The Journey to Self

Addiction can take many forms, not only the obvious ones. But, says Galina Pembroke, recognising the void within is the first step towards living a more authentic life.

Addiction can take many forms, not only the obvious ones. But, says Galina Pembroke, recognising the void within is the first step towards living a more authentic life.

The irony of addiction is that nobody considers oneself an addict until they are on the path to recovery. Why? Because recognition of addition is the first step towards freedom from its tentacles. And tentacles they are, reaching not just into the stereotypical junkie or alcoholic's days, but into those who are otherwise healthy. Junkie or not, opiate-like addictions may control our days too: problem eating, spending, sex habits, gambling, hoarding, work, power and other issues may have consequences less outwardly drastic, but their results are just as problematic on a personal and spiritual level. Even in their milder forms these compulsions are troublesome, costly, and time and energy consuming.

Regardless of their severity, all addictions have one thing in common: diverting us from a more meaningful way of life. All are mood-altering reactions to a spiritual craving. Our soul seeks nourishment and we stuff it with junk food. This isn't a surprising response. After all, we live in a fast food society. Just as preparing a proper meal takes time and effort, so does a life of spiritual sustenance. Far easier to grab some mindless treats that should come with the warning, "eat now, pay later". And pay we do. So why do we continue living a life that literally drives us to distraction? The answer is pain - emotional, physical, spiritual, you name it. In addiction, pleasure-seeking serves to distract from a pain the addict can't bear facing, tolerating, and if possible, changing.

How addiction hides

Most associate addiction with drugs, alcohol, and other external temptations. Yet there is an overlooked component of addiction, one that's entirely internal. As Ezra Bayda writes in At Home In The Muddy Water (2004, Shambhala) there are "subtle addictions to which we all fall prey ... the addiction to our comfort and thoughts, to our self judgements and emotions, to our identities and fears" (1). This facilitates our being inauthentic, or as Bayda phrases it, living "a substitute life".

Nowhere is a substitute life more visible and extreme than in addiction, since what we're addicted to is always an artificial substitute for what we really seek. The soul self, with all its potential, is duped by dependency as actions become increasingly motivated by the addiction. This seeps in and poisons all areas of life: "Studies show that people who tend to conceal personal information have more physical problems, such as headaches, nausea and backpains, and are more anxious, shy and depressed than people who don't," writes Anita Kelly in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science (2). Though the physical and emotional effects of secret keeping can be identified in narrow and specific terms, the soul sickness that addiction causes is more vague and far reaching. The secret keeping necessary to maintain addiction demands dishonesty ranging from withholding information to outright dishonesty. These are tactics to control others' views of us.

Manipulation, however, isn't just the domain of the addict. Most of us care about how we are perceived and sometimes at the expense of wiser objectives. In fact, a recent internet-based study estimated that almost 12 per cent of Australian are compulsive (addicted) shoppers and nearly 30 per cent have a significant spending problem (3). During the study, researcher Mike Kyrios and colleagues discovered that uncertain self worth, coupled with the belief that shopping could boost mood and self esteem, predicted a likelihood of later problem purchasing. Not that shopping doesn't provide a pick-me-up, it's just that a crash reliably follows. We can shop again, or we can ask ourselves what we are really shopping for.

Filling the void

Compulsive shoppers believe that happiness, along with a favourable identity, can indeed be bought. Less materialistic people may scoff at this, assuming we are so much wiser. But are we really? We all look outside to meet inner needs, but with non-addicts the extent and expression are subtle. We may not be alcoholics, bulimics, drug addicts or shopaholics. Still, many of us feel a sense of emptiness, of something missing. At times when this is particularly strong, after a bad day at work, a financial setback or a break up, distraction calls. We start with the most convenient distraction - all-night television perhaps. It seems to fill us, but it's fast food for the soul.

What is the alternative? We can experience and be thankful for awareness of our emptiness, because awareness brings the possibility for change. "Your imperceptible center is your vital essence. Take the time to shift your attention to the so called nothingness that is your essence," says Dr Wayne Dyer in Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao (4). From this viewpoint we no longer fear emptiness, we embrace it. We can feel the infinite potential that flourishes in nothingness. From this feeling we become fully alive. In this new mental and spiritual environment unhealthy and addictive distractions lose their power.

Along with feeling, we can also approach filling the void through thinking. "Ignore your body and your surroundings," advises Dr Dyer. "Let go of your material identifications such as your name, age, ethnicity, job title and so on; and just be in that space between - that void which is absolutely crucial to your very existence." For those of us who find it hard to be without distraction, this concept is difficult. Yet if we persist we will attain new levels of peace and fulfilment. What is a greater freedom than the freedom to always and forever just be?

This concept can be taken further. We can also stop defining ourselves by our relationships to others, and letting our worth be determined by their reactions. This is a powerful step towards authenticity. The decision to be ourselves without pretence, consistently, will free us from a reflexive response to the changes in the external world. We can still acknowledge circumstances, yet we don't have to let them dictate our mood or level of serenity. Letting go of our dependence on externals is a change and a loss that will produce an initial void, but it's necessary for a healthy relationship with our Higher Power. As we depend solely on ourselves and our Higher Power for love and approval, the void will be filled and we will feel whole. The alternative is a dependency on others for validation. Approval seeking is a much-praised and unrecognised addiction, but it is an addiction, one that is mood altering and life damaging.

