In her book, “The Fourfold Way”, itself an inspired compilation of cross cultural indigenous wisdom, Angeles Arrien presents a well-informed alternative to our usual understanding of addiction. Through extensive research, Arrien has isolated four universal factors, which she describes as “life negating patterns” underlying all addictions. She further suggests that each pattern is actually a shadow side of an unclaimed human resource, which, if cultivated, heals addiction at the core. She describes the four addictions and their concomitant resources as follows:
- The addiction to intensity, which is the inability to tolerate silence, boredom and not-doing and is transformed by the expression love
- The addiction to perfection, which is the inability to tolerate mistakes and is transformed by the expression of excellence
- The addiction to the need to know which is the inability to tolerate uncertainty and is transformed by the expression of wisdom
- The addiction to being absorbed in what’s not working, which is the inability to see the bigger picture and is transformed by the expression of vision
Alternative vs traditional views
As you can see, these views differ significantly from more conventional approaches, which typically target the symptoms of addiction and focus on control, management and relapse prevention strategies. From Arrien’s perspective, focusing on the deeper addictive patterns and their underdeveloped resources is a far more effective, holistic and life-enhancing strategy. By fully acknowledging our own addictive nature, we set in motion the movement toward life affirming patterns and health. In her book, Arrien offers a series of suggestions based on indigenous wisdom and time-tested healing principles.
All this is to say that conventional 12-step wisdom, although extremely helpful, is not the full story. Arrien’s look at the deeper hidden patterns, underlying all addiction, offers a fresh perspective that serves to reunite us with the age-old wisdom traditions and their understanding of the restoration of balance and health. Many of these healing principles include things not often recognized as significant in our modern culture, like music, sonic, chant, dance, storytelling, silence and creative purpose. One would benefit immensely from including both in a healing regimen.
Taking a developmental look
Another relevant component contributing to our understanding of addiction comes from psychology. From the developmental psychological perspective, we can further utilize Arrien’s insights to understand the hidden unmet needs of the addicted individual, as well as hypothesizing how early childhood experience may have aroused the urge to self-soothe with substances fantasy or activity.
Addiction to intensity
Look at the addition to intensity for example. One might imagine a childhood in which caregivers were forceful, bad-tempered, confrontational, aggressive or addicted themselves. If indeed, we internalize attributes of our environment and our caregivers, it’s easy to see how a steady of diet of amplified drama, exaggeration and magnification might increase the chances of these patterns actualizing later in life. To one growing up in such an environment, the heightened intensity feels normal; so when life isn’t lived close to this edge, everything seems dull and uninteresting. Addiction to substances, fantasy or activity is a way to recreate the intensity associated with comfort and the familiar, despite its negative consequences.
Addiction to perfection
In the same way, the addiction to perfection may have developed by internalizing the patterns of highly critical, rigid, uncompromising caregivers. This individual may have been locked in world that compartmentalized reality into right and wrong, good and bad, positive and negative, then punished deviations from parental rules through physical abuse or withdraw of love. It’s not much of a leap to see how one might grow up thinking mistakes are bad or wrong and need to be dodged no matter what the cost. In this case, addiction can be seen as soothing the constant strain of living up to impossible standards.
Addiction to the need to know
The addiction to the need to know may have been born of an early sense that the world is unsafe and chaotic. This can stem from caregivers who flip-flop between giving and withdrawing love, thus placing the child in the tenuous position of having to react to changing parental moods without knowing how to read them effectively. In this case, one may be drawn to numbing substances when things become confusing or disorganized.
Addiction to what’s not working
The addiction to being absorbed in what’s not working again may be born of highly critical caregivers who withhold praise, support and encouragement, forcing the child to focus on the negative in order to steer clear of parental retribution. Here, the urge to indulge may develop from the unremitting sense that everything is negative, wrong and unworkable and either must be righted or numbed from consciousness.
The addiction to avoiding unwanted experiences underlies all patterns
I would add, that underlying all of this is the even deeper tendency to avoid the disturbing feelings that emerge with each of these patterns. Substance abuse, workaholism, and sexual addictions can be seen as the outward manifestation of an inner struggle to avoid the immediacy of our present experience, either because the feeling is frightening or intolerable. We can take this a step further and add that addiction to any pattern, including the addiction to having things come out on our own terms, is a way to avoid feelings we find unsettling, terrifying, or unbearable.
Basically, what all of this boils down to is:
- We are subject to specific patterns of addiction based on our conditioning.
- These patterns take many and varied forms, which extend far beyond what our culture considers addictive behavior.
- The tendency to avoid the experience that drives addiction is at the core.
- The way out of addiction is to recognize the deeper underlying causes and conditions, then apply the antidote.
Therapy can help
Therapy can help you untangle the tightly woven web of thoughts, feelings, actions and conditioning that drive addictive patterns. By slowing down your ordinary pace and taking an empathic focused look at your process and patterns, you can observe, first hand, the inner workings of these subtle connections. Learning to take this more neutral observer’s position creates a lot of fresh space between the urge to indulge and your habitual addictive reaction. This spacious quality makes it possible for choice and increased flexibility to take hold. As you continue to develop the skills and resources that counteract your particular addiction, you not only gain freedom, but also in fact, cut suffering at the core while increasing your level of compassion for all beings who are stuck in addiction.