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Ever wonder why no matter how much you try to improve yourself, you keep reverting to the same destructive patterns?
Most people don’t know this—it might sound crazy, so bear with me—but you’re probably chemically addicted to the negative emotions associated with those patterns. That’s right, we don’t just get addicted to substances, we also get addicted to emotions.
You might procrastinate because you’re addicted to time-crunch anxiety. Maybe you set unrealistic expectations for people because you’re addicted to disappointment. Perhaps you’re perpetually late or forgetful because you’re addicted to guilt.
As a transformational life coach, I was stumped in the first few years of my career. Some clients kept reverting back to victim mentality and self-sabotaging behaviors; no matter how many paradigm-altering cognitive breakthroughs or a-ha moments they experienced in-session.
I figured out they were emotionally addicted to their anxiety, shame, disappointment, or guilt. Once we understood and started confronting their addictions, we began to see long-lasting results.
What is emotional addiction?
Dr. Joe Dispenza says, “if you can’t control your emotional state, you must be addicted to it.” Emotional addiction happens when our bodies crave the cascade-like chemical reaction that occurs in the brain when we feel a certain emotion.
When you think about who’s wronged you or how life’s unfair, neurotransmitters trigger electrical signals of that emotion throughout your body, changing the chemistry in every cell. Over time, the body becomes desensitized to the change and the cells require more stimulation at a chemical level to get their fix. Then we begin seeking circumstances that trigger the emotional state to which we’re addicted.
Trying to change an emotional pattern can feel like drug withdrawal. We’re particularly susceptible to becoming addicted to guilt and shame because these emotions trigger the same areas of the brain as reward centers.
Our proclivity to become emotionally addicted is worsened by our tendency to base thinking and feelings about the future on our past. Our memories are charged with feelings, typically strong negative ones, which are most often stored in the brain long term.
When we dredge up those memories, they flood our body with familiar chemicals associated with negative emotions. Although it might feel bad, it also feels really good because it’s normal and comfortable. Our body has memorized that emotion.
So what do we do?
Overcoming Emotional Addiction
Step 1: Pay more attention.
Sometimes we’re not aware we’re playing the same broken emotional record on repeat.
Every time you notice a change in feeling, ask yourself, what emotion is this? Notice which emotions come up most often. Get curious about how they actually feel. Where do you feel it? How is it moving? Is there anything that feels good about it? The more we can look at our emotions with dispassionate curiosity, the less identified we are with them.
Step 2: Identify and question the thought patterns associated with your emotions.
If you’re feeling guilt, are you thinking, “I can’t do anything right,” or “I always let people down?” If you’re feeling is anxiety, are you thinking, “this is going to be really difficult,” or “people are going to judge me?”
Pay special attention to thoughts that over-simplify. Thoughts that generalize or have a black-and-white quality are most often associated with emotional addiction. Question these thoughts. Ask yourself, “can I be absolutely certain this is true?” and “Is there another, better-feeling perspective I can take?”
Practice looking actively from that new, better-feeling perspective.
Step 3: Identify hidden payoffs.
Identify hidden payoffs you may get out of feeling this emotion. over and over. Be really honest and forthright with yourself. Is the negative emotion distracting you from something, perhaps scarier or more inconvenient to confront? Is the negative emotion serving as an excuse to let you off the hook for something you don’t want to do? Is it getting you attention or sympathy? Is it distracting other people from seeing something you don’t want them to see about you?
If you’re secretly getting something out of feeling this emotion on repeat, please know it’s common and nothing to feel ashamed about. Hidden payoffs are typically subconscious—living in our blind spots and are really hard to spot.
Until we identify our hidden payoffs, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to heal our emotional addictions permanently. If you need help identifying your hidden payoffs, contact me or another coach or therapist that specializes in revealing these blind spots.
Step 4: Consciously choose how you want to feel.
Work to overcome your default tendency to look to the past for how you should feel. Look to the future and how you want to feel. Practice feeling those desired emotions. Ask yourself, “what would it be like for me to invite more joy, ease, fun, pleasure, connection, gratitude and fulfillment into my life?” Visualize yourself feeling these ways and imagine those new emotions filling your body. We can shift our entire electromagnetic field in an instant, just by imagining the way we want to feel. Practicing this every day is how you get your body out of a cycle from the past and into the future-facing present.
So there you have it, the four steps to begin healing emotional addiction.
The way you’ve always felt does not dictate how you’re capable of feeling. Your emotional past has no true bearing on what’s possible for your emotional future. Emotional addiction does not need to be a life sentence. You can choose emotional freedom, starting now.