To be at risk for addiction, two psychological conditions seem to exist during childhood.

First, the child has become over- reliant on sources of comfort outside of himself to provide a feeling of being soothed, safe and secure.
Second, the child had difficulty making a healthy separation from the primary parent, with later concerns that closeness and intimacy can be dangerous.
Both of these conditions come about as a result of failure in empathy and attunement in the parent-child relationship that leaves the child feeling misunderstood, unsupported and potentially unloved. What develops is a “developmental arrest”, so that the adult in later life (like a child) is driven to seek pleasure and avoid the pain of living. The demands of reality appear too challenging and overwhelming. This theme of seeking solace in pleasurable experiences despite adverse consequences in reality is central is a primary symptom of addiction..

A developmental arrest keeps a sector of the personality immature. The result can be deficits that leave the potential addict without the capacity to regulate inner feelings of distress, to delay gratification, to exercise impulse control, to recognize and articulate feelings, or to create meaningful attachments to others.

When active addiction sets in, the problems the individual experiences in dealing with the ups and downs of living seem to be magically solved. The addiction is the glue that holds together the different parts of a fragile self. It reinforces a false sense of omnipotence, grandiosity and perfection and blots out aspects of reality that are not in concert with that perception. It anesthetizes the individual from unwanted feelings and painful aspects associated with attempts at expressing the true self. It defends against the need for intimacy or closeness, as the addict relies only on his addiction for a sense of pseudo-intimacy and closeness. For an addict, to be without the addiction would feel like personal annihilation.

The inner world of the addict is characterized by intense feelings that are often experienced as unbearable, overwhelming and permanent. These feelings form the context within which the addict lives. The actions and choices of an active addict are organized around an attempt to manage intense feelings. No obstacle is too formidable as the addict, in an attempt to feel “normal”, succumbs to the irresistible impulse to indulge. Unfortunately, the strength of the urge to act out on the addiction obliterates the ability to reflect upon the potentially devastating consequences of his actions.

Addiction is always experienced as a profound sense of alienation from self and others, since the ability to establish meaningful inter-personal relationships is often crippled by toxic experiences with early-life caretakers. I quote a former client:

” I was alone and it was loneliness and it was intense. I think the only love in life has been the drug…I just felt so alone…I was sad, so lonely, so isolated. I knew I wasn’t being me… that I could be different, but I couldn’t with people. As far as having some friends, really being close to somebody, there wasn’t anybody…I just wasn’t able to keep connections.”

Even in the face of devastating consequences to his external and internal worlds, the addict holds on tenaciously to his only source of identity, stability, comfort and support – the drug.

It is only when the pain of active addiction outweighs its diminishing benefits that the addict holds out the white flag and asks for help so that he can get free from his addiction.

Author's Bio: 

Dorothy Hayden, LCSW, has been treating sex addiction for 15 years. With 30 articles and one e-book, "Total Sex Addiction Recovery -- A Guide to Therapy", she is considered a "thought leader" in the field. She has been interviewed by HBO, CNN and "20/20" about cybersex and sex addiction.