The 4 Universal Addictions

I think about addiction a lot, and I think about it for a few reasons. I've worked directly on policy and prevention work aimed at the opioid crisis in rural Western NC for the last few years. In that time I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with many people in long-term recovery. They are some of the most inspiring people I know, and lead meaningful and productive lives.


I've also spent the last year providing therapy and treatment services for women who are pregnant and addicted to opioids, and will continue to do this work as a full time therapist upon my graduation (one month to go- woot woot!).


So I think about this topic a lot.


"Ritualized compulsive comfort seeking." This is how Dr. Daniel Sumrok, who specializes in addiction, defines it.


This "comfort seeking" is something we can all relate to. Whether it's our ritualized morning coffee, scrolling through pictures on our phones for a mental pick-me-up, or escaping into Netflix.


Anthropologist Dr. Angeles Arrien has studied cultures and societies all around the globe. In her studies she found four things that all cultures share an unhealthy relationship with. She goes so far as to suggest that these four things show up as addictions in every culture, and that it is these four things that underlie every "conventional" addiction like alcoholism, or pornography addiction.


The 4 Universal Addictions:

  1. The addiction to intensity.

  2. The addiction to perfection.

  3. The addiction to knowledge.

  4. The addiction to focusing on what's not working rather than what is working.

The Addiction to Intensity.

If you are an American reading this, you know that our society is all about entertainment. We are constantly looking for things to make us feel engaged or alive. We do this in relationships as well. We are terrified of boredom. We want to fully "experience" life. In a few weeks, I will be going on a family vacation. We're staying in this great house along a river, it all looks beautiful. My brother told me, "oh yeah, it doesn't have wi-fi." For a moment my heart sank. Oh no, what will I do if I can't produce? If I can't watch something ridiculous at the end of the night? My immediate reaction informed me that it's time to unplug. Time to take a step back from this need of entertainment, this need for constant creation. That's how intensity shows up for me.

For some, the need for intensity equates to drama in relationships, or romantic conquests, thrill-seeking adventures (it shows up for me like this too) like rock climbing, trail running, breaking records to feel alive. If being alive means feeling everything, then we need to get more comfortable with feeling boredom, feeling routine, because these feelings are about as human as it gets.


The Addiction to Perfection.

I've written a lot of about perfection on this website, so I will spare you the diatribe. I will say that this addiction shows up in many ways. Perfectionism can be self-imposed or other-imposed. Mine was always self-imposed. I had ridiculous standards and expectations for myself. This is one I fight on the daily.


Perfectionism does a few things:

  • it isolates.

  • it prevents true connection.

  • it fuels shame.

  • it means living with a mask on.

  • it means living in fear, because if people knew you weren't perfect...egads!

  • it prevents you from trying new things.

  • it prevents growth.

So...trying to break the cycle? As I've said before: practice mediocrity. Practice something that makes you uncomfortable. Send an email without double (or triple) checking for grammatical errors. I've posted many things on this site with typos. Internally, I cringe every time I find one on a published post, but then I remind myself that I am practicing what I preach. This is how we build our mental muscles and tolerance.


The Addiction to Knowledge.

I feel as though all of these universal addictions are my kryptonite, but this one really resonates because it is so easy to hide behind as a virtue. The reality is, knowledge comes in many forms. It could be intellectual knowledge or knowledge in wanting to know what will happen next in our lives.



So much of this boils down to control. If we can just know more, we can feel competent and in control. If we just know more than we think we can control the outcome. Neither are true. Competency is important, but sometimes it serves us to ask the reason we want that PhD or why we want to know how something will turn out before we participate. Checking our underlying motives at the door can shed some light onto our bigger fears.


The Addiction to focusing on what is not working instead of what is working.

This one is particularly interesting because our brains our actually designed to do this. In psychology, this principle is called negativity bias, where we focus more on negative experiences and the feelings associated with those experiences than we do positive ones. It is particularly difficult to overcome because we are wired to do this. Back in the cave-men days, if we were to eat a berry that made us ill, our brains would hyper-focus on this to prevent us from making the same mistake. Negativity bias has helped us survive. However, in today's day and age, where most of us are not being chased by bears and scavenging for food, negativity bias can be detrimental. So how do we overcome it?If positive thinking and affirmations work well for you, that's a great place to start. But maybe you are more like me, and positive affirmations and positive thinking don't always come naturally. So what do I do?I practice mindfulness and savoring moments when "things are going right". Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson talks about the importance of drinking in these moments, as we are often quick to dismiss complements and often don't take the time to notice when things are going well. Here's a quick example: My parents came to visit my husband and I this weekend. We went on a glorious walk with our pups around a lake. The weather was incredible- 75 degrees with a light breeze. It was wonderful, quality time. I literally paused during that walk to drink it in. I thought about how good the breeze felt, how warm my heart felt having my folks here, and how proud I was of our little pups going their longest distance ever!

Later that night, in the quest to fix our running toilet, things went from bad to worse as my dad tried his hand at plumbing. Needless to say, we are going to need a new toilet. This morning, as I write this, my brain wants to automatically go to the annoyance of calling a plumber and the expense of getting a new toilet. It's moments like this, where I remind myself of how perfect that walk was, and how grateful I am to have my dad reading his kindle down the sofa from me as I write.So what addictions do you have? I'm keenly aware that all four of these show up in my life on the regular, and it reminds me of the importance of keeping them in check. It also reminds me that there is little difference between the women I work with and me. We all struggle with things, and sometimes these things accumulate into the disease of addiction. This is where support and community come in. When we can begin to show ourselves a little compassion, it makes it a lot easier to show it to others.If you want to hear more about the universal addictions, check out the talk below by Dr. Angeles Arrien.

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial 911.