The Emotional Roots of Addictions

Behind addictions to alcohol or drugs are addictions to unresolved negative emotions. That’s a revolutionary idea, yet true nonetheless: Physical addictions are just symptoms of emotional addictions.

We know what it means to be addicted to alcohol or drugs. So what does it mean to be addicted to negative emotions?

By way of explanation, let’s begin with an axiom of psychology: Any unresolved inner conflict of ours is determined to be experienced by us, no matter how painful that is. Here are common inner conflicts: “I hate to feel deprived—I expect to feel deprived;” “I hate to feel powerless or helpless—I expect to feel powerless or helpless;” “I hate to feel criticized or rejected—I expect to feel criticized or rejected.”

These conflicts and others like them pervade the human psyche, and they are usually semi-conscious or unconscious. They create unhappiness and suffering, and they also constitute emotional addictions. How so? The expectation of feeling deprived, for instance, is actually an inner readiness or willingness to feel deprived or refused. This is because we keep getting tangled up in whatever is unresolved. Although it’s painful, an emotional attachment or emotional addiction is established to the negative feeling of being deprived or refused. Unconsciously, we’re willing to indulge or wallow in it, producing self-pity along with a victim mentality.

Through our psychological defenses (employed unconsciously), we cover up this realization. Often, we blame others or circumstances for the negative emotions that we’re secretly determined to continue to feel and which are unresolved from our past.

An addictive personality can carry within his or her psyche a range of one or more emotional attachments. These include attachments to feeling deprived, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, abandoned, or betrayed. These attachments mostly operate unconsciously, so it’s hard to see them. Once we do see them more clearly, however, we are in a stronger position to break free of our emotional and physical addictions (or compulsions).

Emotional addictions produce physical addictions because the emotional addictions weaken us. They make us passive. They weaken our will power, our vitality, and our ability to protect ourselves from self-defeat or self-damage. Emotional addictions also produce a lot of inner negativity, which is a deeper negativity that hides out beneath our surface negativity (anger, bitterness, apathy, or cynicism).

This deep inner negativity often consists of a sense of having no value, of being flawed or unworthy. We can’t feel our own goodness or virtue, and are mired in self-doubt. The more negative we are in this way, the more desperate we are for something (alcohol or drugs) that can help us to feel better about ourselves, even if only temporarily. Of course, substance abuse ultimately leads us to a more painful sense of what we are emotionally attached to— feelings of worthlessness, self-rejection, and even self-hatred.

The solution is to become more aware of these inner dynamics, and to acquire self-knowledge concerning one’s emotional weaknesses. This is a learning process rather than a treatment process. For more information, read my book, Secret Attachments: Exposing the Roots of Addictions and Compulsions. It’s available at my website,