appetites, addiction & relationality

Posted on: October 3, 2011 by Chris Kingman

Human beings have a variety of powerful appetites. We hunger for food, love, fun, meaning, physical affection, bodily safety and material security.  Adults hunger for sex. Children hunger for play.  Both hunger for a sense of competence in navigating their environments. The list goes on.

These appetites are not frivolous desires; they are physiological mandates required by our bodies and minds, and we need to fulfill them just as we have to fulfill our need for sleep. These needs press upon us throughout life. Either we learn to meet them in healthy ways in adulthood, or we suffer consequences. In my line of work, it’s not uncommon for people to seek help precisely because one or more of their appetites is out of control and has them in the grips of obsession and compulsion.  (See The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous for a deeply insightful explication of this idea).

Which of your appetites is most out of balance?addiction & balance

Human beings have a remarkable ability to go to extremes in one direction or another. We can be desperate for love or cut from the feelings of needing others. We can compulsively eat or obsessively restrict. We can spin grand narratives about our lives or find ourselves devoid of meaning and purpose. We can go from hero to zero in a matter of seconds. Being out of balance in life is painful, disheartening and serves as a major obstacle to moving forward.

  • Do you overindulge any of your appetites – and feel repeated frustration and shame about it?
  • Do you make endless promises that you will “control” yourself, but continually find that your methods are not working?
  • Conversely, have you cut yourself off from any of the basic human appetites because trying to meet those needs just seems too damn complicated?

a relational perspective on addiction
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. Philip 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.

bringing our appetites into balance
We need others and they need us. The first step in rebalancing our appetites is admitting that going it alone is not working. This is the beginning of addressing the rupture between oneself and the human community. Each of us must participate productively in a tribe (i.e. a set of relationships, a group, a family of choice, a social network) that supports our healthiest selves, facilitates our emotional development and challenges us to grow and to contribute something positive in the world. If your appetites are (and your life is) out of balance, just Google the issue you are struggling with – there are hundreds of people in your area (and around the world) struggling with the same thing. You need them and they need you.

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