Addictive Behaviors, Compulsions and Habits:

A Spectrum of Need Intensity

by Elizabeth Holtzman


When one thinks of an "addict" the association that may come to mind is of an alcoholic lying in the gutter or a junkie stealing to get their next fix. The scope of addictions and addictive behaviors is much wider, however. There is a spectrum which begins with innocuous habits, moves on to compulsions and ends with the severity of true addictions.

Habits can be associated with words like usually, prefer, and like. "I like to have a beer while I watch baseball." "I usually eat chocolate every day." " I prefer to have a new car ever two years." The person prefers these things but if they aren't available the desire will pass and the person goes on with life. Habits can be broken with a bit of determination and it doesn't necessarily involve a need for insight or looking at inner defensive structures developed in childhood. If habits become more deeply entrenched and the person finds himself saying " I should stop this but I just can't seem to" then he is moving along the spectrum into the realm of compulsive behavior.

Compulsive behaviors are rooted in a need to reduce tension caused by inner feelings a person wants to avoid or control. Compulsive behaviors are repetitive and seemingly purposeful and are often performed in a ritualistic manner. These behaviors may involve sex, food, caffeine, nicotine, gambling, spending, TV watching, Internet surfing, cleaning, washing, drugs or alcohol. The key point is that the activity is not connected to the purpose it appears to be directed to, and is likely to be excessive. Examples could be a person who is afraid of bonding with a partner choosing to zone out with the TV, or a person who has never had enough love filling up on a gallon of ice cream.

Can't, must and I've got to are words often associated with compulsions. "I've got to buy a scratch ticket from the Dairy Mart in Enfield." "I must exercise today or my day will be ruined." "I can't relax until I clean the house." Behaviors that may have developed as attempts to deal with childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment may then become potentially destructive compulsions in adulthood. In general, compulsive behaviors limit enjoyment of life and intimacy in relationships but they do not necessarily destroy them.

Addiction differs from compulsion in that it inevitably escalates. A web of deceit , cover-ups, and detachment from a sense of self escalate. Harmful consequences can be external, e.g. loss of job, car crashes – or internal , e.g.. detachment, depression, lack of ability to feel or concentrate. There may also be physical consequences such as illness, hypertension and memory loss.

Addictions, unlike compulsions , often involve people in one's life colluding in denial . You see people tiptoeing around the "elephant in the room." The flip side of that denial is over involvement with everyone focusing on the addictive person and his problem. The crucial factor is that addiction has profound effects on people in the immediate social network or family.

Addictions have interwoven physical, psychological and social aspects that are uniquely blended in each person who suffers with an addiction. The important point in assessing a person's situation is to remember that each person is unique and to help that person understand their own addictive process.

If you or someone you care about is concerned about a compulsion or addiction, the FSAP is a resource that you can turn to for help. A professional counselor will help you explore your questions and assist with a referral for further help if that is indicated.


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Last updated August 19, 2000.