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The Pleasure Compulsion


CF Ambassador
Jan 11, 2020
I have been a creature of habit all my life. If I like a certain kind of food I eat it every day. If I like a movie I watch it over and over again. This led to one addiction after another, sugar, overeating, shopping, drinking and love. Therapy did not help but I finally got my addictions under control with the help of the Holy Spirit and support groups. Today I love variety as much as anyone and all my bad habits are under control.

I have thought a lot about what led to my obsession to do the same things over and over again and have come to the following conclusion.

The Bible warns us about the "desires of the flesh." But today we know more about the brain than we did back then and now we have solutions. While I believe we are ultimately healed through Christ through surrender and obedience, I have to ask myself, "Are their any others steps to take between the surrender and the recovery."

Also, while addiction is sin, and without repentance we will not enter the kingdom of God, before we get caught up with where we end up, let's talk about how to live a healthy life here on earth.

Let's begin this discussion with some new terms. The Freudians use the term “repetition compulsion” to describe the mind’s tendency to repeat traumatic events in order to deal with them. Another Freudian term, the “pleasure principle,” which describes the need of the infant to seek gratification over and over again. In adults, this would be called the “production of pleasure.”

So what happens when we combine these concepts, and what shall we call this phenomenon? Well, for lack of a better term, I call it the “pleasure compulsion,” or “addictive personality.” It is the tendency to repeat the same pleasurable experience over and over again in an attempt to control pleasure and pain.

It is the addictive personality, and the attempt to ameliorate our sorrows, that turns us into addicts. If you hang around addicts long enough you will hear them talk about how their addiction started when they “used” to manage their painful emotions. “My mother didn’t love me very much and I turned to food,” says the compulsive overeater. “I didn’t make the football team in high school and I kept going out and getting drunk,” says the alcoholic.

Addicts like routine and the routine gets out of control. Take the child who is rebuffed by her classmates and eats a cookie to comfort herself. The next morning she wakes up and remembers the pain. She could do a variety of things to distract herself from the sadness (or shame), but for some reason this child remembers how good the cookie tasted and she makes her way to the kitchen. Trauma, pleasure, and repetition become locked. Not just trauma and pleasure; that would not lead to addiction. It is the repetition factor that can change this child’s life forever. If it is strong enough she could end up a food addict.

The addictive personality may be linked to the desire for control. There is no trial and error necessary when you are doing something for the second or third time. Whatever worked before is guaranteed to work again—or so we think. Unfortunately, many mood-altering experiences become a magnet for problems. Food lovers get overweight. Heavy drinkers get DUIs. Gamblers lose their pay checks. Then there is the increased tolerance phenomenon. It takes more and more of the experience to get the desired affects—more food, more alcohol, more trips to Reno. This is the nightmare of addiction. The mood-altering experience becomes a problem, but you are hooked.

So why do some people comfort themselves with a variety of experiences and others get locked into a routine of reenacting one or two mood-altering experiences? Can there be a physiological explanation? Many people think so. In his book Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman discusses at length the relationship between the brain and the addictive personality. It’s all in the amygdala he explains. The addictive personality is probably physiological as well, or it would not be so evident in infants.

Why is it helpful to understand the addictive personality? Well, for one thing, it helps explain why the drug addict, long after he has gone through a physical withdrawal, has a relapse. This is discussed in Craig Nakken’s book The Addictive Personality: Roots, Rituals and Recovery.

It also makes clear that addicts, with their predisposition to routine, are well advised to substitute a healthy routine for a new one. This is why 12-Step programs like the Christian organization, Celebrate Recovery, are so successful. They replace their negative routines with positive ones.

Take my case, for example. I was in therapy for years to analyze why I was an alcoholic and food addict, but because of the pleasure compulsion I couldn’t stop acting out. Then I got into the routine of going to support groups, church, and Bible Study. Before I knew it, my self-destructive habits had disappeared. I had replaced bad habits with good habits.

I see people with the addictive personality grouped into two camps. First of all, there are the addicts who have abused a mood altering experience and can never engage in it again. Bill Wilson puts it this way in the book Alcoholics Anonymous: “Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.”

Then there are those addicts who can successfully fight the addictive personality and engage in a little of everything without getting hooked on anything in particular. This would apply to food addicts.

This is where the battle lines are drawn in the world of substance-abuse treatment. There are those who believe you can train yourself to fight the addictive personality through moderation, and then there are those who believe you can never engage in certain mood-altering experiences without risking relapse. Even some 12-Step programs are divided on this issue. In Alcoholics Anonymous any alcohol consumption at all is a relapse, while in Overeaters Anonymous some people believe you have to give up certain “trigger” foods forever and others don’t.

I won’t take sides on this issue of abstinence versus moderation except to say it depends on the person and the situation.” The Bible says: "If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you." But that was a long time ago before recovery methods were created.

We each, through trial and error, must find the treatment programs that work for us. They must all be Christ-Centered. No matter how successful 12-Step programs are, the power to change comes from the Holy Spirit who represents God and Jesus Christ.
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