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.


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Joanne Goss

Clinical Psychologist

HPCSA No. PS0112925

Pr No. 086 001 0448710


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