When I was younger, I had a best friend. She told me that I was the neatest person she's ever met, and that I was smart and talented. I met her when I was going through a particularly challenging time in my life, when I was doubting myself a great deal. And her attention and compliments contrasted starkly to my own inner thoughts and beliefs.
As time went on, I desperately craved my friend's validation, to the point where I would call her repeatedly and become upset and worried if she wasn't there. I feared losing her praise, so I often misinterpreted her words and actions. As she responded to my actions, the relationship began to take an emotionally destructive turn.
I left this friendship, but as time went on my other relationships followed the same pattern. I craved praise and attention like a drug. And, in fact, it was an addiction.
Addictions come in many forms, but they all happen for the same reason: our mind is seeking to feel good, because it is unable to feel safe. We are seeing threats everywhere--by attacking ourselves, misunderstanding the intentions of others, or both. So our mind looks toward sources of temporary satisfaction and distraction.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the more destructive addictions: alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, and pornography. But what most people don't understand is that nearly any behavior can be an addiction. Some people are addicted to shopping, relationships, or food.
For awhile, I was addicted to writing articles. I would spend every waking hour writing, to the point where I was skipping meals and skimping on sleep. Only after I addressed the underlying issues was I able to find a better balance with my time.
So how do you know if a behavior is an addiction? Here are some signs to watch for:
1. You feel like you need to do it.
I was terrified of going through a day without talking to my friends who validated me. And when I was addicted to writing, I spent all of time thinking about when I could get back to my writing. If a behavior is an addiction, there is this driving need to be doing it.
2. You experience anxiety is you are unable to do it.
Addictions are soothing to the mind. If we are unable to do them, our minds feel very unsafe. In fact, if we try to force ourselves to stop one addiction, our minds will immediately start looking for a new one. This is why you see people smoking after AA meetings.
3. You neglect your basic needs in order to do the addictive behavior.
This is where addictions can become destructive. It can be tempting to do an addictive behavior, rather than cooking, preparing meals, or sleeping. It is necessary to set limits here, because if we neglect our basic needs, that will heighten our stress response, leading our minds to feel even more unsafe.
4. You procrastinate on your other responsibilities.
If a behavior is an addiction, it can become tempting for us to do that behavior instead of attending to our responsibilities. This is especially true if the responsibility that we are putting off is a source of anxiety.
5. You engage in the behavior more during times of stress.
Stress leads our minds to feel even more unsafe, so the drive to engage in addictive behaviors increases during times of stress. Not only do we use addictions to avoid undesired tasks, but we also use them to escape from the thoughts that are causing us to feel stressed and anxious.
Being able to identify addictive behaviors is the first step is being able to manage--and ultimately move away from--them. Simply muscling ourselves away from one addiction will just lead us to seek out another. Learning new skills and strategies is absolutely necessary in order to help our minds feel safe--and feeling safe is really what our minds want.
In my next article, we will look at the steps that can be taken to manage and move beyond addictions.
For individualized help in moving past addiction and helping your mind to feel safe, consider an e-mail, chat, or video session.
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