How facing our emotions helps us fight addiction
As human beings, the deepest, most core conflict we face is whether or not to feel. Do we seek vitality, love, passion, compassion, and the unpredictable roller coaster that comes with being engaged in life and emotion? Or do we engage in behavior that detaches us from the inherent pain of the human condition? When we choose the latter, anything that cuts us off can seem appealing, from cell phones to social media, pain killers to pornography, Coca Cola to cocaine.
Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association. She studies suicide and violence as well as couples and family relations.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Edgar Allen Poe said, “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
Addictive behavior is the result of a primal desire to self-soothe. Anything can operate as an addiction if done habitually and for the purpose of fulfilling a need to be tolerably numb. We turn to addiction to escape pain, but the escape itself perpetuates our pain, and thus begins a dangerous spiral. In reality, when we attempt to kill off our pain, we often engage in other self-destructive behavior. We forget that psychological pain has a purpose and is actually an adaptive function warning us that something’s wrong.
Working through our emotions helps us to learn, grow and develop. It increases our resilience and makes us more alive to our experiences. Conversely, our attempts to cut off may render us emotionally immature and often, far less functional. Moreover, we cannot selectively numb pain without also numbing joy. Turning to addiction can leave us feeling frozen or numbed to all our feelings. In this state, we risk losing a sense of our true identity. We disconnect from our real selves.
Because we are torn between feeling and not feeling, we are all divided between our real self, the part of us that wants to live, pursue goals, and experience life, and what my father Dr. Robert Firestone calls the “anti-self,” which seeks to isolate us, cut us off from feeling and even obliterate or destroy us. Our anti-self aims to protect us from the natural pain or fear that comes from caring about or investing in life, but it winds up limiting and hurting us in countless ways, for instance, by steering us toward addiction.
When we indulge the notion that we can’t tolerate our pain, we are actually siding with our anti-self. We are listening to the advice of a destructive inner coach, a thought process known as the “critical inner voice.” This “voice” can be the fuel for addictive behavior, first encouraging us to use or indulge, then punishing us for our behavior. “Just have a drink,” it beckons, “You deserve a good time. You work so hard. You need to let go and relax.” Then, once we’ve indulged, it screams, “You failure! How could you mess up again? You’ll always be a loser.” This luring, then punishing voice perpetuates the addiction, a subject I’ll be diving into in the Webinar, “Fighting Addiction: The Sneaky Role of the Critical Inner Voice.”
Voice Therapy, developed by my father, is helpful in the treatment of addiction, as it allows us to become conscious of this destructive thought process and face the underlying emotion behind it. Through the steps of Voice Therapy, we can start to understand where our critical inner voice comes from and how it operates. We can start to feel for ourselves and how we’re affected by this voice. We can then stand up to the voice as an external enemy rather than accepting it as our real point of view.
As we come to know this inner critic, we become smarter about how we react to it. We can see how it tries to sneakily influence our actions, then, we can consciously choose to act differently. If nothing else, the critical inner voice is tricky. It can creep into our thoughts so smoothly we may see it more like a live-in roommate as opposed to the hostile intruder it really is. By making the unconscious conscious, we can stand up to our “anti-self” and, by no exaggeration, take power over our lives.
In addition to the steps of Voice Therapy, there are certain things we can do to help ourselves challenge this inner voice, strengthen our real self and get ahold of addictive behavior.
1. Adopt strategies for increasing our tolerance for our emotions – When we break an addiction, the painful emotions we’ve been trying to repress are likely to surface. It’s incredibly important to have a healthy and adaptive alternative way of dealing with these feelings. Cultivating self-compassion and mindfulness is of great help in this process. Adopting an attitude of self-compassion allows us to accept that our suffering is a part of being human. It teaches us to exercise self-kindness, patience, and acceptance in our journey to grow and change. Additionally, practicing mindfulness can help us learn to sit with our thoughts and feelings without allowing them to overpower us and drive our behavior.
2. Get to know your triggers – It’s important to notice what events, people, or circumstances trigger our critical inner voices. What situations set us up or prime us to want to cut off? Does a stressful workday ignite our inner critic to tell us to indulge? Does a heated interaction with our partner stir up old feelings of fear and rejection? Where do we then go to seek comfort? We also need to beware of those people in our lives who side with and support the seductive voices to indulge. These individuals support the seemingly soothing part of our anti-self. When we start to know our triggers, we can make better choices about who we spend time with, what activities we engage in, and how we handle the stresses that are likely to arise. We can do this while maintaining our self-compassion, being considerate of what we need in order to make better choices.
3. Practice generosity – Helping others has long been a principle of the 12-step recovery program and for good reason. It offers a sense of purpose and a healthy focus of our attention. It gives us a structured means to avoid isolation. It also stands as a natural counter to any critical inner voices telling us we are powerless or unworthy. Being giving of ourselves and connecting to others is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen our real selves.
4. Create a coherent narrative – There is great value in telling our story and making sense of the negative events that shaped us, the large and small traumas that led us to feel we’d have to escape or turn to addiction in order to cope. Bringing these memories to the surface and understanding how they affect our sense of self helps us to integrate our brain. We can better identify when and why we get triggered and alter our response to these triggers. When we understand the source of our intensified emotions, we no longer feel ruled by them. We can start to build more security in ourselves and stronger relationships with others. In doing so, we reject our desire for escape.
5. Form friendships – It is far easier to drown out the negative messages of our inner critic when we surround ourselves with the voices of friends. When overcoming an addiction, it’s important to avoid isolation. We must continually seek companionship from the kinds of friends who support our real selves and who don’t lead us to feel triggered or encourage us to side with voices urging us to indulge. That may certainly mean changing our routine, spending more time around people who help us feel calm and centered, and less time with anyone who may set off our critical inner voice or encourage us to use it.
Each of these steps is an act of reconnection to our lives. However, each involves a level of bravery, a willingness to feel whatever arises. The ironic truth is that if we face our pain, we are actually better able to live a richer, more joyful, and more fulfilling life. It’s possible to differentiate from the destructive or painful influences of our past without disassociating from our emotions or experience. It’s possible to stand up to the critical inner voice that tells us we aren’t strong enough or that we need to be numb or to escape in order to survive. As Dr. Les Greenberg, founder of Emotion-Focused Therapy said, we can learn to live in “mindful harmony with our feelings, not attempt to control them.” It’s possible that in this harmony, we find the antidote to addiction.