Understanding the Self-Perceptions of Addicts

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Understanding the Self-Perceptions of Addicts

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For the purposes of this article, the exact nature of my addiction isn't important because what I want to address are four fundamental beliefs that underlie every addiction.

Before addressing those beliefs, I should try to define the problem we are discussing. What is addiction? You will hear varying definitions of this term because it is a relatively young area of study within medicine and psychology. There is no general agreement on the exact definition but a good place to begin is with these behavioral markers. Addiction is manifested in:

  • Behavior that is motivated by emotions ranging along the craving to compulsion spectrum
  • Continued participation in the behavior in spite of adverse consequences
  • Loss of control over the behavior (Howard J. Shaffer, Ph.D., C.A.S., "What is Addiction?: A Perspective")

It doesn't matter what the agent of the addiction may be. It could be drugs of any type, alcohol, nicotine, gambling, sex, food, and so on. The physiology of addiction is complex and not well understood but the behaviors listed above are always present in an addict. They were present in me, so I can personally attest to them.

For people who have studied addictive behaviors, or who have had them in their own lives or in the lives of people close to them, there are four fundamental beliefs that nearly every addict has. These are:

1. I am, at the core, a bad, unworthy person.

2. Nobody could ever love me if they truly knew who I am.

3. No one will ever be able to meet my needs; therefore, I must meet my own needs.

4. The addictive agent is my greatest need (adapted from Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., "Out of the Shadows," 3rd Ed. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001).

These four beliefs are at the center of the vortex that is an addict's life and it is important to know these beliefs are present in order 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. The term dysfunctional is used often and is somewhat loaded, so let me define it here. Dysfunctional behavior within a family includes emotional or physical abuse. Some examples are: making insults, making unfounded accusations, yelling or screaming, berating of others, awarding arbitrary and inappropriate punishments, withholding of affection, touching in a sexually inappropriate manner, and assaulting others (physically or sexually). These are common examples of the categories of abusive behavior that serve to establish the first belief. Some of the less catastrophic of these behaviors, when directed at or witnessed by children over a protracted period of time, can have devastating effects upon the beliefs they develop about themselves. The more catastrophic behaviors need to be experienced, perhaps, only once to have the same effect.

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 a 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 one repeatedly hears and experiences. Eventually, a void develops in the heart and mind that begs to be filled.

The second core belief—nobody could love me if they truly knew who I am—has two sides. One, 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.” Two, 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.

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 give rise to thoughts such as: No one outside of me is capable of meeting my needs; therefore, I have to rely on myself to do it.

Inside of every addict is an enormous amount of preoccupation with self. It becomes a form of idolatry because the belief "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 of himself is strong. It prevents him from seeking the help he truly needs, so he remains trapped by his beliefs.

The fourth belief—the addictive agent is my greatest need—forms once the addict has found the agent that gives him the greatest moment of pleasure (relief/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. The agent, once found, appears to salve the pain the addict feels inside. The addictive agent becomes an emotional and physical drug the addict comes to crave. The pleasure is short-lived and ultimately not fulfilling but the addict comes to believe things will never be better than when he indulges in that addictive agent. It becomes his greatest need.

Once these four beliefs are in place, they are extremely difficult to dislodge because they feed upon each other. Each interaction with the addictive agent (which most addicts know is wrong and they are ashamed of) fuels the four fundamental beliefs. The reliance on the addictive agent causes greater shame and self-hatred, which causes a deeper belief 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 that can 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 these things ensnare people, and they ensnare members of the Body of Christ, for I am one of them. These people need healing and freedom.

What brings freedom from this trap? Because addiction is, in large part, a spiritual mechanism, the solution must be a spiritual one. It isn't a solution that occurs quickly or easily, however. I do not know of a single addict who has been healed by Divine fiat, so I don't believe it is wise to expect healing to occur suddenly. For every addict 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. An addict has to do one of the hardest things he can imagine (because he is certain 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 the bad behaviors with good 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 that the addictive agent has 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 isn't to provide a comprehensive solution plan for addicts. Rather, the purpose is to help addicts, or people who care about them, to understand the beliefs that are at the core of most addictions. By understanding these things, one can have a better knowledge of the trap that has ensnared the addict and the beliefs that must be rooted out for recovery to take place.