Getting a clearer understanding of addiction
Watching a loved one struggling with addiction is hard. If you haven’t had personal experience floundering in the vicious cycle of addiction, it can be difficult to understand why the person you love keeps choosing drugs or alcohol over healthy relationships and a more balanced life.
But the compulsion of addiction occurs on a level beyond the addict’s control. It’s not as simple as saying they are consciously choosing drugs or alcohol over you. There is much more to it than that. Knowing how your loved one’s deep seated beliefs and superego factor into his or her addiction can give you a clearer understanding of their struggle.
What does this psychodynamic way of understanding addiction suggest? What is the role of the ego in addiction? More here, with a section for your questions at the end of the page.
Why is s/he choosing a drug over me? The search for perfection
Q: What is the role of the superego in addiction?
A: The superego helps us hold deep beliefs about ourselves…that are not necessarily true.
Our addicted loved ones are in pain, and they use drugs to deaden that pain. Some are in physical discomfort, while many others experience the pain of feeling like they are not “good enough” or that they do not measure up to certain standards.
Ex. Falling short of their own expectations
I am the parent of two children who are addicts. I used to feel guilty about that, but I have learned that I have children who are perfectionists and drive themselves to the breaking point. Some of this has to do with what I modeled for them, but in the final analysis, they made their own choices.
It may be hard to believe that addicts are perfectionists. I cannot prove it, though, my experience for 30 plus years does support it. Addicts tend to set unrealistic expectations for themselves and when they do not reach these goals, they give up on themselves.
Most parents see the potential of their addicted child and cannot understand why their son or daughter does not achieve commensurate with their ability. But drug addiction is not necessarily about inability. It is about what addicts believe about themselves.
Freud called it the superego.
I call it the spirit.
It is stronger than reason or information. It is about the deeply held beliefs of the addict.
Superego and addiction
The superego is “the aspect of personality that holds all our internalized moral standards and ideals that we acquire from both parents and society.” It drives our sense of right and wrong with two systems:
- The conscience
- The ego ideal
The ego ideal is “an imaginary picture of how [we] ought to be, and represents…how to behave as a member of society.”
For most addicts, there is a constant dissonance between their actions and their ideal self. This dissonance leads to feelings of guilt produced by the addict’s conscience, putting them back at the beginning of the addiction cycle: using drugs or alcohol to deaden the feelings that they do not measure up.
Addiction is survival
Perhaps many of you feel as though your loved one is being totally self-centered. But, try to keep in mind that they are acting this way because addiction is survival and not living. They have energy only to get drugs or alcohol because an addict’s deep belief is that they must have these things to survive. While this is far from the truth, it is a belief that drives addiction.
The disease of addiction does not allow people to think reasonably. It drives them to do drastic things in an attempt to survive. To help parents better understand how their child’s beliefs about themselves can perpetuate their addiction, I often try explaining the addict’s reality with a hypothetical example. If I believed that pawning my grandmother’s ring would save my child’s life, I would pawn it for them.
Is it rational from an outsider’s perspective? Probably not.
But if I truly believed that stealing and selling that ring was the only way to keep my child alive, it would seem like the logical choice in my mind.
What you can do about an addicted loved one
Although you do not have the power to cure your loved one’s addiction, you can influence them. Here are some starting points.
- Encourage them, but do not enable them.
- Suggest the idea of detox and treatment, and offer to participate in a family recovery program.
- Keep loving them no matter what lies the addict seems to believe about himself.
- Most importantly, take care of yourself. Being in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) with an addict takes a huge toll on a person. It’s important to take the necessary steps to protect your emotional and mental health. Consider joining a support group and/or seeing a counselor.
Take heart! Hope is alive for an addict who is struggling
For all those who are close to an addict, I hope this message provides you with a helpful perspective and encourages you to take heart. Our great hope is for the ones we love to begin seeing themselves the way we see them: as amazing people in the midst of a difficult problem. As individuals worth saving.
We may be frustrated and tempted to give up. We may even have to withdraw financial support. But we must not give up hope. Keep loving and keep hoping. It is our weapon against the spiritual devastation of addiction.
Superego and the role it plays in addiction: Your questions
Do you have any questions or maybe you’d like to share some input? Please leave your comments in the designated section at the end of the page. We welcome your feedback and try to respond personally and promptly to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to a question, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.