Emotional Addiction

Living According to Feelings

It’s likely that the women reading this will react differently than the men. I’m not intentionally trying to be biased, but I obviously do come from a masculine vantage point and thus have a particular viewpoint, colored by my genetics and life experiences. Let’s be honest: whether you are black, white, male or female, etc., you have an “agenda” that influences your preferences and your perceptions about people and the nature of reality. Just ask a man about childbirth, or ask a woman to pee standing up! Let’s be real.

This is not a rant about misogyny. I want to address an issue that far transcends gender. Let’s note at the beginning, though, that the issue of emotional addiction tends to affect women in greater numbers than men.

As a psychologist, it’s my business (as well as forte) to deal with people’s feelings. And feelings—emotions—are a vital part of life. Indeed, they are a critical and natural part of brain functioning. As a specialist in neuropsychology, I treat and improve people’s brain capacities, including awareness of and control over feelings.

Emotions are very powerful. They are instrumental to our innate survival mechanisms, and they are the basis for our neurological connections with other beings. Emotions allow us to bond, to experience compassion and empathy, and to feel joy and happiness. When emotions are properly modulated and integrated with cognitive functions (specifically reasoning, analysis, planning, and logic), the brain functions flexibly and with expanded capacities for self-care, productivity, prudence, and relationships.

The nature and power of emotions is that they impel us to respond viscerally. The good part is that emotions help us cut to the chase: they make us connect at the deepest and most profound levels of our being. Emotions bypass logic and considerations, as they allow our primitive instincts and guidance systems to respond with elemental force. The bad part is that emotions may inappropriately overwhelm logic and often disable a person from anticipating or dealing with consequences. Emotive inundation or impairment can lead someone by the nose into trouble, avoidance, and disregard of obvious consequences and necessary adaptive learning. This is what happens with emotional addiction.

How Can Emotions Be Addicting?

You may wonder how something inside you that’s natural can be addicting. Actually, all addictions are inside you—in your brain and body—the addiction is a response to intense pleasure (or relief) by repeated use of, response to, or ingestion of some behavior or substance that relieves discomfort, specifically anxiety or pain. In the case of emotions, the response is a reliance upon and absorption in the brain and neurological patterns that produce a flood of feelings—the release of and/or inhibitions of strong feelings in response to neurotransmitter cell firings and thresholds.

If you rely upon alcohol or opiates, you use these substances to relieve the terrible state of withdrawal. Relief is temporary, the palliation wears off, and you are left in the throes of craving and withdrawal, obsessively seeking another bout of reprieve. As this vicious cycle continues, you become more bound and helpless, often acquiring brain dysfunction and other health problems along the progression. You become “addicted” to the substance or action that subdues anxiety, but at great cost and with counterproductive effects.

In the case of emotional addiction, you become “hooked” either on feeling a familiar way or in responding in an automatic way to the powerful pull of innate emotions. Emotional addicts pay heavily for their fixes, though not in dollars to a dealer. The cost of emotional addiction is that you live at the mercy of feelings provoked by circumstances (whether initiated by happenstance or foreordained by unconsciously imprinted negatively scripted behavior) and your perceptions of these events. The overpowering feelings transcend other brain responses, and you need to make sensible decisions, rather than react to impulses.

Intuition Versus Addiction

The adage, “go with your gut feeling,” can be a wise reminder to pay attention to inner wisdom and inclinations sponsored by deep emotions and attractions that are not easily explained by words or logic. The heart wants what it wants, and it’s important to be sensitive and attuned to heartfelt feelings. However intuitive gut feelings may be, it’s critical to review and temper those impulses with the benefit of experience, reason, planning, and perhaps input from trusted advisors. Strong feelings can easily overwhelm and cloud judgment. This is especially true and dangerous for those who are emotionally addicted. These individuals are so partial and vulnerable to the throes of strong and persistent emotions that they can impulsively or habitually react to the power of the ebb and flow of their moods instead of the far more efficacious combination of feelings, reason, values, and circumstantial reality, functioning in tandem.

Moreover, emotional addicts support and justify their responses and choices by regarding their emotions as paramount in the hierarchy of values and bases for decisions and actions. The mantra, “I did what I felt was right,” must be underpinned and counterbalanced by the temperance of reason, attuned to the justifiable feelings and needs of others, and informed by the accommodation of predictable consequences and the realities of previous choices.

Though the emotional addict is often capable of availing himself/herself of this spectrum of life skills, he or she typically does not utilize these important factors in responding, evaluating, and decision-making. The pattern for the emotional addict is: feel, react, justify.

Unfortunately, this style of excessive reliance upon and essential worship of emotions almost always leads to deleterious consequences.

Living as an emotional addict is like boarding a bus based solely on the advertising on the outside of the bus.

