“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9
Human beings seem universally to be able to imagine the loftiest moral ideals, but just as universally seem incapable of actually living according to them. This conundrum lies deep at the heart of the human condition.
Are we required to just “live with it”? Can we overcome this phenomenon? Is there freedom from it? Or is some form of internal compromise always necessary?
This involves the philosophical questions of “Free Will”, “Determinism”, and “Absolute Good/Evil”, the psychological question of addiction, and the theological question of being “born again”, as I ponder the matter, informed by my somewhat extensive experience with people who have struggled with addition.
“Balancing” doesn’t work
|The result is an unavoidable impact on self-esteem
It is a common perception, even if it isn’t always voiced, that our human condition innately is a mixture of, on one hand, things that we are proud of, and on the other hand things we are ashamed of. Let’s call them respectively, “good”, and “bad” things. The usual idea is that we ought to accept this state of affairs, imperfect as it seems, and achieve a sort of truce with it – a kind of balance between two eternally present aspects of our being. Why? Because these things are said to be inevitable in the human condition. It is considered unrealistic to expect anything else.
This philosophy is initially comforting. It allows us to go on harbouring aspects of life that we consider “bad”, even by our own assessment, by validating them as somehow “necessary”. It invites a pragmatic approach to life which, because the bad things are considered inevitable, not only excuses them but actively provides for them to continue. Under this scheme one needs an “outlet” for those things (in a controlled environment to minimise any consequences). The idea is then to feel free from the sense of condemnation that this shame brings, because that thing has been accommodated within what is considered “ok”.
For example, a fascination with pornography is often considered to be part of this balance, and as long as the person uses their otherwise socially acceptable relationships (a consensual partner, or masturbation), as their outlet for the erotic tension, then all is well. Of course this fails to account for the impact of the obsession on the person’s perceptions of gender, physical affection, intimacy, romance, and so forth. It just provides for a minimisation of the immediate consequences.
|It is considered unrealistic to expect anything else.
The pornography consumer intuitively knows this, and teaching them that pornography is “ok” eventually creates a certain cognitive dissonance. This approach often allows a person to go on functioning in life with their bad habit in place, but because they know it to be wrong on some level, the result is an unavoidable impact on their self-esteem. Although this pragmatic system of accommodation attempts to excuse the “bad” things, it does the reverse: it ultimately nails these things in place as being “necessary” because they are considered inevitable, which encourages a defeatist attitude in addressing them and offers no hope that the person can be rid of the “bad” thing of which they are so ashamed. The inevitable, psychologically harmful, self assessment will be : “I am corrupt/unclean”.
It’s not a Balance
|One by one, the moral bulwarks fall, and the story inevitably ends in someone getting hurt, either physically or emotionally.
When there is an addiction in your life it can feel like there is a kind of balance – if you go too long without gratifying the addiction, the urge to do so intensifies exponentially. It can feel like stretching a rubber band, and gratifying the addiction is like the rubber band snapping back to the original state again. That, in my view, is how to identify an addiction as distinct from a habit. In many cases people call their addictions “habits” in an attempt to de-pathologise them, but a “habit” is just something we are accustomed to doing. It causes no pain to cease or change a habit.
An addiction, by nature, begins with a particular gratification bringing some kind of pleasant experience, but after a while it turns into a salve for what feels like a lack of that experience. It is necessary to experience this gratification simply to feel “normal” again, filling the lack. This is another way to spot an addiction: When someone needs that gratification to function, they’re addicted.
|Eventually no moral consideration will be sufficient to control the behaviour.
That is because addictions are not a balance. They are a gratification-cycle, which edges its way up one’s list of priorities until, in the worst cases, it trumps relationships and other vital aspects of one’s normal life. At that point the train-wreck begins, as the addiction causes a person to compromise on each thing that previously was valuable to them, in pursuit of that gratification.
In the case of our pornography example, that means a steady slide into increasing levels of depravity in the types of pornography being consumed, and eventually some kind of crossover into real life as the pornographic narratives get played out “in the flesh”. One by one, the moral bulwarks fall, and the story inevitably ends in someone getting hurt, either physically or emotionally.
