Overcoming Addictions and Compulsions: “Finding Your Self” by Peter Metzner


If something out side of your self is the reason you are happy;  you are hostage to it.  Ekhard  Tolle

In over 15 years in being in the field of Human Development, I have seen no correlation with having a lot of material things and “happiness”.   Money is important and ranks along  with oxygen to live.   Yet, when there is enough oxygen to breathe  it doesn’t register in our awareness of needs.

Neuroscience has found that money or accumulating money stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains.      If we are happy, have supportive relationships and are living meaningfully and with purpose,  material comforts can  enhance our sense of well-being.   However,  if we are unhappy,  we are  like hungry ghosts.   Searching and driven yet never satisfied.  Riches, material comfort, distractions etc.  can’t make us happy if we are anxious, driven, unhappy or suffering from low self-esteem or lack of meaning.   If materialistic ambition becomes a substitute for our intrinsic needs for giving and receiving love and doing work that is “right” for us, we can become addicted in the pursuit of diversions, pleasure, accumulating “things” , titles, accomplishments, etc.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, PhD  explains, “dopamine levels increase as soon as we start anticipating a reward. Once the dopamine starts flowing, monkeys and people will work and work and work expecting  a treat.  For monkeys,  a grape is usually enough.   For people, the treats include:  a pair of sneakers, a shiny car, an MBA that might lead to a high-paying job, early retirement, a couple of minutes of entertaining diversion, a few seconds of sexual gratification, etc…    Monkeys and people’s neurochemistry  function virtually the same!    The main difference: “Monkeys don’t get hooked on beliefs, ideologies, dogma, degrees, titles, fantasies, lies, empty promises, or self-deceptions” .

What is known about addictions:

  • Any behavior that can deliver a dopamine reward can become an addiction.
  • The more powerful the addiction, the greater the denial, the weaker the free will, the more likely addicts are to detest any information that threatens to keep them from feeding their addictions.
  • It’s possible to get addicted to safety, peer approval, and esteem.   (The dopamine project)

Using brain scanning equipment, researchers have found that there is basically one addiction—dopamine addiction. When heroin addicts shoot up, the street drug tells their brains to produce dopamine. Heroin is a trigger.  Dopamine flow creates the sensation of being ‘high.’ When it comes to scoring dopamine rewards, there are many triggers. For some the trigger is cocaine. For others it’s nicotine, alcohol, sex, gambling, or food.  Street drugs are physical dopamine triggers that are hard to deny because they need the ingesting, inhaling, or injecting of addictive substances.  Sadly, physical dopamine addictions destroy lives and wreak societal damage.  Researchers have recently added video games and texting to the list. Yet the most dangerous dopamine triggers include easy to deny psychological addictions. Psychological dopamine addictions may be more insidious because addictive emotions, memories, thoughts, fantasies, ideologies, rhetoric, and deceptions also trigger release of  dopamine.

An addiction is anything you can’t stop doing and it serves as an anxiety management system.  Along with addictions come formidable psychological defenses.  They include self-deception, denial, and a lack of morality that can even lead to a capacity for murder.   Reason, integrity, morality and a distaste for lying, cheating, stealing, and killing  that non-addicts value are often no match to addicts of:   power, money, fame, substances etc.   We see  in history and current events “examples of unstoppable, unreasonable, inhumane, addict/killers attacking, vilifying, and eliminating reasoning, humane, non-addict/non-killers” (The Dopamine Project)

Addicts have an amazing capacity to dismiss and deny facts, truth, and reason.   “Dopamine flow fuels addictions: More dopamine = yes, like, do more while dopamine withdrawal = stop, hate, avoid. “Thinking”   justifies, rationalizes, and defends  dopamine-influenced decisions”. (The Dopamine Project)  In other words,  intelligence  in the service of  addiction.

One of the most addictive abstractions is money.  Someone  addicted to alcohol or drugs, increasingly organizes their life  around the use and abuse of their substance(s) of choice.  The person who uses money to mood alter can have their relationship with money spin out of control; by being overly focused on accumulating it, spending it, hoarding it or using it to control people, places and things. For example,  as with a drug or alcohol, tolerance increases and a person  may find him/ herself needing to devote increasingly larger amounts of time to these activities, to get the same mood altering high that only a little once provided.  They become increasingly preoccupied with all things related to getting and maintaining their “substance”  excluding  other areas of living.  Gradually, just like any addict, money and the relationship with money becomes a primary preoccupation.   (Tian Dayton, PhD)    Personal drives and identity become so wrapped up around money  that they lose sight of who “they really are” .

No matter how much they have, money addicts crave more.    As with all addictions, the first pleasure is soon replaced by cravings and withdrawal.  Acquiring more money only increases stress levels which keep money addicts craving more money while worrying about losing what they already have.  Money is highly addictive because it quickly and easily converts into other dopamine triggers that feed other addictions like drugs, foods, sex, gambling, approval, status, and power.  The corrupting influences of money addiction everywhere and at every level of society.

So what does this have to do with Finding your “Self”. 

“Since our capacity for Self deception is truly monumental”  (Yorum Kaufam ) Self Awareness and  Self Mastery entails being aware:  of who we really are, what truly matters, the emotions that drive our behaviors, being able to “regulate or manage them,  knowing our passions, our talents, owning our weaknesses and:   what our “Self”,  Psyche or Soul are asking of us.  This is an awareness of what we truly value and a growing understanding  of our place in the world and connection to the transcendent.  To get there,  we need to recognize the mine fields, the seductions and powerful conditioning  of society that  pulls us to these  baser levels of living, wanting  and consuming.  Freud wrote that “The price of civilization is neurosis” – neuroses defined as  ” being someone who you are not”.

Rather than conform mindlessly or automatically to the expectations of  society,  we can  listen to that small voice. If we are quiet and still enough, summoning the will to live a life that is authentically ours.   “When we allow our light to shine we give permission for others lights to shine” ( Marian Williamson)    The great change agents throughout history, Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King, etc.  all answered their summons to raise human consciousness, be in relationship to the transcendent,  live mindfully, ethically and see all of humanity as family.

It is OK  to not fully know our  selves or our true North.   The beginning of wisdom is to realize what you don’t know.  To get there requires openness, receptivity and  mindfulness.    I was forty before shifting into my role of teaching, coaching & training.   By  seeking to stay true to yourself, your values and what energizes you is the compass that helps in finding your way.

The Greek god Aesculapius decreed “that it  is through suffering we come to wisdom” .   Avoidance of suffering can lead to and fuel addictions, compulsions and flights from reality.  (James Hollis) Suffering can also give us empathy, understanding and insights which can help others work through their pain.  Being fully human is to experience the full range of emotions.  Being aware and   experiencing   “all”  emotions enables us to live more fully,  better exercise  free will,  intentionality and grow into the person we are meant  to be.

 “There is hope for the world if enough people do their inner work“. C. G. Jung

References and suggested readings:

The Dopamine Project – Better Living Through Dopamine Awareness : see  http://dopamineproject.org/

Swamplands Of  The Soul – New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis inner City Books  1996

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should do the Opposite.  David Disalvo Prometheus Books  2011.

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