The Proper Role of Emotions

Emotions are vital to our functioning. They are the basis for compassion, empathy, identification, and relational connections. Indeed, they add color, flavor, interest, and motivation to our perceptions of and involvement in the world and other people. Without sentient emotions, life would be flat and our functioning would be severely restricted.

However, many individuals are restricted, overwhelmed, or impaired because their emotional self-regulation is compromised. That is, on both conscious and automatic levels, their nervous systems do not effectively modulate affective (emotional) activity. Thus, they become either overaroused (too worked up and overreactive), living in extended fight-or-flight mode, or underaroused (flat, understimulated, bored, or even numb).

Emotions must be integrated with cognitive control so that feelings can blend with and temper reasoning, logic, planning, and evaluation and adjustment of behavior and ideas. In order for this to happen, each of us must be capable of and must practice the following:

  • Effective self-regulated nervous system and brain functioning
  • Skills and routines of self-soothing
  • A realistic view of the importance and limitations of emotions as a governing mode of behavior and decision-making

These points will be explained below. Note that the points in this summary may occur naturally; but for many people—especially those prone to emotional addiction—they may require conscious intervention, development, and practice.

Self-regulation is an automatic process that derives from our biological systems. Though it is innate, many people are genetically predisposed to neurodevelopmental problems and disorders that can gradually develop or rapidly overtake them and disrupt functional self-regulation. Though the body can often heal itself, specific interventions, treatments, and lifestyles can restore and greatly improve self-regulation and its associated emotional regulation.

Self-soothing is a broad term that refers to the capacity and practice of calming oneself. You’ve often heard the expression, “Take a deep breath.” This exhortation is based on biological principle that deep, measured, consciously controlled breathing has dramatic effects on the nervous system. Many disciplines (such as Yogic breathing) invoke consciously controlled breathing as a practice to calm the mind and induce peacefulness. There are many ways to self-soothe, from calming exercises (breathing, tapping, meditation, prayer, listening to music, stretching, etc.) to the effects of others on our nervous systems. Stroking a pet is a proven way to lower blood pressure and feel better physically and emotionally. Sometimes even cognitive exercises (reframing, self-talk) can exert a self-soothing effect. Though many therapists advocate cognitive techniques as the main method for emotional control, I’ve found that they are far less effective than other methods.

The last point—maintaining a realistic attitude, belief system, and self-appraisal regarding the relative value of emotions in one’s system of functioning—remains fundamental to emotional health and adaptive relations with others. The personal awareness, acceptance, and implementation of this foundation enables the capacity and practice of emotional control in offsetting impulsivity, petulance, the effects of stress, trauma, and crises, and the desperate habit of relieving emotional distress at high cost to oneself and others.

The bottom line is: unless one comes to grips with the deceptive and frequently overwhelming nature of emotions, one is unlikely to take steps to develop emotional control. The intense craving for relief from painful emotions feeds into the tumorous sense of entitlement that causes some people to put emotions first in their lives—above their own well-being and the needs of others—just like other deleterious addictions.

Styles of Processing Logic and Emotions

In order to better understand excessive responses to emotional stimulation, it’s helpful to review scientific research about how people process emotions and thoughts. One of the most helpful methods of determining how an individual processes and organizes thoughts and feelings is the Rorschach Inkblot Test. This test has been around for nearly a hundred years. It has been thoroughly researched using data analysis, field-testing, and empirical validation by a variety of researchers and methodologies.

In the hands of an experienced examiner, the Rorschach reveals a person’s subconscious processes, behavioral tendencies, thought processes, pathologies, internal coping resources, and even intellectual development. I’ve administered Rorschach exams for over thirty years.

A person’s responses to the inkblots disclose the manner in which he or she deals with emotions and thoughts. The test reveal’s the examinee’s reality orientation, attitude towards self and others, capacity for control, expectations about interpersonal experiences, attribution of the motivations of others, and the person’s style of organizing and reacting to ambiguity and challenges. This can be most helpful in detecting processing habits that predispose one to excessive emotional reactivity.

In Rorschach terms, response patterns constitute processing styles that are ideational and/or affective. Ideational processing refers to cognitive activity—that is, reasoning, intellectualization, justification, assumption, and conclusion. Affective processing refers to emotional reaction, impulsivity, stimulation, and control of feelings.

Though each of us uses both ideational and affective approaches, over time we develop and resort to a habitual way of responding. This is made manifest during the Rorschach exam. Individuals who respond in a mostly ideational way have an introversive style. They use intellectualization and reason to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty. They organize new and existing experiences by means of thought, rationalization, and justification. Individuals who respond in a mostly affective manner have an extratensive style. They cope with new and existing experiences by means of emotional responding (expressing emotions in the environment and exchanging emotions with others) and by exercising varying levels of control over emotional stimulation.

