Free Your Mind and Your Addiction Will Follow

February 22nd, 2020

I’d rather be whole than good.

attributed to Carl Jung

Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, founded in the 1960’s by Marshall Rosenberg, shows how addiction can stem from how we think. How we think is expressed in how we talk, especially to ourselves. If we talk violently to ourselves, addiction is likely. If we approach ourselves with compassion, recovery will take its place.

Violent thinking is based on moralistic judgments. When we think of ourselves in terms of “good” or “bad,” we foster addiction. When, instead, we address our real needs, addiction falls away.

Language reflects culture. And our culture, says Rosenberg, is based on the assumption that people are bad: that is, selfish and sinful. If people are inherently bad, it means you have to teach them to be good. You need a system to train and force them, if necessary, to “behave.” You have to dominate them.

This is domination culture, more commonly known as “The System.” This authoritarian approach to human behavior readily fosters addiction. To move beyond this moralistic mindset is to recover a true sense of self. When we embrace ourselves as we are, we can feel whole again.

Father Knows Best

Growing up in any culture is a process of socialization. As social animals, we inherently feel shame, which is the impulse to act only in ways approved of by society. We learn how to act from our parents. We naturally try to fit in.

Trying to force ourselves or others to fit in, however, pits parent against child, government against citizen, corporation against consumer, and mind against body. Life becomes all about control: how to get people to do what you want them to do by getting them to think it’s what they should do. It’s a top-down approach, from head of state to our own mental state.

Institutionalized violence stems from the idea of having to obey authority. This belief system tells you to trust the experts because you can’t trust yourself. Domination culture capitalizes on our sense of shame by turning it from a learning tool to an instrument of subjugation.

Who Holds the Key?

Domination culture is as old as civilization, but human beings have been around a lot longer than that. We have always lived in groups, and to the best of our knowledge, these groups were always fiercely egalitarian. Domination was not tolerated. After all, it was contrary to our nature, to the way humans evolved to survive.

What happened? Was it the rise of hierarchical societies that prompted those in power to concoct the myth of the “bad” human? Are they, and those currently in power, the real bad guys?

No. There are no “bad guys.” That’s just the same myth redirected.

Is it just a bad system? No, that doesn’t work either. To re-establish a culture that works, one that doesn’t lead to addiction, we have to look beyond ideas of “good and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.”

Domination culture is not “bad” or “wrong.” It’s simply where we’re at. Like anything else, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

To be able to choose a different way, we need to be able to focus not just on what we don’t want, but on what we do want. Moving beyond addiction means living, as NVC teacher Steve Torma puts it, with “less pushing away and more moving toward.” Or, as therapist Jodi Rodgers says, we heal not just from but to.

As I talk about liberation, then, remember that resentment is, as they say, like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. “Have you forgiven your captors?” asks Jack Kornfield. If not, he points out, you are still captive.

Scared Straight

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Picture being taken out of nature, put into a classroom, and forced to sit still in rows facing a teacher. You are punished for what you do wrong and rewarded for what you do right. This is the process of taming a wild animal. Socialization is domestication.

Being raised in our society is like being trained to be a circus act, jumping through hoops to avoid the whip and earn a treat. We live in deep anxiety, in constant fear of violent punishment, which we call “retributive justice.” Usually just the threat of violence is enough.

For a social animal, disapproval alone is intensely painful. We split off and push parts of ourselves into the shadow in order to get approval. If a disapproving glance isn’t enough, and words of disapproval don’t suffice, next comes the threat of violence, including eternal damnation, and finally, physical violence itself.

We talk about the slavery of addiction, but by the time we get addicted, we are slaves already, inside and out. Wage slavery rules our body; ‘should’ slavery rules our mind. In a performance-based society, to “deserve” anything, you have to earn it.

By the same token, domination culture makes it a harrowing prospect to ever admit you were “wrong,” that is, that you did something that others may not approve of. This socialization replaces our own natural pleasure/pain, positive/negative reinforcement system with an external one. Our real needs go unmet because we fear the punishment that can come from meeting them.

