Understanding Our Addictive Character Traits, Part I
Low self-esteem, the wounded heart, and the emotional clamp
While most psychiatrists would deny the concept of an addictive personality, I believe there are character traits—habits of thinking, speaking, and behavior—that are typical of most addicts and which are present long before the addiction becomes manifest.
We are looking for those traits which underly and promote our disease. Who we are, whether addict or Earth Person, begins with,
• Our self-image, that is, how we see our place in the world
• Our core moral values which result from this world view
• The patterns of thought, speech, and behavior that arise from these values
As addicts, we find ourselves afflicted with an overabundance of these,
• Low self-esteem
• An overly sensitive heart that cannot stand the pain of the world
• A deep emptiness inside
Which result in behaviors that mark our lives as addicts
• Denial, wearing the mask that hides us from the world
• Trying to overcome our low self-esteem by controlling the world around us
• Chasing the material treasures of the world, including power, prestige, and position
• Using drugs and alcohol to fill the emptiness inside
Low self-esteem gave us an inferiority complex that drove much of our behavior. Although most of us had a relatively normal upbringing, we struggled with the idea that we are undeserving, always on the outside looking in. We felt less than. Deep inside was the fear that no matter how hard we tried, we’d never make the mark. We were frightened of a world we couldn’t control. We became King (or Queen), Baby.
Because of our inferiority complex, our egos lived in terror of what the world and the people in it might do to us: steal our woman, invade our country, or make us look bad in front of the boss. We did our best to control everything outside in the mistaken belief that if we could, we could control the chaos inside. We couldn’t understand that we would never win the game called me-in-charge-of-the-world.
Certainly, if you knew who I really was, you wouldn’t like me. We invented a false persona to represent us to the world. We molded a mask which hid our deep sense of inferiority, and we never took it off. If you thought I was smart, then maybe you would like me, so I became a pompous know-it-all. People-pleasing became second nature. My mask hid my fears, even from myself. In time, the mask became outright denial, hiding our addiction and its consequences from ourselves.
Low self-esteem left us feeling undeserving of every honor. We could not take a compliment without shirking. We became experts at putting ourselves down. We drove ourselves deep into self-pity which reinforced our sense of being less than. Our failures and our successes were equally suffered.
We began to exaggerate our own self-importance. We were better than everyone else and we were not shy about letting you know it. Being persons of superior intelligence, we didn’t have to follow the rules that lesser people did. We were keenly aware of your character defects and we knew you wanted us to point them out, and tell you how to fix them.
The wounded heart
The heart of the addict is simply too sensitive. We feel far too deeply the slings and arrows of an uncaring world. We feel the pain of others as if it were our own. The hypocrisy and dishonesty we saw in the world around us cut us to the quick.
For most people, the head and the heart are in balance, working to achieve a kind of mental equilibrium. The heart is the source of our emotions, our conscience, and our creativity. It is where poems and symphonies come from. The ego is best suited for calculating, measuring things. It builds bridges and sends spaceships to Mars. By shutting down our feelings, we gave the ego full rein. Uncontrolled by the heart, its influence grew out of proportion and it wanted to rule the world. We became ego-maniacs with an inferiority complex! Arrogant, judgmental, cock-sure of our own self-importance, it was all a game to hide our low self-esteem.
The result was a mindset where emotions were downplayed and the mind, with its treasured intelligence, became the measure of all things. The ego, now controlling the mental landscape, must always be right, unswerving in its confidence of its own powers, and quite willing to tell you so. This arrogant self-aggrandizement may be useful for the physician who needs to obtain objectivity in order to perform effectively, but for the addict, it is deadly.
The emotional clamp
When I was fifteen, my brother died of leukemia. He’d been sick for less than a year and died just before Christmas. I can remember feeling that my heart was being ripped in two, like giant hands ripping a phone book apart. Then, almost exactly a year later, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ve done this before, and I know what this funeral stuff is all about. I know what to do.”
But this time, the experience was completely different. Instead of pain, I was numb all over, as if a giant emotional clamp had descended and shut down my feelings. Somewhere deep inside me, a voice said, “Enough. You’ve had enough pain. You won’t feel anything now.” Ever since, that clamp has been with me, shutting down any emotion that threatened to upset me. This behavior, of burying painful emotions, is a hallmark of addiction.
Next post, “Part II, How low self-esteem affects our behavior.”