Many people are unable to see any link between their problematic habits and addictive behavior in adulthood and their adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). However, oftentimes there is a direct connection.
Abuse and neglect while growing up can result in children adopting patterns of behavior which are intended to manage the overwhelming accompanying feelings, and that helps them survive. As they grow older, they may continue those same behaviors or adopt new ones with the same purpose in mind – to feel numb or avoid uncomfortable emotions – yet they are less effective and may also yield negative results. Common among these responses is addictive behavior.
Individuals who struggle with addictive behavior might ask themselves, “Why did I start doing that?” They may identify reasons that included “fitting in” or “trying to belong.” Though there may have been some awareness of the dangers of that behavior, they also discovered the “benefits” of such behavior – it numbed them (e.g., using alcohol or drugs, sleeping), or it may have distracted or soothed them (e.g., eating, gambling, masturbating, watching TV, surfing the internet, viewing pornography). They realized the behavior “made me feel better” (at least for a while).
The habits or addictions assuaged the uncomfortable feelings that accompanied their ACEs. Examples of ACEs include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, tragedies, accidents, and natural disasters. The painful or disagreeable feelings may also follow episodes of neglect, experienced by the child as abandonment (even if unintentional). A common situation is a caregiver who is absent due to work, physical or mental illness, divorce, death, or an addiction.
A child may have multiple feelings that are too big for him/her to handle, such as anger, hatred, sadness, anxiety, and shame. Some of these feelings are directed toward the people who care for them. They may think, “How can I hate the people who say they love me?” If children allow themselves to feel such deep emotions, they may get expressed in behaviors that bring punishment or other problems. So instead children may unconsciously figure out a way to survive – avoid having those feelings – and they find ways to do just that. Unfortunately, those behaviors often develop over time into bad habits and addictions in adulthood. It seems there is no way out because these behaviors are their means of survival.
People in recovery from addiction and those doing the hard work of changing bad habits must learn new skills. They must allow themselves to feel their emotions rather than push them away, understanding that feeling them is a better way to live than exhausting time and energy to avoid them. Their feelings must be accepted as natural and not dangerous or bad. Skills and tools are necessary, so they can learn to manage their feelings when they surface and find new ways to express them, in order to “stay out of trouble.”
As these individuals continue to grow, they must accept that they can have multiple and complex feelings, even about the same person or situation. An often-experienced example is a person who loves someone and is angry with him/her at the same time, or a person who is excited about a friend’s new job yet also grieves the resulting move to a new state. An acceptance of complex feelings will expand to an awareness and acceptance of ambivalence and complexity throughout all of life, most of which is not simple, black and white, and non-dualistic. Confusion can often be clarified by saying “and” rather than “or” and “but.” If someone hears, “I like you, but you make me angry,” the question remains, “Do you like me or not?” On the other hand, if someone says, “You did a good job, and you messed up this one step,” then both parts of the sentence are true.
There is value in 12-step groups for those in recovery and those with ACEs because these groups are places of acceptance, so the participants can begin to explore their feelings. They can safely feel their emotions in the presence of others rather than hiding in shame. The modeling and experiences of others teach them how to manage their behavior and feelings in a healthy way and then express themselves appropriately rather than resorting to negative behaviors – like old habits and addictions. In this environment, recovery deepens, and people live healthier and more satisfying lives.
Written by Rev. Kenneth Schmidt
Diocese of Kalamazoo
Co-Founder and Executive Director, Trauma Recovery Associates