Understanding “Why” Addicts (And Others) Do Bad Things

by Joshua Hoe

This is the sign I held in front of Grace Episcopal Church during the final service.
This is the sign I held in front of Grace Episcopal Church during the final service.

Whenever the bad things that people do are reported on television much of the first 48 hours of television coverage is spent wondering “why” or “how” anyone could have done whatever it was that is being reported.

Of course, some of the bad things that we addicts do are due to the behaviors and substances we use to medicate our feelings. But, that is not always the only or best answer to “why” we do bad things.

There is one answer that you rarely hear discussed but it is often as close as we get to a cause (especially when the bad things are done by addicts). It is an answer I have experienced personally and heard over and over again when talking to different addicts.

I am not a therapist, so I do not have any answers to share (except the one that I have myself lived).

That answer is: Mastery


Broken Heart

So, why Mastery?

Let me preface this by repeating something I have said many times before, there is a difference between justifying something and explaining it.

I do not believe that an explanation for someone’s actions is the same as a justification for someone’s actions. This is an article about a potential explanation not about a Justification.

Also, Mastery is usually talked used in the context of a person overcoming hurdles or perfecting a skill. In a sense, this desire drives this kind of “Mastery” as well but this is not actually that kind of Mastery. In fact, this is the kind of Mastery you want to avoid or heal.

For many addicts (like me), the addictive cycle starts with a trauma (or traumas) usually encountered early in life.

Addiction is really one of many coping mechanisms available when we addict confront the triggers that remind us emotionally of those original traumas (I usually refer to them as echoes).

If you were Beaten up as a kid, for example, being verbally demeaned as an adult may serve as an “echo” of your original trauma and that “echo” trigger your cycle of acting out behaviors.

But there are other possible ways that an addictive cycle can play out, especially if the original trauma and the addictive cycle are connected.

Often, within the acting out cycle or as a different means of coping we addicts can try to “Master” those situations that traumatized us in the first place.

What I mean, is that often, because we cannot overcome the feelings of a traumatic vulnerability at the root of our triggers (a hole we cannot fill through normal social interactions and relationships), we addicts can start trying to become the Master (instead of only a victim) of the traumatic event.

Think of it like this, if you were the victim of gun violence as a child you might, later buy a gun and fantasize about threatening someone with that gun.

Or someone whose life was affected profoundly by a drunken driver might, later in life, start driving drunk themselves.

As terrifying as that sounds, this was certainly true in my case. I believe this is also why, very often, you hear about abused becoming abusers or victims of violence becoming violent criminals.

As sad and scary as this is, it is often a subconscious pattern. I know that I had no idea that I was, in a sense, reenacting my own traumas but placing myself in a different subject position.

Making The Subconscious Conscious + Overcoming The Will Towards Mastery

A relax

I cannot speak of all of the tools therapists use to address this problem. I can say that CBT, 12-Step work, and talk-therapy were very helpful for me in understanding my cycle.

I, in no way, will pretend to have universal answers. I only know my own experience. In my case, the answers to almost every problem had to do with secrecy. I would strongly suggest that anyone struggling with “Mastery” should see a therapist that specializes in trauma.

That said when I was experiencing trauma or the “echoes” of that trauma my tendency was to let nobody know and keep everything that I was feeling inside myself.

I believed that nobody would ever understand, that everyone would abandon me if they knew what I had experienced, done, or the form of the addiction I was struggling with.

I never let the world see the sadness, anger, fear, or guilt that I was experiencing on an almost daily basis throughout my entire life.

Unfortunately, when you are not open and honest, when you bury your feelings, they start to become actualized in other (and often more insidious ways).

As easy as it sounds when I say it now, what ultimately worked for me was not easy at all:

1) I became conscious that I was trying to Master my trauma (reenact that trauma but from a position where I was powerful not powerless).

2) I started discussing it openly with my therapist, with my support group, and in my writing.

The opposite of ignoring or justifying your bad behaviors is acknowledging and discussing them openly. As long as things exist in your own shadows, they cannot be cleansed.

Even forgiveness usually has to start with acknowledgment/apologia.

One of my biggest problems with our “so-called” justice system is that it is counter-productive (and even destructive) to ever embrace or acknowledge the bad things that we have done.

Healing is impossible in a world in which we are incentivized to never admit the bad things we have done.

Restoration is impossible when we exist in a constant circle of recriminations and retributions.

Most of what started my problems was an inability to talk about or heal my own pain from sexual and physical abuse when I was young. I feel like we have almost set up a social system where healing is discouraged and people are taught to keep pain invisible (so as not to appear weak).

Again, I am not talking about punishment. I believe that there should be consequences for my bad actions (and anyone else’s). What I am talking about is the space necessary to heal and forgive ourselves and others.

What are your thoughts on why addicts (and others) sometimes do bad things? What have your experiences been with Mastery? What do you think about healing, justice, and restoration? Let me know, leave a comment!


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