Here’s an interesting frame for thinking about the connection between pleasure and addiction. It’s not the only frame you can use, but I think it’s a useful perspective to avoid some confusion.
The Experience of Pleasure
Pleasure is a frequency of experience. By itself it is not harmful or addictive, just as water isn’t addictive per se. Pleasure can be a worthy pursuit when approached with some degree of respect, sacredness, or reverence. You can enjoy the deliciousness of pleasure without getting into trouble.
Please do not see pleasure as anything naughty or perverse. It is absolutely fine to explore pleasure. There is beauty in it.
There are risky attachments to pleasure, like drug or sex addiction, where the person is no longer in control, and subconscious drives are controlling the person’s behavior.
There is no inherent need for pleasure though. It is a drive but not a need. When someone loses control in an addictive way, it is not because of a need for pleasure. There is another way of looking at this that reveals deeper truths.
The Reward of Pleasure
Pleasure is simply a reward. It’s an algorithm. It’s an energy. When certain conditions are met, pleasure is activated. You understand how to meet some of those conditions and activate some pleasure whenever you want. Other activations may be within reach too, but you may not have explored them yet.
Pleasure is like a carrot dangling in front of certain experiences. You feel it in sexual experiences but also during a shopping experience that you liked or upon reading an engaging book. You feel it when you get on a plane to go somewhere interesting.
You may have been conditioned to believe that pleasure is something naughty, dark, or sinful. It’s indulgent. It’s a side excursion. It’s a form of procrastination. It’s unnecessary. It’s addictive.
But such assumptions are inaccurate and will only create extra stuckness. Pleasure isn’t addictive.
Pleasure and Addiction
If pleasure itself isn’t addictive, then what is addictive?
The way you frame pleasure can be addictive. It’s addictive to see it as naughty, dark, or sinful. It’s the shame that’s addictive.
What is addiction? An addiction is a repetitive behavioral pattern that seems outside of one’s control. Such a pattern is typically activated subconsciously, right? What are those activators? They’re also algorithms. They’re energy forms too, but let’s think of them as algorithms for now.
What would those algorithms look like? What is their internal code? They are not complex.
Here’s the basic algorithm of addiction, reduced to one line of code:
If there’s something I don’t want to deal with, pursue pleasure instead.
You could frame this in a variety of other ways too, like pursuing lesser pain instead of pleasure, but this is a pretty straightforward way to understand addiction.
It’s the avoidance pattern that’s addictive. The person doesn’t feel free to go against pleasure because that means going into the unpleasant.
Engaging with the Unpleasant
So the solution to addiction is more courage? Or more tolerance for the unpleasant?
The solution is more willingness to engage with the unpleasant. More desire to deal with the ugliness of life. More desire to go into the muck.
The irony is that the person may see their addiction as dark and shameful, so they feel they’re going into the darkness when they’re in the thick of it. But really what they have is a cheap substitute. What they’re doing isn’t particularly shameful, but it helps them hide from the bigger shame – like the shame of wasting one’s life, the shame of being a virgin longer than expected, the shame of being afraid of social interactions, the shame of facing awkward and difficult personal growth challenges, the shame of not making “enough” money, the shame of feeling like a failure, the shame of falling behind one’s peers, the shame of being physically unhealthy or out of shape, the shame of past traumas, and so on.
It’s easier to feel ashamed of a simple addiction, and this kind of small shame is also a convenient distraction. By hiding in the darkness of an addiction, the bigger darkness is avoided.
Can Rock Bottom Be Avoided?
What does it mean to hit rock bottom? It means that the delusion of the addiction cracks, and real life seeps in. The bigger shames must finally be dealt with and can no longer be suppressed.
How can a person crack an addiction instead of having to hit rock bottom?
One must turn and face the bigger shames. Process those feelings. Engage with goals and actions in the direction of greater shame. And that in turn requires transforming one’s relationship with these areas of shame or resistance.
This doesn’t mean these other shames will necessarily be massive. They may be just a little bigger than the addictive shame. But they still represent neglected areas where progress is weak. Decide to kickstart progress in those areas by transforming how you relate to them, and the shame of the addiction will naturally fade because the bigger shame is finally being dealt with.
The bigger reframe here is to walk towards shame, not to run from it. Shame is a delusion waiting to be cracked. What cracks the delusion is to flow energy into it. Face it and confront it, not to do battle but by seeking the beautiful invitation hiding in what you were previously avoiding.