Round Pegs in Square Roles

In domination culture, “parent” and “child” are not necessarily healthy, natural roles. They can be, but when these roles take over the relationship, then there is power over, that is, domination, with the threat of rejection if not violence. Then the relationship can no longer be authentic: mutually honest and free.

Of course, there are times when a parent may find it necessary to force their child to do something. But those times should be rare, and they need to be “repaired” every time. Force wounds people, and those wounds must be healed.

In domination culture, force is commonplace and healing is rare. Parents are often not guided by what meets their children’s needs because they’re not guided by what meets their own. They’re guided by society, and our culture isn’t primarily concerned with meeting needs. Modern cities, for example, aren’t designed for people; they’re designed for industry. Public schooling, like the prison system, is an industry as well. We are taught to believe that we live in an egalitarian society, but even democracy is “might makes right.” It’s rule of the majority — at best.

Who’s Bad?

Violence is abuse, and “an abusive system is designed to protect the abuser.” We’re told that it’s for our own good. Do the authorities actually believe that, or are they just using this story to manipulate the masses?

It doesn’t matter. Like I said, this isn’t about who started it or who’s continuing it. The premise of NVC is that no one is “bad.” “There are no enemies here… Those who are doing these things are human beings like the rest of us.” No human being is “evil.” Consequently, there is no one to blame.

This is not about victims and perpetrators. We are all, every one of us, always doing the best we can. If you get angry reading about domination culture, it means you have needs to meet. It doesn’t mean you need revenge. That’s just part of the old “good” vs. “evil” mindset.

Reverse Psychology

In the Chinese philosophy of nature, nature has no boss. There is no principle that forces things to behave the way they do…Nature, human nature included, is an organism, and an organism is a system of orderly anarchy. There is no boss in it, but it gets along by being left alone and being allowed to do its stuff…

I must trust myself to a nature which doesn’t have a boss. Because a boss is a system of mistrust.

NVC reminds us that human beings naturally care for others. This is not to say that we are inherently “good.” It simply means that we are innately social creatures, as neuroscience clearly shows. In domination culture, we are habitually scared into thinking only of ourselves. The System achieves the opposite of what it purportedly sets out to do.

We live under the “rule of law,” yet it’s because laws are unnatural that they need to be enforced. In a natural world, laws are unnecessary. As social animals, shame (a.k.a., conscience) is the built-in force that motivates us to do what’s “right.”

Like the early taoists pointed out, laws are what you need once real caring for each other is lost. That’s when you need force: when our natural inclinations have been suppressed. This view is central to anarchism and common to many feminist thinkers as well.

Everyone pays for this. What anyone gains in status or power, they lose in isolation. It’s lonely at the top. Yet the system is self-perpetuating. It’s inherently addictive because it’s a byproduct of thinking itself.

When Thinking is the Box

Our eyes are not only viewers, but also projectors that are running a second story over the picture we see in front of us all the time. Fear is writing that script and the working title is, ‘I’ll never be enough.’

The idea of humans being sinful is central to fall/redemption Christianity. But there’s nothing uniquely Christian about being moralistic and punitive. It’s present in any culture that categorizes people with qualitative judgments. Labels like “mentally ill,” “drug-dependent,” and “alcoholic” turn people into things and lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Church and state are no different in that both impose laws, a.k.a., commandments. Whether Buddhism, for example, is a religion depends on whether it is merely descriptive, that is, telling us the way things are, or proscriptive, telling us the way things should be, including how we should behave.

However, all description is proscriptive in that it postulates a paradigm, a worldview which, to a great extent, influences behavior. Like Don Coyhis, founder of the Native American recovery nonprofit White Bison says, “if you want to care for something, you call it a flower. If you want to kill something, you call it a weed.” We see what we’re taught to see, and “what you see is what you get.”

I Think, Therefore I’m Lonely

In Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, there is an illustration: a drawing of a chicken which is labeled A, and a drawing of grass which is labeled B. Underneath the two drawings is a drawing of a cow, and the question asked is: “What goes with this: A or B?”

Researchers found that American children linked cow with chicken since they were both classifiable objects belonging to the same “taxonomic” category. Chinese children said the cow and grass go together because “the cow eats the grass.”

