Self-Knowledge: The Key to Freedom from Self-Defeating Behavior

What do alcoholics, drug addicts, cigarette smokers, and food addicts have in common? They all feel unable to stop a certain self defeating behavior. They all feel addicted to a specific substance. They each have a mental illness, in that they cannot stop doing something once pleasurable that has now become a problem in itself. The inability to stop doing something that is self destructive is irrational and is the essence of a mental illness. This article will outline how these indulgent behaviors are fundamentally a mental illness. The words, addict and addiction, will be used to describe uncontrollable urges to drink, smoke, or overeat when drinking, smoking, overeating lead to destructive consequences.

A mental illness can be defined as a dis-ease, or a lack of ease. All addictions begin with the substance of choice producing positive feelings of euphoria, escape, happiness, relief, calmness. As people become accustomed to getting their emotional fix, they come to depend on the substance for that special feeling. When using the substance causes negative and severe consequences, the user has a choice: quit or suffer more consequences. The hallmark of an addict is that they give in to cravings for their substance, rather than face the reality that they will suffer much more than they will enjoy their substance.

People who struggle with alcoholism, addiction to cigarettes or food are suffering with physical, mental and emotional symptoms.This is a lack of ease. Physical symptoms such as organ damage, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, are direct results of alcoholism, drug addiction, cigarette smoking and over eating, and, still, people engage in these self destructive behaviors despite having a persistent desire to stop.

Addicts of all kinds make many attempts to stop. They find it difficult to quit indulging without a health crisis, an intervention or some kind, a geographical change, divorce, a major disruption of their lifestyle so that they can avoid going back to their habit. To repeatedly fail to halt their self defeating behavior causes mental distress because of the wreckage caused despite knowing they should stop. Repeated failure to stop develops into broken promises, unmet obligations, physical problems, and/or feelings of guilt and shame. People suffer many serious consequences despite knowing that they should stop the indulgence. This is truly irrational. Why do intelligent people bring about their own destruction? What is the irrational force behind these self destructive behaviors?

All of these addictions are driven by a the forces of a mental illness. This mental illness has two features: obsessive thinking, “I can’t stop thinking about it,” and compulsive behavior, “I’ve got to have it.” Addicted people give in to their cravings without big problems at first. Once the addicted person realizes the need to quit, the mental self criticism will begin and the addicted person will become aware of the voices of obsession and compulsion. “I know I shouldn’t, but… I need it.”

An obese person will eat, an alcoholic will drink, and a smoker will smoke regardless of consequences. This is their compulsion. The obese are preoccupied with food; the alcoholic is preoccupied with the next drink. The smoker knows when the next cigarette break is. This is their obsession. If the addicted people could better understand the troubled but rich personal stories of their obsession and compulsion, they could achieve a higher quality of mental and physical health than they could attain through sheer will power.

Why is will power alone ineffective in saying, ‘No?’ Obsessions and compulsions often begin as psychological forces creating strong cravings for food, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs. Alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs contain chemicals that require more of that chemical to achieve the desired effect, leading to increased use and increased problematic use. When an addict or alcoholic or smoker stops using, they feel the effect of the chemical withdrawing from their body, which makes them crave the substance even more. Physiological need and psychological need combine to make the user feel sick, deprived, and miserable in many ways, leading to using the substance more, (a relapse). Physical and psychological needing create a double dose of emotional urgency and physiological dependence which, when combined with the difficulty of changing a once rewarding habit, are difficult to control.

There are many kinds of obsessions and compulsions which do not involve a substance that become self defeating. Procrastination is the most common mental illness, and has all the characteristics of an addiction, except that procrastination involves not doing something. Other self destructive behaviors include nail biting, hair pulling, gambling, overuse of electronic devices, over spending. These behaviors can cause devastating problems and, yet, are hard to control.

Overeating is really difficult to control because we can’t eliminate eating completely from our lives. We need to eat to function. For a food addict, eating is difficult to moderate. Food is not a physically addicting substance, yet people do feel addicted to food. They find it difficult to consistently say no, especially at home at night. The consequences of a food addiction are visible in an obese person, which adds to their distress, especially when out in public.

Addicts of all kinds have not only suffered from their own mental illness; they have also suffered from the simplistic and shallow theories about addiction. Society has fed them ideas that self defeating behavior are the result of poor moral fiber, hormonal imbalance, genetic disorder, or neurological disease. These beliefs have swept the world. But alcoholism, drug addiction, cigarette smoking and overeating share a psychological origin below the surface of ordinary awareness.

In 1957, Sandor Rado, MD (1890 – 1972) wrote that, “The study of the problem of addiction begins with the recognition of the fact that it is not the toxic agent, but the impulse to use it, that makes an addict…” For several decades the addiction field forgot this truth, but has found it again, and today acknowledges that the object of study should be the individual rather than the substance or behavior.

Treatment for all addictions today consists of restricting the addictive behavior, and psychotherapy to understand both the reactions to that restriction, and the forces underlying obsessions and compulsions. Self-exploration gradually uncovers the secrets deeply held, which often cause anxiety if those secrets were to be become public. These secrets include an emotional hunger, a craving for intimacy, a need for reassurance, a wish to be taken care of, a need to feel important, loved, recognized, accepted by someone considered important.

Besides compulsion and obsession, they might discover defenses such as denial, rationalization, reaction formation, and minimization. Having identified those defenses, patients can learn more wholesome means of self-soothing and self stimulation. Over time they will discover the kind of human relationships they had been seeking.

Although this psychological view of addictions as a mental illness puts the heavy responsibility of recovery on the patient, it is the most hopeful, and most humane view of addiction we have ever had. It envisions a true resolution of this devastating symptom through personal growth, enrichment and self-awareness.