Be Aware of Emotional Addiction – When High Becomes “Normal”, and “Normal” Becomes “Boring”
If you find yourself stuck in a pattern of emotional roller coasters, this post is for you. Let me paint a picture for you: Intellectually, you have an inkling your relationship isn’t healthy. You feel exhausted from the constant push-and-pull. You feel like walking on eggshells, where there isn’t open and honest communication around your experiences and feelings. Your partner’s behaviors are unpredictable and inconsistent. You deny your needs to receive love, or to maintain the relationship. You unconsciously fantasize that your partner will rescue, fix, or complete you. The aforementioned dynamics indicate a co-dependent relationship, where neither partner feels safe or secure. Yet, despite all the telltale signs, you find it very difficult to leave. The sexual chemistry is so tempting that no matter how many times you try to leave, you are always somehow convinced and then sucked back into the same dysfunctional pattern again. You have a desire to be chosen, despite all the rough patches. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Emotional addiction can explain why it’s so addictive to stay in an unhealthy relationship, even though you are in a lot of pain. When we talk about addiction, we are usually thinking about an external substance. Similarly, when we feel a strong emotion, we stir up a chemical cocktail inside our body. There are cellular and physiological changes happening that shape our behaviors. There are certain emotions that are particularly triggering for us called HIT emotions. For example, if you are sensitive to stress, and you often perceive stress in your relationship, your body releases cortisol, unleashing a series of physiological responses that resemble a “high”. Even if the emotion inflicts pain, the stream of neurotransmitters are still considered a reward. Your body becomes used to the physiological experience of stress. You become desensitized. You then need more and more stress to achieve the same “high” (i.e. the same level of stress hormones), to feel normal, and to feel like yourself. This is why so many people declare they want to change, but they are unconsciously looking for situations that allow them to experience the same “high”. When our bodies become habituated to a certain HIT emotion, be it anxiety, sadness, or palpitation, we don’t consciously intend to react hysterically, but we often end up reacting in a way that we feel ashamed about or regret later.
Becoming aware of your body’s physiological responses is the first step toward breaking emotional addiction. Emotional addiction creates the illusion that the emotionally aroused state is the equivalent of passion and sexual chemistry. As our body is desensitized to the emotional arousal, we find the normal and stable relationship boring, which make us more likely to stay in a relationship full of emotional turmoil. We mistaken the neurological reward as love.
Another factor that accounts for the constant struggle to leave a draining relationship is the clash between the anxious and avoidant tendencies. People with an anxious attachment “live with a sixth sense for danger”, according to Dr. Amir Levine, the author of Attached. The anxious mind is scared of abandonment and rejection, so anxiously attached people seek closeness and reassurance. On the other end of the spectrum, we have avoidant attachment. Someone who is avoidant is not comfortable with intimacy, and keeps emotional and physical distance directly or indirectly.
When someone anxious dates someone avoidant, they exaggerate each other’s worst fears. The avoidant often sends out mixed messages. They offer to take you out to a nice dinner, but doesn’t follow through with actions (e.g. making a reservation); they say they want to be with you, but continue talking to other potential dates. You are left guessing. You become obsessed searching for every ounce of reassurance. Every time you get mixed signals, your attachment system is activated, and your preoccupation grows. When you detect any sign of affection and commitment, your whole body gets excited. However, the gestures are usually fleeting. Soon, you will be met with ambiguity and disappointment, sending you down an emotional roller coster again. Dr. Levine aptly compares this phenomenon to living in a suspense novel, not knowing what to expect on the next page. Over time, you start to equate the anxiety, sexual chemistry, and ephemeral bouts of satisfaction with love, when in reality it is your attachment system flaring up in response to inconsistent behaviors.
If you keep chasing after the next cycle of exhilaration, you may become programmed to be drawn to those individuals who are least likely to meet your needs. The attachment style literature and my clinical experiences both point to an essential message: we as human beings have an innate and indispensable need for secure relationships. We need a secure foundation and a calm attachment system in order to thrive in life. For example, when you are preoccupied and distracted wondering if your partner will truly be there for you, how can you show the best version of yourself at work? “Becoming more secure yourself and finding a partner who has secure attachment is your best bet”, Dr. Levine suggests.
What you can do to break out of this cycle of emotional addiction and activated attachment system is to become conscious to your own patterns. There is no quick fix. Consciousness sounds intangible, but it is your most powerful tool. Without consciousness, relationships rooted in fear, manipulation, controlling behavior, and unpredictability can feel like home, because your body gets to experience familiar patterns of activation. Observe when your anxiety gets triggered. Your triggers are your best teachers. Record, without judgment, what happened, what is being said, your thoughts, feelings and action urges. See if you notice any patterns. Be curious about your reactions, even if you despise them. What are your reactions telling you about your needs? Ask yourself if you are truly fulfilled and happy when you are always pursuing the next reassurance?
You need to also change your definition of what is boring. Safety is not boring. A secure love doesn’t coerce you to betray or condemn your own needs. When you feel safe, you will feel comfortable speaking your truths, and set boundaries. You can access your inner-peace when your attachment system is not acting out or protesting. With practice, gradually, you will understand why an activated nervous system is not love. You may start to yearn for authentic love. Authentic love feels safe, and doesn’t feel like an emotional roller coaster. Your emotional addiction is a pattern that is learned, and therefore can be unlearned.
If you want to explore your patterns with a professional, feel free to reach out to me at 312-880-9656.