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Holding Hands

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What is Addiction?

In understanding addiction, let us try to separate the word "addiction" from the actual lived phenomenon that the word represents. The word "addiction" is not the actual phenomenon itself. But sometimes words carry such powerful cultural associations that they distort and influence the clarity of our perception. Language is needed for us to communicate, but language can easily dull our capacity for close observation and understanding.


Maybe we believe that we understand addiction. We may think addiction "appears as this", or "looks like that". We can point to specific behaviors, or the use of particular substances, and say "this is addiction". These things can be part of addiction, but it doesn't mean that we have truly understood addiction. In fact, we may have shut down a real understanding of addiction by not observing how deeply the word "addiction" shapes the way we think about it. In understanding any phenomenon well, it is good to see what filter or lens we are looking through.


The interest to really understand, and to look deeply into the nature of something - for ourselves - is rare. I believe on some level we don't want to understand addiction because we are afraid of getting close to addiction, and thus, to some aspect of human nature, because our society is afraid of addiction, and because the word "addiction" evokes a subtle fear response. If we are personally struggling with addiction, society's position on addiction can make us take that same position on ourselves, and thus judge and shame ourselves, such that we can't observe ourselves without an overlay of judgement.

There are many therapeutic modalities in the field of addiction that have a preset methodology for working with addiction. These ways of working with addiction can be very effective, and will be incorporated in therapy if they are useful. However, my main approach to working with addiction is one of deep self-observation and self-understanding. It is not enough to treat the symptoms of addiction if we want to understand why we utilize addiction as a coping mechanism. 

So let's begin the process of understanding and healing from addiction beginning by noticing how deeply that word has conditioned both us and society. In being aware of that fact, there may be an "unconditioning", or a deconstruction of the culturally inherited narrative of addiction. When this takes place, a space opens up for us to seek to understand "addiction" for ourselves, and not according to a narrative that may not actually be our narrative.


Internal Family Systems (IFS) view of addiction


All human beings utilize different ways of both coping with, and thriving in, our lives. It is normal have many strategies to help us manage our minds, feelings, bodies, and nervous systems. We have many different kinds of needs that we must meet in order to feel healthy and whole. For instance, we have the needs for safety, comfort, sleep, adequate nutrition, relaxation, stimulation, pleasure, social connection, psychological organization, emotional processing, sexuality, love and so on.


Self-regulation means tending to all of these needs. If we are not meeting the needs that are essential to well-being, we will feel imbalanced. When our strategies for self-regulation become compulsive, and begin to negatively impact our mental and emotional state, health, functioning, and the lives of others, then seeking help for addiction makes sense.

It's easier and more readily obvious to perceive the reality of "parts" (see IFS in Modalities section) when exploring the dynamics of addiction. The dynamics of addiction are defined by a polarized internal system. Polarization, which Internal Family Systems therapy works with beautifully, is essentially the conflict between two or more different parts of us. Each part involved in a polarization has their own history of experience, needs, beliefs, memories, attitudes, impulses, and agendas. In a polarized system, parts are in opposition with each other and are often engaged in a struggle for control.  

When we're struggling with a physical or psychological dependency of some kind, we can see polarization most evidently between the part of us that does not want to engage in behavior that isn't good for us, and the part of us that engages the behavior anyway. A third part often involved in the dynamic is an "inner critic" part, which judges and shames the part that engages the behavior and/or other parts that carry shame and guilt. In order to manage the critical part and the part that has shame or guilt, there is often a fourth part that gets activated, which is a part of us that regulates many of the other parts in the dynamic by making promises to the system about controlling the behavior in the future: bargaining. 

Internal Family Systems emphasizes the reality and importance of the relationships within our inner system. First, it is clear from this example that there are different parts of us that have distinct roles, and that they are related to each other. Their "relationship" is demonstrated by the fact that they exist in an inner eco-system, in which the activity of one impacts the experience and activity of the others, and of the whole system itself. This basic principle, that they are a system of interrelated parts, is not unique to IFS, but is derived from "systems theory", which can be applied to any system. We see systems at play in nature, families, organizations, and relationships between nations.   


In IFS, it is another core principle that all of the different parts in our "internal system" have a positive intention for us, and this includes the parts of us that are engaged in addictive or compulsive behaviors. The positive intentions of all parts are, in different ways, to protect, manage, organize, soothe, and regulate the whole system, and to prevent it from overwhelm. To be sure, the fact that all of the different parts of our inner system have a positive intention for our inner system does not necessarily mean that the parts' action or behavior is one that is positive for us.


We can draw the line at the level of action or behavior, but what usually goes unacknowledged is that we shame, blame, or judge parts that are involved in addiction without genuinely trying to understand or get to know these aspects of us, and what they're doing. Because we typically instinctively reject the parts of us that are engaged in addiction (usually by the parts that are angry our outraged at the suffering the "user part" has caused us), the "user part" shut down or get shut down.


It is very threatening to certain parts of us to show compassion, curiosity, or understanding, to the "user" part of us, or to consider that it may have a positive intention for us. This is because, to these parts of us, to do so may signify to them that the pain and suffering the "user" part has caused the system is not being fully acknowledged, or that we are giving the "user" part permission to engage in destructive behavior. This is a very understandable concern, and in therapy, we must first address the concerns of those parts and validate them.

When we experience "Self", or "Self-energy", we realize that our parts instinctively trust that our Self has the best interests for all of our parts. This means that the parts who distrust showing compassion to our troublesome parts will gradually feel that Self will do its job without abandoning any part.  It is rather miraculous that our parts instinctively recognize the Self as the true leader of our internal system. This is not something to take on faith, but must be verified by each client for themselves when they become clear that both parts and Self exist. 


Without "Self-leadership", we are missing the new element and ally that we may have never experienced before in our relationship with addiction. Without this element operating in our experience, it is understandable that we feel something essential in us that's missing when it comes to resolving challenges with certain parts of us. With Self as the natural leader of our internal system, we begin to trust that there is something in us that truly has the power to generate major transformation in our lives. But again, we must take the risk to see if Self, and Self-energy, is real. I can only say that it is very real, and that everyone has Self if we do the work. I observe Self arise in client after client who give it a try, as well as in my own process. I wouldn't offer it as a therapy in my practice if it didn't work.     


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