Some individuals vacillate back and forth between introversive and extratensive styles. These people develop an ambitensive style. Though there are advantages and disadvantages to introversive and extratensive styles, it is better by far to use one of these than to cope in the limbo of an ambitensive style. Ambitensives tend to have much more stress and much less certainty. In a sense, psychological coping style is like handedness. You are basically either right-handed or left-handed as a dominant neurological orientation.

Experience shows that those with an extratensive style are more vulnerable to loss of emotional control; thus, they may be more predisposed to mood issues and more at risk for emotional addiction. Whether or not Rorschach information for a particular person is at hand, the take-away message is that people who have poor capacity for and exercise of emotional control are vulnerable to emotional addiction.

Breaking Emotional Addiction

The idolization of feelings above other coping skills and resources leads to frequently inadequate or unwise behaviors and decisions, faulty self-management and planning, and impaired productivity and relationships.

Emotional addiction surfaces as a condition that itself derails many people from intact functioning and fuller lives. As noted and implied, however, the vulnerability and capitulation to pressing needs for stress relief (as in many types of cravings and self-medicating syndromes) leads to and underpins a variety of other addictions.

Breaking the grip of emotional addictions requires dedicated application of the three points delineated previously (and examined more fully below). Success at keeping emotions in their proper role must start with the acknowledgment and acceptance of the following:

  • A realistic view of the importance and limitations of emotions as a governing mode of behavior and decision-making

The person who lives at the beck and call of emotions rides on a rollercoaster of ups and downs, careening according to the sensitivities and feelings of the moment. This manner of experiencing oneself in relation to the world depends upon coping by attending to and assuaging feelings considered as paramount in any situation. As stated earlier, the pattern is: feel, react, justify. In order to begin to break this addictive pattern, this individual must recognize his or her vulnerability to become overwhelmed and to believe that feelings must come first and dictate the course of understanding and actions. This is a difficult step, as it often collides with one’s sense of self and habitual modus operandi. Making meaningful changes requires an accurate self-appraisal, usually facilitated by close family confidants and/or professionals.

Over time and with practice and persistent feedback, the emotional addict can emerge from denial, entitlement, and egocentric catering to self-centered impulses. With the intervention and practice of self-regulation and self-soothing methods, this acceptance of a more realistic way of experiencing oneself as more than a jumble of emotional needs becomes easier and more satisfying.

  • Effective self-regulated nervous system and brain functioning

Becoming more self-regulated means gaining stability and more automatic control over one’s brain and neurological functioning. Of course, this applies to emotional processing and control, too. One becomes less impulsive and less reactive, even when provoked by disconcerting circumstances. With better self-regulation comes more tempered integration of feelings with thoughts and greater ability to delay gratification and plan responses that will invoke more favorable consequences.

Years of collective experience and millions of sessions have established that EEG neurofeedback (brainwave training) is a bona fide method for improving self-regulation. Training one’s brain with this procedure establishes an enduring foundation for emotional and cognitive control. (For more information on this treatment, visit www.marksteinberg.com and read Dr. Steinberg’s articles and books.)

  • Skills and routines of self-soothing

Self-soothing is a broad term that refers to the capacity and practice of calming oneself. There are many self-soothing techniques, including rhythmic breathing, self-talk, tapping, and others. The most rapid, efficient, and complete method I’ve found is the tapping methods that comprise Thought Field Therapy (refer to my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times for detailed explanation and self-help guides). Thought Field Therapy techniques can be self-administered for rapid and on-the-spot relief of any negative emotion. This method is invaluable for regaining emotional equilibrium on a regular basis. Practicing the techniques not only provides immediate relief and equanimity, but also imbues confidence, so that the specter of emotional trauma and imbalance becomes offset by self-control, empowerment, and positive expectations (based on repeated successful experience).

The most basic and prevalent negative emotion that upends people is anxiety. This is the bane that shatters inner peace, ruptures health and well-being, and forms the foundation for all addictions.

Thus, emotional addiction is also a habitual maladaptive response to anxiety. However, the emotional addict carries not only the burden of continual anxiety, but also the unnerving and self-absorbed preoccupation with his or her own moods as the utmost value and the intermittent task of paramount importance that must be accommodated ahead of everything else. In breaking the grip and slavery that emotional addiction imposes, one must grow and mature in self-control, temperance, and humility. One’s own feelings are indeed important. However, the feelings and needs of others must play a relevant role in one’s self-management, compassion, and social responsibility.

Emotional self-regulation is critical for individual health and community caring. As with any addiction, emotional addiction can escalate, thereby denigrating self-control, dignity, and the capacity to consider and sacrifice for others.

There is a theory of addictions that describes and predicts the vulnerability and course of addictive dysfunction as a failure to grow out of childish self-absorption and the corresponding failure to develop the ability to delay gratification. This theory resonates with my own view that meeting the varied and considerable challenges in life requires the continual development of humility, growth in compassion and self-control, and the spiritual maturity to desatellize (separate from the orbit) from personal entitlement and view of oneself as all-important.