What are the factors that can lead a person into addiction? Understanding those factors and how they reinforce each other is a first step to breaking free of many addictions.
I became an addict when I was 17 years old, although the pattern for addiction was set up in me long before then. At the time of writing this article, I have been free from my addiction for two years and I have every intention of remaining so.
For the purposes of this article, the exact nature of my addiction isn't important. What I want to address are four fundamental beliefs that, as identified by Dr. Patrick Carnes in his book Out of the Shadows (2001), underlie many addictions. These are:
• I am, at the core, a bad, unworthy person.
• Nobody could ever love me if they truly knew who I am.
• No one will ever be able to meet my needs; therefore, I must meet my own needs.
• The addictive agent is my greatest need.
Feelings of unworthiness rooted in childhood
These four beliefs are often at the center of the vortex that is an addict's life. It's important to know these beliefs are present to be able to help the addict to recover.
The first belief—I am, at the core, a bad, unworthy person—is often caused by childhood trauma in a dysfunctional family.
Dysfunctional behavior within a family includes emotional or physical abuse, such as making unfounded accusations, hurling insults, yelling or screaming, berating others, doling out arbitrary and inappropriate punishments, withholding affection, touching in a sexually inappropriate manner and assaulting others (physically or sexually).
These are common examples of abusive behavior that serve to establish the first belief. Even the less catastrophic of these, when directed at or witnessed by children over a protracted period of time, can have devastating effects on the beliefs children develop about themselves. The more catastrophic ones can have the same impact after a single instance.
Often these abusive behaviors occur when a parent is an addict or otherwise mentally unstable. The fallout of the parent's behavior can then spill over into the life of his or her child.
When this happens, the child takes on an identity of shame and unworthiness. These concepts are externally imposed and, for the immature mind of a child, the response over an extended period of time is to believe the negative feedback repeatedly heard and experienced. Eventually, a void develops in the heart and mind that begs to be filled.
Catastrophic feelings of rejection
The second core belief—nobody could love me if they truly knew who I am—has two sides.
First, this belief is the natural fallout of the first belief. When a child takes on an identity of shame and unworthiness, he comes to doubt that anyone could love him. If his own parents don't appear to love him, he wonders who else would?
The child anticipates rejection. This belief then begins to color the child's interactions with others. There is the underlying feeling that "nobody would ever love me if they really knew me."
Second, once an addictive behavior takes hold, this belief is fed by that behavior. Addicts are convinced that if anyone really knew the nature of their addiction, there is no chance another person could truly love them.
This belief sets up a self-perpetuating cycle of addictive behavior that reinforces the belief. The cycle goes like this: Nobody could ever love me if they truly knew me; therefore, I need the addictive agent to deal with the pain of that reality, which reinforces the belief that nobody could love me (after all, who would love somebody who does what I do?).
Addicts don't think this way consciously, but this pattern repeats itself in an unconscious way. It's a vicious cycle that is extraordinarily difficult to break.
Relying on self prevents seeking help
The third belief—no one will ever be able to meet my needs—follows naturally from the first two beliefs. Once one takes on an identity of shame and is convinced he is unworthy of love, it is a small step to project those beliefs onto everyone he encounters.
These beliefs lead to the person thinking, "No one outside of me is capable of meeting my needs; therefore, I have to rely on myself to do it."
Inside most addicts is an enormous preoccupation with self. It becomes a form of idolatry because the belief that "no one can truly meet my needs" inevitably influences the addict's perception of God.
The self-reliance and preoccupation feed the cycle of addiction to the point that, even in the face of adverse consequences, the addict will not stop his behavior. The belief that help is not found outside himself is strong. It prevents him from seeking the help he truly needs, so he remains trapped by his beliefs.
A dangerous void waiting to be filled
The fourth belief—the addictive agent is my greatest need—forms once the addict has found the agent that gives him or her the greatest moment of pleasure (relief and/or distraction from pain).
When a young person has the core beliefs I have described, he is a walking void needing to be filled. It is a physical law that nature abhors a vacuum. This is equally true in matters of the heart. The void will be filled by something, even if it is harmful.
Eventually, every person who becomes an addict stumbles upon his addictive agent of choice. That agent, once found, appears to salve the pain the addict feels inside. The addictive agent becomes an emotional and physical drug that the addict comes to crave.
The pleasure is short-lived and ultimately not fulfilling but the addict comes to believe that things will never be better than when he indulges in that addictive agent. It becomes his greatest need.
Addiction: a cruel trap
Once these four beliefs are in place, they are extremely difficult to dislodge because they feed on each other. Each interaction with the addictive agent (which most addicts know is wrong and are ashamed of) fuels the four fundamental beliefs.
Reliance on the addictive agent causes greater shame and self-hatred, which causes a deeper belief that no one could love the addict, which further entrenches the addict's conviction that he has to manage his own needs because nobody else can, which inevitably leads back to the addictive agent as the only thing the addict knows will quell his emotional pain.
It is a cruel trap and one that Satan uses to great effect. He has perfected it for centuries. I can attest from personal experience that these things ensnare people, for I have been caught in the trap. Addicted people need healing and freedom.
What brings freedom from this dilemma? Because addiction is, in large part, a spiritual problem, the solution must be a spiritual one. It isn't a solution that occurs quickly or easily, however. I don't know of a single addict who has been instantly healed by divine fiat, so I don't think it's wise to expect that. For every addict that I've come to know, the path to freedom leads straight through the problem, not around it.
From my own experience, the first step to recovery is found in James:5:16: "Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much."
In many cases an addict may have to do one of the hardest things he can imagine (because he is certain that it will lead to the rejection he expects) and that is to confess to trustworthy people everything he has done in his addiction—everything—then the healing can begin.
Through the prayers and support of loving people, the addict can begin to challenge the core beliefs about himself. By making himself accountable to people who care, he can replace his wrong thoughts and actions with right ones.
Ultimately he can get to the point where he trusts in the love of others and he can then believe in the love God has expressed for all of us. At that point, the addict is in a position to break the grip the addictive agent has had on his life.
The road I have just described is a long one but, for the addict, there are no shortcuts. The purpose of this article is not to provide a comprehensive solution plan for addicts. Rather, it's to help addicts, or people who care about them, to understand the beliefs underlying most addictions—beliefs that must be rooted out for recovery to take place.
(Originally appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2007 Good News magazine.)
This article appears in the following topics: Addictions