As can be seen across the media these days, the concept of 'addiction' is increasingly being used to describe our obsessive/compulsive and self-destructive behaviors in relation to a wide range of ‘things’ other than alcohol and narcotics, including: gambling, debt, sex, clutter, food, cigarettes, love, video games, under-earning, work, emotions, codependency, sugar, pornography, social media, shopping and more.

Why we, as human beings, do what we do is complex—especially when it entails repeated behaviors that are destructive to ourselves and others. The shame, fear and guilt that people feel around certain behaviors can be crippling, which is often why they finally decide to seek help.

There are many lenses through which we can view addiction:

  • Scientific researchers emphasize genetics and brain dysfunction
  • Classical family therapy models emphasize the family dynamics that support and enable the condition
  • A relational therapy model focuses on the interpersonal processes of past and current relationships
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (and other 12 step groups) emphasize 'spiritual bankruptcy' as a major underlying cause
  • Developmentally minded theorists see addiction as a symptom resulting from early childhood traumas and the related failures to develop appropriately, resulting in unhealthy mood management skills

Years ago I carried on endless arguments in my mind about which of these perspectives was right. Thankfully, maturity enables us to integrate what was previously fragmented in our understandings; thus it has become clear to me that all these perspectives are complementary, and need not be in competition with each other.

As I write in a blog post:

Addiction takes many forms. That is to say, human beings can become addicted not only to substances (alcohol, drugs, food, pills, cigarettes) but also to other people (romantic obsession), physical activities (gambling, sex, social isolation) or mental activities (worry, self-criticism, anger, envy). Dr. Jeffrey Roth writes that addiction is a disease that grows out of “an impaired ability to establish and maintain healthy, emotionally regulatory relationships.” Dr. Dan Flores refers to addiction as an “attachment disorder,” meaning that it results from and perpetuates a fundamental rupture in human connection. On the basis of these perspectives, it is no wonder that building and maintaining healthier relationships with oneself, others and with something greater than oneself are so central to 12 step recovery and other forms of healing from addiction. Human beings heal and grow in the context of relationships. As the saying goes, no one gets well alone. Yes, there is work to do within one’s own mind and heart, but if that process is not witnessed, supported and reinforced by other people, it will not be nearly as effective. We are social creatures to the core.

So—if you feel that you may be obsessive and compulsive in relation to some person, substance or activity—then it is time to start talking about it with others; staying alone with it in isolation will only make it worse. See a therapist, participate in an online support group, attend a lecture, tell a friend—something. Making things better begins with breaking the silence and asking for help.