Emotional Habits: The Key to Addiction

Last night at the dinner table I shared my working theory of emotional habits with my kids. “I am starting to think that people, as they grow up, develop a habit of responding to whatever happens to them from the same emotional place. I think there are three primary emotions—fear, grief, and anger. But over time people come to rely on one emotional color as their baseline response to new information. So there are people who are fear-based, grief-based, or anger-based.” The kids nod patiently. It’s another one of Mom’s theories.

Suddenly Kyra, age 10, chimes in. “What am I?” she asks, with a slight tremor in her voice. She needs to know.

I turn to her. “I think you tend to be fear-based. Not always, but lots of the time, you respond to whatever happens with fear. For example, you get a 96 on a math test and you are immediately afraid that your grades are falling and you are no longer good at math. You feel a twinge in your belly and are afraid you are getting sick. You leave a book at school and are immediately overwhelmed with fear that your teacher will be mad at you.” She nods. She gets it.

I continue. “A grief-based person would respond differently—with a sense of loss that cannot be undone or recovered. A loss that she is sure will repeat.”

“I have a sense of that,” Jordan, age 16, breaks in.

“Yes, I agree,” I reply. “You can wake up half an hour later than you intended on a weekend and feel devastated that your day is gone. You can return home from a full and happy day of music making and remark that you hadn’t had more fun than if you had been home.”

“It’s like the glass half-empty or half-full,” he muses.

“Yes. And then there are anger-based people.” I look at Kai, age 6.

He bursts into hot tears: “I don’t want to be that!” I smile.

“You don’t have to be,” I reply. “That is the point. You don’t do it all the time, and you can realize that when you do, it is just a habit. You can look and find other ways to respond.” He sniffles and nods. “For example, when you ask me ‘Can I watch a movie,’ and I say, ‘Yes, in an hour,’ you tend to erupt with an angry yelp. You don’t have to do that. You could say ‘Oh hooray! I can watch a movie in an hour!'” Geoff nods along with the kids. He and I have already been discussing these ideas. We are starting to see everyone we know as a different emotional base.

“So the idea,” I repeat, “is that our emotional responses can become habits that color our reactions to things without our really knowing it. But they don’t have to become habits. Each one of these emotions can also resolve to something positive. Each emotion has a flip side.” I look at Jordan. “Like, grief at sleeping late can resolve to gratitude at the full day ahead of you. And that gratitude can impel you forward to enjoy it.”

I turn to Kyra. “Or fear at leaving a book in school can resolve into an affirmation of your deep desire to do a good job at school. And that affirmation can then help you get what you want. Call a friend!”

“It is all about desire,” I add. “At the heart of the fear, grief, or anger is a desire—a desire for something we want to do, or something we want to have—a desire to move in a way we want to move. And once we realize that, we can say yes to the desire, rather than no to the moment. We can align our thoughts and actions with what we want. The key to resolving our emotional responses into helpful energy is to find the desire at its core.”

“I am not sure what I am,” says Jessica, age 14.

“Yes,” I reply, “you have a range. But I think your tendency is to fear too. Whatever happens, you always imagine what could go wrong—and you do so because you care.” She nods. I add, “Dad and I both tend to be fear-based. That’s probably where you learned it.”

The conversation turns to the delicious food we are eating, the amount of homework remaining, and our new calf’s budding horns. I am surprised at how quickly the kids understood the idea of these emotional colors and how quickly they recognized themselves. What the kids don’t know is why I am thinking about these emotional habits. It is helping me understand addiction—what it is, how it happens, and what can be done in response.

*

Emotional habits are the key to addiction. Such habits creep up on us, without us being aware of it, until we get to a point where nearly everything triggers the same response—fear, grief, or anger. Overwhelmed by these emotions, we seek relief—who wouldn’t—in some act or substance that can distract, divert, or deaden our feelings. The problem is that this “solution” is not one. It deals with the symptoms but not the underlying cause. Our emotions keep flooding and we grow increasingly dependent upon our solution to the point of being obsessed with it.

Why does this happen? Because we are humans, born absolutely helpless, we cannot grow up without having experiences, time and again, of not getting what we want. We have the experience of not being able to move; we feel what I call the “sting of impossible desire.” It is inevitable. The pain spurs us to respond, and usually we have access to a range of options. We can blame our caregivers (in anger); we can blame ourselves (afraid that we are not enough), or we can blame the universe (sadly resigning ourselves to our loss). Usually, however, the anger, fear, or sadness resolve. We express them in healthy ways. Our attention turns to something else that we want. We move on.

It can happen however, that we get stuck in a particular pattern of responding to the sting of impossible desire. The reasons are many. Perhaps we live in an environment where we are constantly blocked. Perhaps we live with caregivers who model this response to life. Perhaps we are especially sensitive. Or, most likely, perhaps one response proves particularly effective, given our tasks and temperament. The anger at our caregivers spurs us to share it with friends, who comfort us. Our fear that it is our fault allows us to keep loving our caregivers, who comfort us. Resigning ourselves to sadness, we need not blame anyone, which comforts us.

It can happen, however, that if one response proves particularly effective, and if we keep mobilizing it in response to the sting of impossible desire, we are soon overwhelmed by how much fear, grief, or anger we feel. We cannot resolve it. It will not go away. Everything that happens seems to fund it. It is a situation Nietzsche describes in Genealogy of Morals as “impotence.” We are in pain and we cannot move. We cannot digest our experiences.

