I heard someone say recently, half-joking, that she was going out that night to ‘self-medicate;’ ‘to drink and forget.’
I see it often: People looking for some way to numb their emotional pain. Emotional pain can be potent and even crippling. When the pain and stress get to be too great, people who are unwilling, unable or unaware enough to find relief through healthful methods may turn to self-destructive ones.
When emotional pain is overwhelming, the drive to feel numb, be distracted or in some way get relief – however temporary – is compelling. When this pain is coupled with self-loathing -- as it is in the addictive cycle -- the drive to find relief is paired with reckless abandon and self-destructiveness.
Self-destructive behavior both acts out and drowns out the emotional pain. That the fix is temporary and persistently lowers the base-line enters the equation afterwards, along with the guilt, shame, regret, and remorse.
Relief from pain is the powerhouse behind cutting, compulsive shopping, anonymous sex, abusive drinking, drug abuse and just about any other cyclically self-destructive behavior you can name.
People don’t strive for a label: alcoholic, cutter, drug addict, shopaholic, kleptomaniac. They strive for relief from the pain. When the pain is powerful enough to induce someone to knowingly self-medicate, it is likely that the person feels like they are careening out-of-control as well as desperate for their pain to go away.
The sequence below includes a detailed description of the cycle of addiction, and is often applicable to other self-destructive behaviors.
Performance - The desire to do well
It begins with someone trying to live their life with a measure of success and happiness.
Challenges - Anxiety manifests as a challenging theme repeats itself.
The person encounters challenges that reinforce a negative self-image.
Real or Perceived Failure - There is a reinforcement of inability to perform.
The person struggles and either fails or perceives failure to successfully meet the challenges.
Internalization of Failure
The person feels like they are in some way unworthy, inadequate, or a failure because they are unable to manage a particular challenge or task.
Frustration, Anger, Shame, Guilt
The person feels frustration, anger, shame, and guilt for not being able to perform the task, meet the challenge, and be a ‘better’ person.
Rage, Self-Loathing - Emotions intensify.
Often there is rage and self-loathing which is directed inwardly and sometimes toward others.
Despondence and Desperation - Helplessness and hopelessness intensify.
The person feels desperate and despondent over their perceived failures and their plight in life.
Contemplation of Acting Out, Hope
The person begins to contemplate acting out and, in so doing, anticipates some relief from emotional pain.
The person engages in their self-destructive behavior, drinking, drugs, anonymous sex, etc.
Temporary Relief, Numbness, Distraction from pain
The person experiences some relief from their emotional pain while engrossed in acting out.
Distraught, Disgusted, Shame, Guilt
After the distraction and the ‘high’ wears off, the person finds themselves feeling distraught all over again, with renewed conviction and ‘evidence’ that they are a failure.
Recommits to Performance
The person recommits to being ‘good,’ not act out, and rallies to do their best.
And so the cycle repeats itself.
This pattern of this behavior, the cycle of addiction, is astonishingly pervasive. With persistence, support, and commitment, it is possible to break the cycle.
First, seek the help of a qualified professional or mentor. Second, identify your cycle including the underlying fears and unmet needs. Third, develop a method for interrupting the cycle including a plan for behavioral changes and productive self-talk and strategies for managing previously defeating themes and challenges.
By Lauren Trecosta, LPC, Counseling Breakthrough