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Addiction to Distractions

By Dr. Margaret Paul
April 12, 2010

Some addictions are obvious, like food, drugs, and alcohol. Some addictions are subtle, and the addiction to distractions is one of these.

When we were growing up, we experienced many life situations that caused us deep heartbreak. Any time we lost someone we loved, or we were yelled at, ridiculed, shamed, ignored, not seen or connected with, physically or sexually abused, or treated in any other unloving ways, our little hearts broke. But we could not manage this intense heartbreak, so we had to learn various addictive ways of managing the feeling. We might have learned to eat, to dissociate from our body and live in our head, to watch TV, to have tantrums, to give ourselves up, and any number of other ways to avoid the pain we could not manage.

Some of the ways we learned are obvious, like alcohol, drugs, or food. But some are not so obvious, such as an addiction to distraction.

Bartlett did not turn to substance addictions or even many process addictions as he was growing up. Instead, his major addiction became a form of distracting himself from his feelings. I started to work with Bartlett shortly after his long marriage ended. I soon noticed that, rather than feel his heartbreak over the divorce, Bartlett would deflect it by talking in great detail about what his ex recently said to him or how his ex was treating him. He would spend time and energy asking why she did what she did, or why he did what he did. Yet each time I stopped him and asked him what he was feeling, he would pause and then quietly say, "Heartbroken." This was such a deep addiction that within seconds of become aware of his heartbreak, he would launch once again into details of "Poor me, she said this to me, and then I said that to her." His wounded self felt safer seeing himself as a victim than in feeling his authentic heartbreak over the divorce.

Megan did a similar thing. Megan has learned to stay focused in her head rather than in her heart and soul. By staying in her head, she didn't have to feel the heartbreak of life. When she found out that her husband was having an affair and was in love with the other woman, she did a similar thing to Bartlett. A highly intelligent woman, she would spout paragraphs she had read about people like her husband, analyzing him over and over in her attempts to ward off her heartbreak. Over and over I brought her back into her body, back into her feelings, so that she could learn to feel and manage them rather than continually avoid them, as the avoidance of them was causing her migraines.

Max, a young man in his late 20s, used a similar, but slightly different form of distraction. Max had been a lost soul for a long time. After graduating college, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, so he moved in with a girlfriend and got odd jobs. But now his girlfriend was tired of his irresponsibility and kicked him out.

In my first session with Max, he started to talk about how often other people pulled on him, wanting things from him. A highly sensitive person, he was likely right about people pulling on his, as he is a big handsome man. But it soon became obvious to me that Max was in the habit of externalizing his fear. When I pinned him down, he admitted to a huge fear of failure that had kept him back from making effort in his life. His terror came from deep heartbreak early in his life when his father left the family and he believed it was his fault. When his fear came up, he would immediately distract by telling me about who was trying to hurt him, who was following him, who was trying to manipulate him. His paranoid focus was a form of externalizing his internal fear.

As Max, Megan, and Bartlett learned how to manage their heartbreak, they were able to stop their addiction to distractions.


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