In such situations, we begin to seek relief—who wouldn’t?—by relying on some action or substance for help. Food. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. The internet. That act or substance is usually one we find pleasurable, at least at first. And as a strategy it works, somewhat. It diverts, distracts, and deadens our painful feelings. However, it only addresses the symptoms. The cause remains. In so far as the strategy works at all, we go back to it, and are soon caught in a vicious spiral, obsessed with some act or substance that at some level we prefer to the emotional pain of not being able to move in ways that will get us what we want. As Nietzsche describes it, our “techniques” for relieving our pain make us weaker and less able than we were to move in life-enabling ways. 

The question is: what to do?

Nietzsche is clear. Addictions are strategies; they are creative, if self-destructive responses to pain. They are expressions of a creative—if life-denying—will. The task, then, is to tap into that creative will at the heart of the blocked desire and get it to create something else.

For Nietzsche, of course, the means to so doing—and the reason I love his work—is dance. To dance, for Nietzsche, is to affirm life. To dance is to love life—all of it—to say YES to every moment of life, in its pleasure and pain, as one more opportunity to exercise our creative will. Nietzsche’s dancer is one who can look to every moment of his life and say, “I willed it.”

So too, in his work, dance is not just a metaphor for a particular mental act. Dancing is a physio-spiritual practice in which we stir our energy, educate our senses, strengthen our instincts, and learn to “spiritualize” our desires. Nietzsche’s vision for dance guides mine. In relation to addiction, several points are worth noting.

For one, we cannot think our way out of our emotional habits; these patterns of sensation and response express our fundamental, sensory creativity. Instead, we must create new patterns, new values, in the places where the older ones dwell—in the movements of our bodily selves. In the small actions we do every day, sensing and responding. In patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that relate to ourselves, to one another, and to our worlds.

Second, to accomplish such recreating, we need to tap into an essential human creativity that exists at a sensory level in the movement of our bodily selves.

Third, the key to finding this freedom to create new patterns of sensation and response lies in moving our bodily selves in ways that grant us a lived experience of our power to move.

Here is where dancing can be so helpful. If our addictions are rooted in a desire to move—a desire that is blocked—then the most powerful response we can make is to move our bodily selves. Doing so invites what I describe as an “experience shift”: we experience ourselves as making the movements that make us who we are. We are not simply blocked. We are moving. And we are moving in ways that quicken our breathing, open our sensory range, generate feelings of exuberance, and draw our attention inward to the movements we are making.

Dancing helps us reconnect with our own power to make the movements that make us who we are. It helps us experience our emotional habits not as inevitable truths about what is, but as habits—patterns of sensing and responding—that we have created. We can affirm the desire—the impulse to move—that these habits represent. And we can feel in our sensory selves the possibility of moving differently, because, by that point, as we dance, we already are.

What I am now realizing as well is that new movements we must learn to make may be different depending on which emotional color dominates the landscape.

A fear-based person wants to hear that she has what it takes to succeed. She wants to hear that nothing can stop her along her path. A grief-based person wants to hear something different. He is not afraid. He does not doubt his ability to make things happen in the future. He is haunted by the past. He needs to hear that the meaning of what has happened in the past is not yet determined. Meanwhile, an anger-based person is neither afraid of failing nor desolate at having failed. She wants the world to give her what she wants. She needs to hear that she already has it. She just has to receive it.

Hearing these words is, of course, not enough. The task is to feel for ourselves the movements that they represent. Even so, hearing the words can help dislodge emotional habits where they attach in our minds so that we can better resolve their emotional sting into life-enabling energies of gratitude, affirmation, and joy. We want to be able to feel the real possibility of an alternative move, and feel our way to it, even in the midst of an emotional storm.

There is play in every moment, and with practice, we can learn to find it. There are impulses to move arising in us, and we can learn to discern which ones align with the wisdom in our desires. Through such creative action we come to love our lives and everything about them as the very conditions we needed to discover the deep pleasure of moving-dancing-participating consciously in the creation of what is.

*

My kids have not formed addictions, thank heavens, but they are forming emotional habits. Their colors are still fluid, and I want to help them, as much as possible, stay in touch with their freedom to respond in the moment, to the moment, in ways that will align with what they most want. I want them wide open to a range of emotional responses that they can easily resolve into life-giving affirmations.

Later, I talk with Kyra. We press upon her fear. “Why do you want to do your assignment?” “Because the teacher asked me do.” “Why do you want to do what the teacher asks you to do?” “Because I want to do well in school.” “Why do you want to do well in school?” “Because it feels good.”

We are closer now. “Yes!” I affirm. “At the heart of your fear of failing is your desire to feel good. It’s about you, finding your own pleasure. Not about the book or test or teacher. OK, so how can you best do that? (Hint: verbally berating yourself for forgetting your book is not helpful.) Well, you can affirm this as an opportunity to learn something that will help you get what you want. What?” She nods.

With Jordan, we find the desire by working through his sense of loss. He wants to be productive, to get things accomplished… because it feels good. “I just love to move,” he concludes. “Yes!” I affirm. “So you have a day to do it! Move!”

Kai and I chat some more in bed after turning out his light. “Maybe, instead of feeling angry, you could try love.” He replies instantly, “I love you, Mom.” I sigh. That child.

 

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