Did you know about 80% of waking life is ruled by the unconscious, a sphere we know almost nothing about? Addiction is a classic example of this. More often than not, we don’t know why we do what we do. For this reason, it makes sense to devote some time and effort into learning about this vast, influential terrain.
One of the best and most efficient ways is through journaling and dreamwork. I won’t be addressing those two pathways here, but instead speak to the need of going deeper within.
The place where the conscious and unconscious meet is an uneasy frontier with no definable boundaries. Needless to say, we humans do not like uncertainty which is why this meeting place of force and counterforce shows up in conscious life as symptoms, troubling behaviors and self-proscribed “treatment plans.”
The Gift of Symptomology
In most cases, our symptoms tell us how and in what way we are driven by the anxiety. But it seems, we have to reach a personal tipping point in pain before we are compelled to do something about it. Thanks to the ego, which appears to have innumerable ways to distracting and entertaining our ever eager selves.
The trouble, of course, is that we stay stuck in habitual ways of being. The willingness of ego to be lulled by excuses or seduced by strategies is what keeps us stuck. The only way through these dilemmas is “through” them, which is precisely what our protective mechanisms are trying to protect us from experiencing. The question, then, always comes down to this: What anxiety is my stuckness protecting me from?
Habitual Ways of Being
All addictions are anxiety management systems. Since no human is free of anxiety, we all have our habituated, reflexive means of coping with it. The inner logic of addictive behaviors is that we experience something adverse and through connection with some “other” (thing, person, substance, etc.) we feel a momentary lowering of the disturbing affect.
Connecting to the other serves to lower distress occasioned by our existential isolation, vulnerability, and dependencies. For most of us, a common addictive pattern lies so much at the heart of daily life that we simply look upon as our routine.
If we are ever to address an addiction, we have to root the beliefs to which our psyches, and therefore our addictive strategies, are in service to. This is no easy task. After all, how many of us are able to bring core fears and anxieties into consciousness, to see and acknowledge what they are truly about? How many of us are able to walk through those fears without the treatment plan we’ve cobbled together?
Freeing ourselves from out addictive behaviors requires identifying what emotional reality or perception we are defending against through the addiction and risk bearing what has been perceived as unbearable. It is no shame to fear abandonment, suffer boredom, or experience depression. Our anxiety is not making stuff up. Life is lethal and real dangers do exist. The point is that until we can feel these things – really feel them and not anesthetize them – we will remain unmotivated to change our lives.
Insight sometimes is the easy part. Courage is quite different to engage because our treatment plan is protecting us, and letting go of those protections threatens our carefully negotiated agreement with life. Finding the source of our anxiety is the real work, without which we stay stuck and at odds with our self.
First we must stop scapegoating the ego and acknowledge that anxiety is real. Second we must compassionately ask what purpose the addiction, or maladaptive behavior serves and from what it is protecting us. If what we discover can be confronted, then we may step into a larger journey, having discovered it is not about what it is about.