Can You Be Addicted to Emotional Pain?

Is it possible that you can experience emotional addiction? Absolutely. Just like physical pain and physical symptoms can take us over, so can emotional addictive behaviors. As much as we dislike emotional distress, it’s such a familiar state stemming from traumatic experiences, including childhood trauma, that for many of us, it can act as a default drive and deeply impact a person’s life. Let me explain.

Many people suffer from cherophobia, which means the inability to be fully happy. Even when they’re surrounded by good news, they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The brain chemicals from all their negative experiences keep circulating, plagueing much of their lives, blunting full enjoyment. Because their negative view and the particular emotions associated with that viewpoint are so familiar, the minute something good happens, they instantly start looking for something bad to follow.

Emotional Pain Addiction or Emotional DNA?

We call patterns of thoughts, feelings, actions, and decisions your emotional DNA. And in this case, we’re talking about your negative emotional DNA. But here’s where an interesting question comes up. Are we addicted to emotional pain like other addictive substances? Is our emotional response a conditioned inherited pattern? Or can it be both?

Emotional DNA is formed by human beings over many, many generations. We think we have free will, but not so much. Until we know what lives in our family system—things such as past traumas, emotional abuse, suicidal ideation, substance use disorder, and other negative thoughts and emotions experienced by ancestral family members—until we get a handle on the psychological pain of our ancestors as well as the results of the effects of emotional trauma experienced in our own lives, we are at the mercy of multigenerational patterns.

In other words, we are not really living our own lives. Often, we are repeating the patterns of those who came before us or the pain patterns we have unconsciously developed ourselves. Until we become aware of these patterns, we’re not fully present and have little control. Thus we create a predictable future. A future that is likely to be similar to the lives of those who preceded us.

Built over generations, these patterns and inherited painful emotions are often stronger than our desire to overcome them. A sure way to identify such a pattern is to look at where you do things that may not be good for you but you find yourself slipping into doing them anyway because they’re just so familiar. You know, like always getting into abusive relationships, or indulging in alcohol or drug abuse, overeating etc. This is known as being in a systemic trance, which looks very similar to an addiction. Escape from it requires a goal that is strong enough to ignite you to move past the family pattern and your current state into patterns of your own choice and making.

Traumatic Events

I once had a client named “Anne” who explained, in detail, what her emotional addiction and her life looked like. And it was basically a repeated series of traumatic events that created a cascade of feelings around those traumas that she actually enjoyed. Situations that had her heart racing, events forcing quick decisions, and dramas where she got to be the voice of reason all made her feel alive, vibrant and useful.

But when the trauma ended, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself or how to deal with the effects of trauma. Normal day-to-day life felt awkward and dull, lifeless and depressing. For her, traumatic experiences had created a new emotional habit and cluster of negative emotions. The emotional distress was actually acting as a reward system and was preferable to normal everyday life.

So, back to the question of emotional addiction or emotional DNA? At first, it looked like Anne was simply addicted to traumatic events and the emotional high they gave her. But investigating her family system, it turns out she was the only living child out of six. She often commented that life itself, let alone having a good time, didn’t necessarily feel that important. In fact, she found herself drawn more to those who were dead than she was to the living

It wasn’t until she had a serious car accident that she realized the only time she felt fully alive and awake was when she was fully engaged in trauma—moments in which she could choose life. Only in those moments, she was free of negative feelings brought on by the entanglement with her dead siblings and the survivor’s guilt she was experiencing.

Hard Work, Exciting Work

Understanding that she needed to choose life took time. It was a lot of hard work to find purpose outside of trauma. Her loyalty to those feelings (and her siblings) had been built over decades of daily life, and now she needed something more enticing, yet peaceful and non-life-threatening in order to rewire current patterns in her brain and nervous system. She needed to lay down new conscious neural pathways through awareness and commitment to creating and experiencing one new thought, one new feeling, and one new healthy action at a time.

Her first step was to start discovering things that excited her in a positive way—that stimulated thoughts, feelings and actions that created the desire and determination to have something or do something new and life oriented, no matter what. She had to learn how to tell herself a different story and create positive goals to focus on.

Once she achieved one goal, she needed to identify the next goal, and then the next, building forward momentum that would keep her from getting sucked back into the systemic trance of painful emotions and traumatic experiences. You might even say she had to become positively addicted to a new set of patterns that would start to create new emotional DNA.

Identifying & Flipping Your Script

There are several different strategies that you can use to help you flip your script. Here’s how you can identify if you’re experiencing emotional addiction and multigenerational entanglement.

1) The first step is to identify if:

– You always hit the same or similar batch of thoughts, feelings, and actions that keep you stuck.

– Others in your family have similar patterns of painful emotions and addictive behaviors. (meta patterns)

– You would like to do something different, but negative thoughts tell you this is just the way it is and you give up.

2) Next step:

Determine what you’re getting out of these patterns. What are they giving you? My client felt alive during trauma. What emotions do you feel when your patterns come calling? Do you like those emotions? Even if the emotional reaction is negative, are you still getting something out of it? Sympathy? Perhaps an excuse not to shine? Permission to give up? Permission to act out? Permission to freeze? Something else? In what ways are these “rewards” unhelpful/unhealthy?

Ask yourself what staying in your current emotional addiction/addictive behaviors/emotional entanglement is costing you and ask yourself what creating a different set of patterns will give you. Your answers may surprise you. You were built to be a champion, not an addict!

3) Tie your positive goal or outcome to a higher emotion.

Flip the script. Take a deep breath and have patience and grace with yourself as you go from lower to higher emotions. Ask yourself:

– What higher emotion (gratitude, joy, kindness, appreciation, excitement, appetite for life, ambition) is your ‘go to’ emotion when you want to accomplish something?

– Is it stronger than the patterns of thoughts, feelings, actions, and situations that pull you down?

– What will excite you off the sofa and into activity?

Can you identify a goal or idea or dream that excites you enough to stimulate at least one of those higher emotions?

Hint: This may well involve doing something completely different than what you are used to doing. And that’s great! You are reaching past old patterns and consciously wiring in new ones. Keep going! Neuroscientists understand it takes an average of 66 days to wire in a new set of patterns. That’s less than three months!

Be aware of what you tell yourself once you start to rewire patterns.

Change the story, change the language. Instead of bullying yourself, you are championing yourself. You are building resilience and a pathway that keeps you present and focused on the goal in mind.

Be aware of how you feel and act differently as you change your thoughts from low to high.

Back to my client Anne. No, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for her and her life didn’t change overnight. She calls herself a “constant work in progress,” with a strong emphasis on the word progress. She’s quite clear that life is important and does everything she can to think and act that way. She’s also realized that appreciating and enjoying her life is the best way to honor her deceased siblings.

As a result, predictably, her life is a lot more fun and she inspires others around her. When the systemic trance/addiction/entanglement comes calling (and it does), she is not dismayed. She acknowledges the feeling and the familiarity, and then returns her attention to accomplishing her next goal, honoring even the most subtle changes and positive steps as she continues to build new, positive emotional DNA.

To find out more about how to grow your own positive Emotional DNA, attend one of our events this year!  For more information about my 2024 events click here.