Vulnerability and Addiction


Addiction (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

When someone comes to me for help with an addiction one of the first things we do is to identify events that trigger their addictive behaviors. We then identify activities and thoughts that are nurturing to them, as well as the signs within them that they are in a dangerous place emotionally with their addiction. These things dance around a central concept that is not directly talked about very often in addiction circles. That concept is vulnerability. We may speak of being “in a bad place”, but we often speak of a temporary state of being when we say that. Vulnerabilities can be more complicated and often last a long time. Triggers tend to be events, while vulnerabilities have more to do with our ongoing state of being.

In recovery it’s always important to know the nature and extent of your vulnerabilities and how vulnerable you are to acting out at any point in time. This is important because it can be very easy to misjudge your vulnerability. Also, ones acceptance of being vulnerable can trigger shame, and we are inclined to underestimate it. However, we need to be honest with ourselves about this because when we are very vulnerable a small trigger can be enough to send us over the edge. At other times, when we are at a good place, we may be able to withstand a rather large difficult emotional or physical event without failure.

I often have clients come in who have had a slip and are surprised by it even as it happens. They describe “watching themselves” act destructively as if they were someone else watching the event. When I do a post mortem with them to determine what contributed to a slip or relapse, it often becomes clear that the main trigger that created the vulnerable state happened days or weeks before the actual slip or relapse occurred. In my own life, when I get too angry in traffic I sit down with myself and ask what else I am upset about.  Something else has been going on, and my reactions show it. Often the event or events that have concerned me actually happened days or even weeks previously, and things have been simmering on the back burner of my mind.

Essentially we all carry inside us the sum of the vulnerabilities we have accumulated over time that have not worn off. A nap may take care of temporary weariness, but the effects of sexual abuse may last a lifetime.

The concept of vulnerability also helps one to understand how an addiction develops to begin with. In some addictions, and perhaps all of them, there is a genetic component from birth that creates vulnerability to addiction in both the body and brain. It is also clear that traumatic experiences create emotional, and possibly chemical, vulnerabilities to addiction. And at any point in life events can happen–the death of a family member, economic difficulties, job frustrations, or relational problems–that can increase our vulnerability to acting destructively for long periods of time after they happen.

In summary, it can be difficult in recovery to stay aware of your level of vulnerability for acting out, but it is important to do so. This is especially true in early recovery.  Knowing your level of long term vulnerabilities and working on reducing them, while not ignoring the shorter term triggers, is critical.  Even short term attitudes are important. AA has long identified resentment as creating vulnerability to acting out. Self pity does the same. Going to a 12-step meeting, working the steps, talking to a friend or sponsor, or even taking a nap can reduce ones vulnerability. Getting some therapy can help with the more enduring vulnerabilities. All of these affect ones state of being. It’s a simple concept, but it can help to keep you sober.


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2 Responses to Vulnerability and Addiction

  1. beautiful7 says:

    I really enjoyed your discussion of this, and it is a perspective I haven’t heard dealt with in detail yet. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Interesting. Genetic vulnerability, yes. Emotional vulnerability from ghosts from a traumatic past, yes. I read somewhere that alcoholics/addicts actually experience stress in a completely different way than non-addicts. Makes sense to me. Maybe one of the things that makes us vulnerable is the way we related to our own emotional states – that somehow, they are or can be dangerous. So we take something or do something to rid ourselves of feelings because they do seem, sometimes, to be intolerable.

    I think, also, a person’s vulnerability depends on whether or not they’re “externally validating” or “internally validating”. If I take my self-worth or lack thereof from the attitudes and words of others, I’m always vulnerable. The more I can evaluate my behaviors from within, the less vulnerable I feel.

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