The Addict in Us: Emotional Imbalance

Theres-An-Addict-In-All-Of-Us-2Human beings have a tendency to operate with extremes. In the realm of emotions we tend to live at one or the other opposite poles: (1) we are ruled by our emotions, or (2) we are hardened against them. We all have this in common with our addicted brothers and sisters. While difficulty managing emotions is sometimes highlighted as a characteristic of an addictive personality, in truth is a characteristic of humanity. Similarities in emotional imbalance creates bridges between all of us.

Emotional imbalance has long been seen as part of a person’s journey towards full-blown addiction. Rehab specialists have observed a link between what they term emotional immaturity and addiction, citing the difficulty of dealing with their feelings as a reason that people turn to drugs and alcohol. Jonathan Benz and Kristina Robb-Dover state it this way: feelings are so painful that I’d rather not feel anything (The Recovery-Minded Church, 55). It is an effort in suppression. Yet, there is not simply a desire to avoid their painful feelings that is in play with addictive behaviors. There is also, often, a desire to feel different feelings. Both love and fear are at work in the heart of the addict, and their emotional immaturity leads them to the extremes of avoidance and pleasure. Learning to deal with their emotions properly is a vital key in moving towards recovery.

The same tendency towards extremes, however, can be found in many of our lives. Our own struggles to deal rightly with our emotions lead many of us to all sorts of social, psychological, and even physiological problems. Repression of trauma can cause us to dissociate, or to isolate. Refusal to address fears can tempt people to lash out in anger.We have hosts of labels that connect specific problems with our emotional health (or lack there of). So, co-dependency may have to do with fear of rejection; narcissistic disorder and borderline personality disorder may be rooted in feelings of shame; and OCD might stem from trauma. There are any number of issues that might develop as a result of not dealing appropriately with our emotions. Yet many of us experience more common problems as a result of our emotional imbalance.

On the one hand we might try to repress our emotions, like the addict, by going to extremes to self-medicate with food, medicine, television, and other socially acceptable mediums. We have a host of “acceptable” ways to deny our feelings. Some deny them through facades of happiness, and cheerfulness. Others by means of over-indulging in food, video games, shopping, or even sleeping. We may not be drug addicts but we are no more prepared to encounter our emotions than they are.

Others, might tend towards the extremes of pleasurable pursuits. They are not simply suppressing emotions, they are trying to seek out elevated levels of euphoria in various passions. They find themselves constantly jumping from one hobby, career, or relationship to the next because they get too quickly bored with the former. They become restless and therefore relentless in their pursuit of the next big thing. Often they are looking for a feeling that does not exist, but they continue to seek it out through various pursuits and life-changes.

What we all need, however, is a biblical perspective on our emotions. As Dr. Bruce Ware writes:

Regardless of whether we are in the category of pristine rationalist or emotionalist or somewhere in the middle, nearly all of us could use some help in this area – in fact, many of us could use a lot of help! We need a vision of human personhood that shows just why God made us with the minds and hearts that we have. We need to see the importance of cognition and emotion, of thinking and feeling, of truth and affections, to live out the Christian faith as God intends. We also need to understand the effects of sin on both our heads and our hearts. (Brian Borgman, Feelings and Faith, 10)

Our emotions are complex, not the least because they have been impacted by the fall, and yet they are part of God’s design for human beings. It is of paramount importance, then, that we begin to think about them rightly and biblically. This involves three important things.

First, it involves recognizing that God experiences emotion. Throughout the Bible God is said to be angry, joyful, sorrowful, and even regretful. These are sometimes anthropopathisms, human language used to describe God in ways we can understand, but which do not perfectly capture His emotion. Other times they mean exactly what they say. God is not dispassionate. He feels, often deeply. Feelings are, therefore, good things and ought to be understood and felt. To refuse to feel them is to deny an important part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

Second, we must understand that our feelings are impacted by the curse of sin. Our emotions are not perfect, they do not capture completely and accurately the experiences of life or the truth of our situations. So, when my feelings say to me “God has abandoned me,” I know they are wrong. They are wrong because they conflict with what God has said (Heb. 13:5). Our emotions may tell us that something is wrong, or that something feels good, but they cannot always perfectly explain the causes of those emotions. I may feel good when I sin, but that does not therefore condone the sin. I may feel bad when I do the right thing, but that does not therefore make it wrong. My feelings are gauges, they are not reliable guides.

Thirdly, I must learn to analyze my feelings. I often refer counselees to Proverbs 25:28, which reads:

A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.

You can imagine what an ancient city without walls would have been like. It would have been constantly invaded by one army after another. It would never be at rest, never be settled, never be able to establish a normal life. Similarly a person who never learns to evaluate and engage their emotions is going to be like “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). We need the anchor of faith to help us engage critically and healthily with our emotions. 

We all know what it is to experience the extremes of emotional imbalance. To either repress our feelings or look to replace them with extreme pleasures. Many of us know the experience of bouncing back and forth between the two poles. Emotional imbalance is a common problem. It connects us all, substance abuser and other. We find much solidarity with our brothers and sisters struggling with addiction when we consider our own emotional imbalance. We are more like the addict than we realize at first.

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