The Pleasure Compulsion

By susanpeabody 01/17/20

"Play it again Sam." Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

Why do some people become addicts and others don't? I know 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. Before recovery, if one drink made me feel good I had another. This led to one addiction after another, sugar, overeating, shopping, drinking and falling in love. Therapy did not help,  but I finally got my addictions under control with the help of support groups. Over the years, I  have thought a lot about what led to my obsession to do the same thing  over and over again and I came  to the following conclusion.

The Freudians use the term the "pleasure principle" to describe the need of the infant to seek gratification over and over again. In adults, this would be called the "production of pleasure." I have my own term: "the pleasure compulsion."

We all have this, but addicts  have too much of it. They also have the tendency to go back to the same pleasurable experience over and over again rather than try something different. Non addicts like variety. Addicts like routine. It is the pleasure compulsion that turns us into addicts. 

Once the pleasure compulsion kicks in,  you have to deal with the "increased tolerance phenomenon."  It takes more and more of the experience to get the desired affect. More food, more alcohol, more drugs. 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 the same  mood-altering experience? 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 pleasure compulsion.. "It's  all in the brain,"  he explains. 

Why is it helpful to understand the pleasure compulsion? 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 explains why so many addicts switch to another addiction in early 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 are so successful. They replace their negative routines with positive ones (attending meetings and service)

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 12-Step meetings, socializing with my new AA  friends, service, and working the 12 steps for self-improvement. Before I knew it, my self-destructive habits had disappeared. I had replaced bad habits with good habits. I also learned to appreciate variety.  I am still sober today and when I want to feel good I do different  things not the same thing over and over again.


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