In other examples like drugs, this process generally translates as a financial slide into debt, then either theft, drug dealing, or prostitution, as the imperative of the addiction trumps one core-value taboo after another. Eventually no moral consideration will be sufficient to control the behaviour.
|It causes no pain to cease or change a habit.
There is no “balance” here. There is only a slide. There is resistance, and there is the opportunity to radically change, to reclaim the former un-addicted state of being, but there is no balance. The radical change is, of course, something that includes brutal psychological pain. The change is not merely a change in behaviour, but in identity.
It’s about change; It’s about transcendence
If you’re on a road, you can walk forwards, you can stop, or you can go back.
|The freedom road is not paved with good intentions.
If the road is an addiction, these actions translate to “sliding”, “stabilizing”, and “resisting”. The slide is the natural way to go, in the absence of any effort otherwise. Stabilizing is only ever temporary because it is only possible while you remain emotionally resilient. In your weak moments, you will inevitably slide again. That’s for two reasons: 1, because it takes effort of will just to remain stable, and 2, because your point of reference within the journey slides too, so what seems stable to you may, in fact, just be a slower slide.
Resistance is the effort to reduce the addiction, and it can be helpful. It is a painful option, and few make it work on an ongoing basis. Unless the clear vision and goal is the complete eradication of the addiction, resistance can also only ever be a temporary work, much like stabilization, for the same reasons.
The solution is to walk on a different road.
|In your weak moments, you will inevitably slide again.
Instead of being on the addiction road, which leads to defeat and despair, you must walk on the freedom road. This is a road which is famously difficult to find. Not because it is arduous, and not because it is hidden, nor because it is far away. In reality the addict struggles to find the road for one of two reasons either:
- because they don’t want to; or,
- because they don’t know how to recognise it.
Often it is both reasons intertwined.
Finding the freedom road
|What one person is implacably addicted to, another person can take-or-leave.
The freedom road is not paved with good intentions. It is not even paved with good behaviour. It is paved with emotional resilience, through a positive vision of life.
The problem with an addition, whether it is drugs, pornography, stealing, violence, or anything else, is not the addiction itself. The behaviour is the symptom; The problem is emotional.
The cause is often an identifiable trauma, but sometimes it is from a wound whose cause is less easy to identify. In my experience of addicted people, however, it is always related to an emotional wound. The reasons are relatively simple:
- What one person is implacably addicted to, another person can take-or-leave. This means the action, or the substance, is not, in itself, the cause of the addition.
- When an addict is emotionally strong and secure, they normally find they are able to function without the gratification. It is when the vicissitudes of life become overwhelming, or their original trauma is “triggered” by a contemporary event, that their resolve tends to give way and they reach for that familiar gratification, which is their addiction.
|The behaviour is the symptom; The problem is emotional.
Given these observations it becomes fairly obvious where to focus if an addict is to successfully overcome their addiction: Their emotional resilience. As I say above, this is dependent on a positive vision. Not a vision of what life might offer them, like the elusive promises of the motivational speaker, but a positive vision of their own identity.
Addressing the root trauma can be, and often is, a key part of this process. But sometimes that trauma is not directly “available”, for complex reasons internal to the addict, or is too awful to address directly, or the addict is just not yet ready to unpack it. My approach is helpful even in those cases.
Building emotional resilience
|It is when the vicissitudes of life become overwhelming … that their resolve tends to give way and they reach for that familiar gratification, which is their addiction.
An addict, or at least, an addict who really wants to change but finds they cannot, will inevitably become frustrated with their own failure to kick the addiction and will, in some way, conclude that they are a failure, inadequate, and dirty. While someone has a self-esteem consisting of, “I am a failure / I am corrupt / I am unclean”, they will not have emotional resilience. This is self-fulfilling. How do we shift it, then?
All too often, what the helpers attempt to do is get the person clean/abstaining, and loudly affirm the value of that achievement, and encourage oath-taking or other reinforcements, in the hope that it will last. The problem is, as I have said above, it will only last as long as the person does not experience too much stress. When they are under pressure they will relapse, and then all the affirmations will of course evaporate. How does one keep affirming someone’s progress, when they are sliding back into their addiction?