Must You Confess Your Addiction?
People often step into this confrontation by socially acknowledging and admitting their addiction. They confess the dark secret to other people. That is a good step for some, but it can also be a distraction. That addiction isn’t really the core issue, so over-focusing on it as something to be overcome can just create more rounds of avoidance of larger issues.
Just as the phase of addict is a distraction, so is the phase of recovering addict. Note that many people permanently overcome addictions without ever labeling themselves as recovering addicts.
The risk here is getting caught up in further cycles of overcoming the addiction instead of pressing forward in other areas. Trying to overcome the addiction can be just as much of a trap as hiding the addiction. The addiction stems from a larger problem, and focusing so much energy on the addiction itself, including debating whether or not to admit it publicly or fussing over how to overcome it, is for the most part a distraction that keeps your mind focused on the addiction. But the addiction (and recovering from it) is still a petty problem relative to the bigger challenges that life is inviting you to face.
Another trap is that you won’t really solve this problem by focusing on your relationship with pleasure, such as by trying to distance yourself from the pursuit of pleasure. You can have a lovely relationship with pleasure and not get addicted to it. Pleasure can be a fun part of your life, and it needn’t control you. Pleasure isn’t the problem.
Instead of trying to resolve your relationship with pleasure, as if it’s something demonic that keeps ensnaring you, focus on improving your relationship with pain instead – with areas of shame, trauma, sorrow, fear, anxiety, etc. Develop a healthier and stronger relationship with the bigger darkness that you’re hiding from. See that it’s not actually so dark as you imagined. And your relationship with pleasure will be much transformed.
The Circular Trap of Resisting Addiction
Even when seemingly addictive physical substances are involved, it’s the darkness, naughtiness, and demonization of those substances that creates the bigger trap. This framing encourages you to devote more energy into overcoming a pleasure-based addiction again and again, all the while doing circular activities that keep you from attending to the bigger, scarier, and juicier challenges of life.
Addiction is a solution to a problem: How can I avoid dealing with life’s greatest challenges?
Answer: I can repeatedly lose myself in a recurring loop of succumbing to, resisting, and then overcoming an addiction. I can turn that endless cycle into my demon, so all scarier demons can be ignored indefinitely.
Life’s big demons may tempt you into retreat. Often that may be a retreat into pleasure, but it can also be a retreat into a lesser pain. Not all addictions are pleasure-based.
Haven’t you ever indulged in some seemingly addictive pleasures without getting addicted to them? You can enjoy pleasure by choice, and it needn’t become addictive.
Note that addictions are most seductive when there’s something much bigger and scarier to be avoided.
You can enrich your life with plenty of pleasure. But don’t treat it like a private shame to escape into. See it as a healthy, positive, and enjoyable experience to have.
Your Relationship with the Unresolved
You do not need immediate solutions to life’s biggest challenges. What’s needed is an improvement in your relationships with those challenges. Instead of seeing them as curses or demons to be avoided, try framing them as invitations to learn, grow, and improve.
Even if you don’t overcome all of those challenges, that’s okay. You can still maintain a healthy and engaging relationship with them. You needn’t allow the unresolved to beat you down.
How do you overcome an addiction?
Identify and face the bigger shame, and the addiction will crack. Be willing to face, reframe, and deal with whatever you’re avoiding. Then you won’t need to hide out in the cozy corner of addiction and recovery.
When the urge to engage with an addiction arises, ask: What am I avoiding? Why must I avoid it? What’s so scary about it? How can I face it now? How is this an invitation to growth and beauty?
That will help. Face the difficult and the frightening, and addictions will no longer serve as escapes. Look for the beauty behind your fear and shame.
The Gifts of Pleasure and Pain
Transforming your relationship with the shame and pain of life will also upgrade your relationship with pleasure. Pleasure is a gift to be enjoyed, but if you try to treat it as an escape from pain, the pain will soon find its way inside of that pleasure.
Notice how delightful a pleasure can be when you approach it with purity of intent – just for the sake of enjoyment, not as an escape from pain or difficulty.
Face the pain of life. Accept the invitation and the challenge of it. And also embrace the pleasure of life. Accept the invitation to feel good. Just don’t pursue a relationship with one at the expense of the other.
Article was originally written by Steve Pavlina from Conscious Growth. Steve studies what it means to grow and how we can deliberately invite, process, and integrate new growth experiences.