By Steve K.
In the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) book, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the source of human emotional difficulties is identified as the result of instinctual excesses; specifically, the basic needs for emotional and material security, social approval and acceptance, and the need for sex.
“Yet these instincts . . . often far exceed their proper functions. Powerfully, blindly, many times subtly, they drive us, dominate us, and insist upon ruling our lives. Our desires for sex, material and emotional security, and for an important place in society often tyrannize us. When thus out of joint, man’s natural desires cause him great trouble, practically all the trouble there is. No human being, however good, is exempt from these troubles. Nearly every serious emotional problem can be seen as a case of misdirected instinct. When that happens, our great natural assets, the instincts, have turned into physical and mental liabilities.” (pp. 43-44)
The 12 Step view is that excessive basic instincts, related to fear-based self-centredness, are at the root of addiction: be it alcohol, drug, gambling, work, sex or love addiction. What AA literature doesn’t explore is the root cause of this self-centredness, other than to suggest it is the result of fear.
If you listen carefully to what AA members share in meetings, there is often a common theme of low self-esteem or shame. Low self-esteem, shame, and emotional insecurity seem to be common characteristics among those who’ve suffered addiction.
The origins of low self-esteem are generally thought to be found in the developmental years of childhood and adolescence. If children do not receive the love and attention they require for healthy development it often results in emotional instability and relationship difficulties. These children grow into adults with a strong sense of shame and unmet needs for love and security. They often experience a chronic feeling of emptiness and rejection.
It’s natural to want to escape such a painful emotional state of being. Thus driven by distorted instinctual fear, they attempt to fill this emptiness in various ways.
The addict’s demand is excessive due to the acute sense of hunger or emptiness felt. They feel persistently threatened, fearful, and therefore self-centered, because of their chronic sense of deprivation. They are “in the realm of hungry ghosts,” to quote the title of Gabor Mate’s excellent book about addiction, which comes from a Buddhist phrase for the addiction realm of human existence.
In relation to the psychological, emotional and social aspects of addiction, which drive neurobiological changes, the addict is merely attempting to meet unmet needs for love and security. Mate explains that, unfortunately, the behaviors, objects and substances they relate to in addiction are “poor substitutes for love.” (1) They fail to meet the real needs; hence, the insatiable desires of addiction.
The ultimate answers are self-love and compassion. Help from others is often needed, though, as those suffering addiction begin their journeys of recovery and self-actualization.