Self love and satisfaction

Compulsive shopping for objects that impress others is one manifestation of approval seeking. At first glance this habit seems to have little in common with other addictions. Yet, like the outfit we bought that looked so much better in the seemingly-magical mirror of the store, this is an illusion. All addicts lack self acceptance, having a non-attainable "ideal" self that's based on impossibly high standards - either their own or others, or ones they believe others have. Meanwhile, the real self is shunned. The result is a frustrating inner dialogue of "should" and "ought to". This is true whether your excess of preference is shopping, alcoholism, eating or exercise.

If a gap between the ideal and real self feeds addiction, then acceptance of ourselves as we are starves it. Why? Generally, the ideal self is ideal because it is either unreachable or exhausting to reach. So to pursue it or feel blocked in pursuing it, perhaps unconsciously, is going to either drain us or defeat us, perhaps both. As such, it is far more practical and reasonable to adjust the ideal self to a realistic standard than to raise the actual self to a nearly unreachable one. Obviously, this is an act of self acceptance. Self acceptance is important; it can help us make peace with ourselves as we are. Still, this is not enough. We spend every day with ourselves, and just as your life partner wouldn't be satisfied with the thought that you merely accept them, you also need more. Along with self acceptance must come self love.

Although self love isn't revolutionary in concept it certainly is in practice. Self love means cherishing ourselves as we are here and now, being open to our internal and external realities, and understanding that we have the power to positively affect these. Only we can make this happen. While we can all point at others in the past who damaged us, repair is our responsibility. Thankfully, it is an enjoyable one. Self love requires that we treat ourselves as a friend, having compassion for ourselves and our limitations. Self love requires that we recognise and refute any critical messages we've received, and replace them with affirming, positive ones. Through this transformative self talk, you'll feel like caring for yourself like you would any loved one. In the meantime, as they say, "Fake it 'til you make it."

Self love is impossible in the bonds of addiction because addiction demands abuse of self and ignoring of the genuine needs of self. With addiction, the need for relaxation and happiness is filled to overflowing with poisons and then vomited up in a humiliating hangover. Addiction takes something as nurturing as feeding ourselves and perverts it into stuffing ourselves until we ache. These behaviours show a hatred of self and soul, obviously, but it further shows a hatred of the body. Alternatively, a positive relationship with the body can enhance our relationship with self and soul: "To create a relationship that takes you all the way to heaven, you have to accept your body completely," says Don Miguel Ruiz in The Mastery of Love. "You have to love your body and allow your body to be free to just be, to be free to give, free to receive, without being 'shy', because shy is nothing but fear." (5)

Choosing authenticity

In authenticity there is no fear, and we love our bodies and ourselves. In authenticity we have no need to hide because we have nothing we are not proud of; we accept who we are and where we are at any given moment and allow others to see us in these moments. Authenticity is open, honest and fearless - everything that addiction is not. This is why when we cultivate authenticity we form barriers to addiction, and in doing so become a positive role model for living a healthy-minded and meaningful life.

This starts within. Looking outside for answers can only take us so far, because the answers provided are not uniquely ours. While the wisdom of others may help, it is imperative that your truth be yours and not someone else's. Finding this truth requires meditation, to assist our connection with our Higher Self, the divine within. From this we can experience our true selves. This is different from the "true self" that growls prior to that first cup of morning coffee. Conversely, the addict may feel that their true self is the self that emerges when they have their addiction satisfied. This is not the true self either.

The true self, or authentic self, is obscured by years of conforming to others' views of who and how we should be. This is the self that is pure, unaffected by years of conditioning to be "someone", an elusive someone we can never quite manage to figure out how to become. Conforming to an ego-based ideal, and the exhausting strain involved, need plague us no longer. When we live authentically, we know that we are in harmony with our values and beliefs, and our actions are in honest alignment with what we feel is important. Living this way, everything that we bring into our life will be what we want rather that what others think we should have.

Being authentic requires firm boundaries. Boundaries separate us from others and ensure that we have comfortable emotional and physical space. To maintain boundaries you must be strong; this involves not letting others guilt you or "should" on you. Doing what you think you should because you feel you must, will leave you drained and resentful. Addiction, and the possibility of developing an addiction, thrives in this mental atmosphere. Realising your inherent worth as an individual is a far more serene and sober option than defining self by others' views and expectations.

Finally free

Addiction manifests in devious and unexpected ways - identifying these is the first step toward liberation. This involves replacing stereotypical ideas of what addiction is for a sophisticated awareness and courageous self examination. Spirituality involves these complementary traits: inner peace and a commitment to a non-addicted life. Both share the qualities of freedom, authenticity and self love.

Galina Pembroke and her beloved dog both enjoy a sober, serene life in British Columbia, Canada.


1. Bayda, Ezra. At Home In The Muddy Water. London: Shambhala. 2004.2. Kelly, Anita. "Revealing Personal Secrets". Current Directions in Psychological Science 8 (1999): 106.3. Christopher, Lissa. "Can't Buy Me Love. Relationships: Life and Style". The Age. December 13, 2007. The age.com.au http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/12/11/1197135465910.html?page=fullpage4. Dyer, Wayne. Change Your Thoughts Change Your life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao. Hay House Australia Pty. Ltd. 2007.5. Miguel Ruiz, Don. The Mastery of Love. Amber-Allen Publishing. 1999. http://psych.athabascau.ca/html/Glossary/demo_glossary.cgi?mode=history&term_id=1196 http://psych.eiu.edu/spencer/Existential.html

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