Food, sex, drugs, or alcohol are just some of thethings people use excessively, but does that mean they have an addictive personality and as such are stuck repeating the same mistakes over and over again? Our media is littered with the tragic wreckage of famous celebrities from Elvis Presley, Lindsay Lohan through to Amy Winehouse. Being labeled as addictive has connotations of a disease with no cure, but perhaps there is a more hopeful way of understanding what is really going on for someone who is an addict.

Heinz Kohut (1913 -1981) was an Austrian-born American psychoanalyst best known for his development of Self Psychology. According to Kohut, the self can only develop when one’s sense of worth and well-being, are met in relationships with others. Kohut (1971) explains addiction as a way a person compensates for the unsatisfied psychological needs they missed out on when they were young. He emphasized that the craving for substances was an attempt to cure the feeling that there was “something wrong with me”.  Substances are the substitute for parental praise, support and the experience of having parents to lean on that are strong, capable adults. If we think about the lifestyle of a childhood star like Lindsay Lohan, it is not hard to imagine that a normal lifestyle, where all these stabilizers were in place, may have been missing.

Following on from Kohut’s work, Bernard Brandshaft (1988) described the histories of people who suffer from addiction as ones “derailed” in their early years in their attempts to become authentic and separate people from their parents. Brandshaft discovered that often addicts used alcohol and drugs as a response to manage their own intense feeling states, because they knew no other way to take care of themselves when they were feeling very distressed. Intolerable feelings of helplessness and an inability to trust and turn to others to help with these overwhelming feelings, resulted in the use of drugs to restore a sense of control. Certainly celebrities have an even a harder time knowing whom they can really trust and developing safe trustworthy relationships.

Similarly, for my client whom I will call Peter, who suffered childhood neglect and domination and as a result was unable to trust or turn to other people for support. He discovered in desperation that the only means of relief was to turn to the bottle because then he was relying on himself not others. His challenge was to build enough trust with me in therapy to be able to have a new experience of empathy and support with someone that could help him withstand his pain. It took many attempts for Peter to let go of the old crutch of alcohol but gradually he got truly sick of using it to numb himself.  Slowly he became more courageous and began to turn towards me, to help him learn new ways of bearing the trauma he had experienced as a child and the intense feelings that it triggered in his day to day life now.

So……Is it really possible to give up addiction?

From a self-psychological point of view, the problems started in early relationships and therefore one way for an addict to get help is via new and different relationships. Seeking a professional therapeutic relationship where you get to understand and explore your unmet emotional needs, allows you the chance to learn new ways of managing your feelings. If you have someone responding appropriately with empathy, to what is going on for you, then some of the ways you take care of yourself can be understood and new ways of soothing distress can be learnt. To read more about this see my homepage at counsellor melbourne.

The path to giving up a chronic use of substances is by no means easy or straight forward. However, when seen as a compensation for important and much needed parental praise, connection and guidance, it becomes much more understandable and it can be worked with compassionately, by both the addict and the person they choose to help them give up the addiction.


Brandshaft, B. (2001) Obsessional disorders. Pschanal. Inq., 21: 253-288.

Jones. D.B. (2009) Addiction and Pathological Accommodation. In: International Journal of Psychoanalytic self-psychology, 4:212 – 234.

Kohut. H. (1977b) Self deficits and Addiction. In: The Dynamics and treatment of Alcoholism: Essential Papers, eds. J.Levin. & R.Weiss. Aronson. 1994, pp vi – xi.