Addiction – it’s not just for the alcoholic

For many, the word “addiction” immediately brings up thoughts of a relative who has been labelled “an alcoholic”, a friend with a gambling problem, or someone else’s teenager who is involved in drugs.  Surprisingly however, addition comes in many shapes and sizes, and is often much “closer to home” than we may expect or may want to admit.  The Lance Armstrong doping saga raises the issue of addiction to winning.  Although we may not be Lance Armstrong and involved in the mess that surrounds him, it may still be important to consider what fuels our daily actions, be it on the sports field, in the workplace, or in our general interaction with others.

It’s too sore to feel

From a psychological perspective, addition can be described as a mechanism of escape or avoidance.  Most often, the escape is from difficult emotions (some that we are not even often aware of) that are too painful to experience. 

The lady who keeps checking her ex’s profile on facebook to avoid the pain of being fully disconnected with him.  The child who wants to win every race at school for the fear of disappointment.  The wife who keeps asking her husband if he loves her for the shame of feeling unloved.  The “people pleasers” who continually want to make others feel better, to alleviate feelings of guilt or “not being good enough”.  Shame, guilt, disappointment, anger, sadness and isolation are common but only a few of the emotions that we all try to avoid and often without even realising that we are feeling them initially.

The unmet need

The result from this escape is even more chilling as the thing that we escape to becomes the agent which feeds our unmet desires or needs.  Selfobject psychodynamic theory illustrates how our relationship with people/things creates and defines how we feel about ourselves.  For example, Lance Armstrong was only able to have a sense of self when he received the achievement of winning.  Without this achievement, he could not experience himself as a person of any worth.  The art of winning may have fulfilled Armstrong’s need for recognition.  A need which perhaps was not fully fulfilled during early childhood.  Needs which are not fully fulfilled during childhood are often referred to as “unmet needs”.  During the rest of his life, Armstrong has found a way to fulfil this unmet need.  He found it through winning.  Addictions become ways to fulfil unmet needs, however a “substitute” fulfilment of a need can never replace the void of the unmet need.  And so Armstrong has, and will continue, to always seek fulfilment of this unmet need.  We all have unmet needs however they vary in intensity and amount.  Addictions become the mechanisms to avoid facing the emotions associated with these unmet needs, and they become the substitutes used in the fulfilment of these needs.

Although many of us are not Lance Armstrong, it is often important to take a step back and consider what fuels the way we do various activities or behaviours in our life.  Is it because we wish to feel more loved, to be more recognised, more accepted or more worthy?  Do we truly feel that if we stopped trying to prove ourselves and to please people that we would still feel a sense of worth?  Do we need to control things in order to prove that we are capable?  Do we need results and praise to show that we are worthy?  You and your emotions are worthy just as you are.


Relationships: I challenge you to step out of your role

Focus is frequently directed towards the “wrong-doer” in relationships, for example the physically abusing husband, the wife who is having her second extramarital affair, or the child constantly been labelled the bully at school. Whilst I am not condoning these actions, it is important to realise that the spotlight is seldom focused on the role of the other person or people involved in the relationship even though they contribute just as much to the relationship. Since roles exist in relation to each other, each member influences and is influenced by each other. This interaction creates the identities involved in the relationship and inherently defines it. With this in mind, it may be valuable for you to take a moment to consider the role that you adopt in your relationships. You may be familiar with the role of being the rescuer, the family member who helps to solve everyone else’s problems; or perhaps you are the victim, the family member who is blamed for everything.         

The roles we adopt in our relationships often tend to become stable and more entrenched over time. Both you and the other members in the relationships become accustomed and used to this role so much so that if your role is changed ever so slightly, the relationship may suddenly be ruptured and appear unstable. The role that we unconsciously or unknowingly choose to adopt in our relationships is largely influenced by our personality structures. These personality structures are developed from even before we are born (when we are in our mothers’ womb). They progress through our interactions with others, primarily our interaction with our mother or primary caregiver. From the time we are a baby, we start to develop ways of interacting with others. We are influenced by the responses from other people towards us. We learn how to get the things we need and want though influencing and having an effect on others. We become attuned to others acceptance of us, to their approval and to their criticisms. From this young age our brains begin their journey of deciding how we should and shouldn’t act in relationships. And this determines the role we adopt in most future relationships.

Difficulties often occur in relationships when the roles adopted become destructive towards one or more members of the relationship. At this stage it is important to become aware of the influence that your role has over you and the other members of the relationship.   It is also equally vital for the other members of the relationship to consider how their role enhances and perpetuates your specific role. For example, the victim constantly feels worthless and seeks the help of the rescuer. The rescuer, propelled by the feeling of being needed, attends to the victim. The victim is attracted to the rescuers’ ability to “save”, and the rescuer seeks out the victims’ tendency to “need”. The interaction between them survives on this constant state of “needing and saving” and “saving and needing”.

Once you are aware of the role that you and the other members play in the relationship, the challenge lies in your ability to “step out” of the role and to engage with the others on a level that is not determined by the characteristics of your role. Psychologists who practice Transactional Analysis often refer to this as being the role of the “adult”. A state of logical and rational thought where you are able to engage in understanding, acknowledging and discussing the views and options of others. When you are able to “step out” of your usual role, it is often easier to reflect on the confinements of your role, and the influences that it has over you and others. It is in this state that the victim is able to acknowledge others tiresome experience of constantly having to approve and recognise him/her, and the rescuer becomes aware of his/her need to always seek out the dependency of others. A prominent Couples Therapist, Hedy Schleifer, encourages her clients to step out of their roles and enter the “space” or the “field” where they are able to engage with each other without the imprisonments of their prescribed roles. Today I challenge you to enter into that field, face your role, understand why it functions and consider how it may enrich or destroy your relationships.


  • Consider the role that you play in your family/relationship
  • Reflect on how this role has both positive and aversive effects on you and your relationships
  • “Step out” of this role and look at how this role interacts with and perpetuates the existence of the roles of others in the relationship
  • Engage with your partner/family members in the “space” where you are not acting out your typical role













Joanne Goss

Clinical Psychologist

HPCSA No. PS0112925

Pr No. 086 001 0448710


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