Sassy Psychologist: Emotional Addiction

In the same way that human beings can get addicted to substances, we can also get addicted to our own respective emotions. Think about the emotions you experience often. Think about the ones you know intimately but wish you didn’t. Now, this blog is not about getting rid of your emotions. To the contrary, emotions need to be acknowledged, felt, processed, and expressed. They are an integral part of the human experience and repressing them will only cause harm to your mind and body. In this blog, I hope to help modify those chronic patterns of emotional responding that are no longer serving you. For example, do you always scream and leave the room during a fight? Do you always cry and hang up the telephone when you feel disregarded? Do you always shut down and avoid someone when they’ve hurt you? It is these dysfunctional emotional reactions that I’d like to help with. Now, do you have any consistent dysfunctional emotional reactions like the ones I just mentioned? If so, let’s talk. 

What if I told you that your body has developed an addiction to your dysfunctional pattern(s)? Basically, via your thoughts and experiences, the cells of your body have been greeting and receiving this emotional reaction for a long time and have developed a pattern of welcoming it. When those very cells produce daughter cells (because our cells reproduce all the time), those daughter cells are inclined to have even more welcoming stations for this emotion then the parent cell did. With more welcoming stations, this emotion thrives and prospers in the body, making it difficult to react in any other way when a conflict arises. Should you try to react differently, your body will go through withdrawal symptoms that may influence you to continue with the old and familiar emotional reaction. 

Here’s an example: When Teddy and Melinda get into a fight, Melinda often feels trapped and frustrated that Teddy never seems to understand her point. (While there are some couples therapy techniques I’d like to apply here, I’ll have to stick to emotional addiction for now). She always leaves the room, finds another space, and calls a few people to complain about Teddy. When another fight arises, Melinda once again, leaves, avoids, and complains. And again…leaves, avoids, complains.  And so on, and so on, and so on…. The cycle is never ending. My argument here is that Melinda is getting high off leaving, avoiding, and complaining. More specifically, she is addicted to the emotions she experiences during a fight. Her body is getting a hit of the frustration and, counterintuitively, loves it. Just like a cocaine addict’s body desperately desires a hit, Melinda is unknowingly seeking out the frustration she experiences during a fight with Teddy. How interesting is that?!

So what does this all mean? After what I explained here, I’m telling you that you are up against years of your own biological evolution. Therefore, therapeutic work to change emotional addictions requires discipline and commitment. Once you feel that old dysfunctional emotional reaction coming on, you must practice something different. Clearly, this is not easy! In the case of Melinda for example, upon getting into an argument with Teddy, she needs to practice something different. To do this, she must first seek therapy to identify, process, and express her emotions in a way that helps her. She must realize her emotions, accept them, let them in and deal with them in a way that does not preserve and prolong the dysfunctional reaction (of course Teddy has his own work to do, but, again, this is not couples therapy- I’m talking about emotional addiction today).  Therapeutically, she must work on what’s going on inside of her body first, and then once she’s made progress, she can work on developing healthier in-the-moment behaviors. Once she understands her new pattern of reacting, she must make these new choices over and over again for her pattern to actually change. 

I won’t sugar coat this, changing dysfunctional patterns is extremely hard.  All of us get triggered at some point, and when triggered, we can easily ‘fly off the handle.’ But to that I say: so be it! We are only human and we are entitled to our emotions and our behavioral reactions. However, if you’ve notice a few troubling emotional reactions that have remained consistent and grandiose or deemed unnecessary or unhealthy by your standards, I hope this blog post has given you a place to start exploring your next step.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.