One use for addiction in a person’s life is to fill up the emptiness. We all do many things to fill the “hole” in our lives. I have clients in addiction that do several obsessive behaviors to deal with the emptiness, whether it be drink, use drugs, shop, spend hours on the internet, sex, or eat specific foods. Sometimes one obsessive behavior is not enough because for some, the emptiness is quite deep. So where does this emptiness come from? What helps create such a deep hole?
There is more than one cause of emptiness, but I would like to focus on an area that is quite prevalent in addiction and a strong impact on perpetuating addiction (or maladaptive behaviors): childhood deprivation. Being deprived of basic needs as a child leaves one with a “lacking.” This lacking over time creates a hole or feeling of emptiness. For some it is an actual lacking of food. For others it can be a lacking of love, nurturance, care, protection, security, trust, comfort, stability, value, appreciation, and/or acceptance. It does not always need to be drastic, such as starvation and outright abuse. It can be more subtle ways of these needs not being met. Human beings are imperfect, which makes parents imperfect, which means that some needs will not be met. There are obviously degrees to the lacking, dependent on how capable the parents were to meet those needs. If these hugely needed areas of life are not met as children, it leaves quite a large gap to be filled as adults. How does one know how to fill that gap if it never was filled in the first place and if they never learned how to fill it? By eventually coming across the first thing that really seems to fill it – or, by coming across the first thing that acts as an antidote to the emptiness.
This type of deprivation has effects on one’s life. For those where the abundance of food was the issue, hoarding might become a problem. For those where love was an issue, chasing relationships that are unfulfilling becomes a problem. For those where security was the issue, they end up creating lives with no security (going from job to job for example). In many ways we perpetuate and continue the lacking. This seems really crazy doesn’t it? What is going on here though is the part of us that always needed it to be different when we were children is putting ourselves in the same situation again, hoping to experience that very change “this time”. The problem is, without knowing this, one continues to live in ways that are not fulfilling and do not learn how to appropriately and effectively meet those needs, experiencing the emptiness being filled.
Addiction and obsessions are repeated attempts to salve the wounded hole as well as experience filling it up. I emphasized experience because it is not just an intellectual understanding that because I didn’t get X that I have a hole where X should be. It is a lived experience that gets carried into adulthood. Addiction helps to offset the pain that accompanies that lived experience. Instead of experiencing the emptiness, that person is experiencing feeling good or high or low or numb – anything better than empty. Some therapies help to get people to understand and become aware of the needs that were not met. Others help clients to restructure how they think and narrate their lives according to not getting those needs met. Other therapies help clients to go back to childhood and connect to their emotional experience, releasing feelings regarding their deprivation that have been stored up for years.
In some ways, the last therapy I described is on the right track in helping someone to grieve. If we are ever going to deal with the emptiness, we actually have to deal with the emptiness. We are now responsible to live with and understand our emptiness and find healthy ways of filling it up. As well, allowing ourselves to fully feel it, or experience it, allows its influence to lessen. It loses its power to some degree. I’m not sure you have to take a long voyage back into your childhood to learn how to engage your emptiness. Because it was and is a lived experience, it continues to happen now. So paying attention to when the lacking arrives, and the ensuing feelings of deprivation, allows a person to stop and allow the experience to happen in order to understand it, feel it, and address it. Will you make connections and develop insights based on your childhood? Probably, but you do not have to start there, and it is not necessary. You start with your lived experience.
One of the biggest reasons that people get stuck in addiction and other forms of suffering is because they are not okay with their lived experience: the internal pain, confusion, and hurt, or even happiness, success, and accomplishment, are not okay. Actually opening up to one’s inner experiences becomes scary because they have learned to turn off that channel as children (the channel of “experiencing”). This was a necessary coping mechanism that makes children quite resilient but something that stops being useful as an adult.
So find ways to re-gain a relationship with your own experiencing. It is just an experience (many people will need the support of a professional to slowly and safely do this). It is no longer reality (for most people) that you are in a situation of lacking. Attempting to quit an addiction begins to feel like the lacking again and the addicted person reacts by using again. They never want to experience the experience of lacking ever again, but once they feel it to the end and realize it is only an internal experience and not reality, they can be freed by the impact of emptiness.