner critic that refuses to go away, even during abstinence.
With a harsh inner critic, people find it very difficult to feel good about themselves. The inner critic can belittle and ridicule us to the point that we become depressed. (Read, “The Hidden Cause of Clinical Depression.”) Meanwhile, inner passivity makes some of us more likely to come under the unhealthy influence of drinking buddies who have no interest in our well-being. Through inner passivity, people can also be more easily influenced by advertising that portrays drinking in glamorous terms.
Alcoholics Anonymous has had great success for a variety of reasons, chief among them the warmth and kindness of its members. Alcoholics are warmly welcomed to the organization. Each alcoholic is accepted unconditionally. Each person is important, and members strive to help each other. This emotional generosity is a powerful antidote to the harsh belittling inner critic. The individual can use the kindness of the group to counteract the effects of the inner critic. Armed with evidence of one’s value, the individual can cause the inner critic to retreat—yet this approach doesn’t eliminate it. The inner critic can return with a vengeance, particularly when a relapse occurs. Typically, a relapse comes about as a result of the compulsion to plunge back into the unresolved inner conflict and to face the wrath of the inner critic.
The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous urges members to admit they are powerless over alcohol and to seek the help of a “higher power.” Through depth psychology, in contrast, the higher power is developed from within. This connection with one’s essential self, encompassing a new quality and depth of consciousness, emerges within us as the conflict between self-aggression and inner passivity is resolved. The resolution of this inner conflict greatly invigorates our intelligence and will to thrive. Through the new sense of self that emerges, we connect with our goodness, value, and strength. A craving to drink, should it arise, is no longer overwhelming. We acquire the determination and ability to support ourselves emotionally.
Alcoholism is just one way among many that psychological weakness manifests. When we examine the true sources of our self-defeat, we acquire emotional and behavioral self-regulation.