There are three key elements to the understanding of addiction that I have described.
First, every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness (an overwhelming of the capacity to manage without feeling emotionally flooded). Addictive behavior functions to repair this underlying feeling of helplessness. It is able to do this because taking the addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) creates a sense of being empowered, of regaining control over one’s emotional experience and one’s life. This reversal of helplessness may be described as the psychological purpose of addiction.
Second, states of overwhelming helplessness inevitably produce a particular kind of fury at this challenge to the normal sense of being able to control one’s own mind. This fury serves as the powerful drive behind addiction.
Finally, in addictions, the emotional purpose and drive are always expressed in a substitute action (a displacement), rather than taking a direct route toward dealing with the helplessness. For example, a person who is cut off in traffic and is infuriated by this (because it led him to feel disempowered) feels an intense compulsion to go home and start drinking. He is solving the problem of his helpless feeling by taking an action that he can control and that he knows will help him feel better. He has displaced the reversal of his helplessness to the act of drinking alcohol. Indeed, we name addictions according to where the drive is displaced, in this case, "alcoholism."
Seeing addiction this way opens up new ways to treat it. It turns out that when people understand how this process works in them (and each person has his or her own areas of vulnerability to feeling overwhelmingly helpless), they can learn when these occasions will occur. Anticipating them becomes simpler.
When the first thought of repeating an addictive behavior comes to mind it becomes possible to figure out what has stimulated it. Once people know what, for them, leads them to feel powerless, these triggers become easier and easier to recognize. Then, for the first time, they get a choice. Instead of reacting automatically with a compulsive behavior, they can see the real source of their addictive urge and what else they might do that would deal with it directly. In one example, a man regularly pushed himself to do extra work and to accomplish more and more, then found himself drinking heavily and actually ruining his chances to accomplish what he wanted. He knew he had alcoholism but had no idea why he drank; indeed he thought that understanding his drinking was finding "excuses". When he began to see that his drinking always followed times when he didn't allow himself to relax, and to notice how much it enraged him to lose his own time for himself, he could see that his drinking was far from an inexplicable act. He could see that when he drank he expressed his fury at being out of control of his time and his life, and that he took back a sense of power over his life by doing something that was just for him. Understanding this, he could then consider other, more direct and useful ways to re-empower himself. Not long after seeing this for himself, when he had the sudden urge to drink while cleaning his attic on a weekend, he was able to stop and think about it. He saw that this was another example of taking away time for himself. Instead of going out to get a drink, he left his attic and went out for a run. "It was a beautiful day," he said with a smile. "I'll get to the attic someday. But let me tell you, it won't be a Saturday." (The full story of this man can be found in chapter one of "The Heart of Addiction".)
In my new book, "Breaking Addiction: A 7-step Handbook for Ending Any Addiction" I have developed a step-by-step approach for putting these ideas into use, advancing from how to know whether you have an addiction, to how to recognize the key moment in addiction, to short-term strategies for dealing with addiction when the impulse arises, and finally to long-term solutions to end addictive behavior.