This withdrawal of affirmation will mean that the person will have an even more powerful sense than before, of “I am a failure / I am corrupt / I am unclean”.
So I don’t do that.
|When they are under pressure they will relapse
Instead, I give the person affirmations that will not evaporate when they relapse. I teach them what it means that I love them. I show them their lovability, and teach them of God’s love for them. This love is unconditional, and is offered explicitly while they are still addicted. This is critical, because it is while they feel like an addict that they really need it. In the moments when they feel strong it matters much less, because at those times they are already coping. What they need is a vision that they can see from the bottom of the pit.
|It is while they feel like an addict that they really need it
There is no easy way to achieve this, only difficult and messy ways. To do it, one must love people who do not love themselves, in moments when they are most deeply ashamed, in ways that the person can appreciate so vividly that it grabs their attention as being exceptional. This requires intimate relationships, authentic friendship, and absolute integrity. It doesn’t come cheap.
|What they need is a vision that they can see from the bottom of the pit.
When a person finally grasps the sense in which they are unconditionally loved and lovable, even when they are in shame, and even when they are doing the very thing that is the source of their shame, they then have an indestructible, subversive counter-narrative constantly challenging their “I am a failure / I am corrupt / I am unclean” self-assessment. It boldly claims, “I am loved / I am whole / I am clean”, in contradiction of the other assessment. The war for their soul begins, because they finally have the weapons required to fight it.
|I, as a helper, am not personally invested in the roller-coaster of the addict’s world
The effect is that the addiction starts to loosen its grip. The addict finds more resilience more often, and each victory increases their confidence. Importantly, each failure also has the potential to increase their confidence, insofar as they are attuned to the gracious, unconditional love that is poured out on them right at that moment when they fail, and then the forgiveness that is forthcoming immediately afterward. When this loving redemption is properly understood it fortifies the person’s resolve to do even better next time, instead of the relapse driving them into a downward spiral.
I call it “Relentless Affirmation”. It means less relapses, and each relapse being less intense.
|The addict finds more resilience more often
It also, very importantly, means that I, as a helper, am not personally invested in the roller-coaster of the addict’s world. When they are doing well, I have affirmations for them. When they are backsliding, I have affirmations for them. When they hit rock bottom, I have affirmations that are the very words of life for them.
|they finally have the weapons required to fight
All too often the ride becomes too hard for the helper. In order to remain “safe” emotionally, the helper needs to detach from the addict’s cycles as part of enforcing their own boundaries. To the addict, this can feel like abandonment. But with Relentless Affirmation there are less situations where the helper must withdraw. In my experience I am free to be present at all times, experiencing neither the despair nor the false hopes of the addict’s own journey.
What it looks like to have “Overcome”
Our primal self is interested only in gratification.
|The change is not merely a change in behaviour, but in identity.
This identity is prone to obsessive, addictive behaviour, or at least selfishness. To overcome that primal state is to become self-disciplined and altruistic. It is to have sovereign control over one’s own behaviours, and to value others at least as much as one’s self. To fail in this pursuit is to remain trapped by all kinds of urges, lusts, and addictions.
This is the imperative laid on every human being, by virtue of our very nature: Overcome the primal “self”.
What is the connection between “Relentless Affirmation” and “Overcoming”?
|To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God – John 1:12
I don’t have room in this post to explore the theology of it in any depth, but suffice to say that the overcoming is a gift granted by God, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to the believer, and my Relentless Affirmations orient the person toward God in such a way that they might come to believe, and be granted this gift by consequence.
When someone grasps the truth of the dignity of their soul, the beauty of their humanity, and the love of God for them in spite of their past behaviour, that moment is within their grasp. To appropriate God’s grace at that moment is to believe, and to receive the Holy Spirit of God.
In Biblical terms it is expressed this way:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
– Romans 8:11-14
This post is long enough now. For some of the theology of overcoming addiction, and more clues on “how to help” the addict, see these other posts: