Why is addictive behavior, whether it be gaming or gambling or shopping or drug addiction, so resistant to intervention? I want to offer what I believe to be a different perspective on this puzzling question. I will focus on the types of addictions that don’t involve a chemical substance. Clearly the chemical effects of alcohol, illegal drugs and prescription drugs present physiological changes which must be taken into account. I do believe however that talk therapy with a highly motivated person and often in conjunction with other supportive measures such as a twelve-step program can be effective in treating chemical addictions, though it is usually a lengthy process—years in duration.
In this discussion I am talking about behavioral addictions such as gaming or even gambling wherein the behavior is such that it interferes with work, marriage and family relationships, even basic hygiene and health. It is my opinion that the foundations for addictive behavior are often laid in infancy. This is not to say that the fault lies with the parents of that individual. It may be a result of a mismatch between the temperaments of the child and that of their caregivers. But it is in infancy that basic trust in human relationships is first developed. When children experience reliable attention to their needs, they develop a belief not only in human caregivers but also in the impression that their whole world is reliable, consistent and mostly attuned to their needs. It is certainly important that the same message continues throughout childhood but it is the earliest experiences that lay the groundwork for addiction. Addictive behavior fulfills a basic and early need in that the individual feels in control of the universe in which he functions. He or she can be in charge of the drugs, the excitement of gambling or, in this discussion, the virtual world. The prospect of being without the supplies that support some sense of well-being is a terrifying one.
An addicted individual may be able to perform as an adult—sometimes brilliantly. But there is a part of that person that is frightened, as an infant would be, at the prospect of losing vital supplies. So when well-meaning counselors, employers, spouses or even desperate children confront the person with the destructive nature of the behavior, it falls almost literally on deaf ears. We know that logic and reason don’t impact the behavior of a baby or even a very young child. We wouldn’t even attempt to modify an infants’ behavior in that way. It follows that when we want to modify destructive addictive behavior we must recognize that a strictly logical approach may not be effective. It may be tempting to tell someone who is addicted to “grow up” but that admonition will also be ineffective. That is because the “child part” of that person is not listening.
How can it be that an adult sometimes functions like a child? It is because people—I would venture to say all people—have “islands” in their personality which don’t necessarily communicate with each other. If you have seen the movie Inside Out it illustrated that point very well. In that movie the heroine whose name was Riley had islands in her personality like family, hockey, honesty, goofball and friendship. Now her islands communicated with each other very well because she was basically a pretty healthy kid. But when the personality islands don’t communicate—when the adult part can’t talk to the child part—we run into trouble. It’s like the old adage: “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.”
The key for influencing addiction lies in having the different islands or parts of our personality talk to each other and that takes some doing. Next week we’ll talk about how to accomplish that “in house” communication both for the person who is addicted and for those who are affected by destructive addictive behavior.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.