In the Western tradition, traceable back to the ancient Greeks, children are taught to classify objects according to rules, while in the Eastern tradition, children are taught that everything is connected to everything else, and so they look for relationships…

We all learn to speak this language from birth, and in so doing, our alienation from each other happens completely out of awareness. We accept our loneliness as being the natural state, when it really is not.

Human language has the allure/danger of explaining the world, which is why we often end up worshipping the word, including collections of words, that is, books, including The Bible (which simply means “the book”). But a language based on classification, on separating right from wrong and putting everything in its proper place, can have dire consequences. One of them, a major driver of addiction, is social isolation.

Ideas can alienate us not only from others but from ourselves. After all, any form of identification, as in “I am _______,” is a static, artificial proposition. The Twelve Step label of “addict,” for example, can be contrived, self-perpetuating, and mask what’s really going on. Some have even proposed a modification of English language to avoid such pronouncements, sometimes referred to as “stinking thinking.”

Three’s Company Too

Rumi’s love and honor for all religious traditions was not always popular in his day, and often provoked criticism from the more dogmatic. A story is told that one such public challenge came from a Muslim dignitary, Qonavi, who confronted Rumi before an audience. “You claim to be at one with 72 religious sects,” said Qonavi, “but the Jews cannot agree with the Christians, and the Christians cannot agree with Muslims. If they cannot agree with each other, how could you agree with them all?” To this Rumi answered, “Yes, you are right, I agree with you too.”

Sufis don’t hold much stock in labels or belief systems, which carve up the world and segregate us within it. The hazards of human thinking are why, in NVC, we speak from experience rather than judgement, distinguishing an interpretation from an observation, opinion from fact. It’s one thing to say, “you left the house at 8:30.” It’s another to say, “you abandoned me.”

Ideas are like the internet: they can take us away from real life. Used carefully, on the other hand, they can bring us back to it. Ideas can, ideally, connect us to others and ourselves. NVC, for example, makes use of a list of about seventy-five basic human needs, from “air” to “meaning.” A list is just a bunch of words. But words can help us to recognize and distinguish our actual needs, that is, what is truly “alive for us.” It all depends on the intention.

Is the intention to meet just some people’s needs or everyone’s? Is it to meet all your needs or just a few? For one or more people to live long and well, no one and no one need can be left out. Human society is a package deal.

Can’t Touch This

The people we call addicts tend to be the most sensitive people in the family. They tend to be deeply empathic, which means they feel everybody else, often times more acutely than they feel themselves, largely because they weren’t allowed to have a self, either because it was too dangerous to be a self, or they were constantly told that who they were – what they were expressing – was incorrect or ridiculous or whatever, and they learned to survive by denying what their own experience was…

I think usually people are just terrified to feel, particularly addicts

What’s alive for us is always what’s going on in our bodies. In order for people to function in a domination culture, that is, to be obedient, they have to be out of their bodies, where they feel their feelings, and in their heads, where instead, they think about the ideas of “right” and “wrong” handed to them.

Once you’re thinking in terms of right and wrong, once you believe that you need to listen to the authorities, then, when your feelings come up, pointing to your own, forbidden needs, you are bound to think, “there must be something wrong with me. I can’t trust my own body.”

This is biophobia, fear of nature: specifically, human nature. It’s why therapy can be more effective when it has a somatic component, because the body is where the truth, the “shadow,” resides.

Mr. Big Stuff

One of the most familiar commandments of domination culture in the modern era is “Thou Shalt Shop.” To stuff your feelings and “buy into” society means to buy stuff. For most of us, that means working to earn the money to do so. Even having the money is not enough because we are taught that happiness also comes from status, power, etc. Since these things don’t meet our real needs, we continue in the rat race, the hamster wheel. We work harder and harder to get what we don’t really need while most of our basic needs go unmet. You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.

When needs go unmet, we feel pain. They create “noise in the system.” Our culture teaches us to block it out. We “shoot the messenger” by killing the pain with painkillers, or we distract ourselves with addictive behaviors. These two approaches correspond to fight and flight, respectively. We may even blame others for causing our feelings, a result of being ruled by outside forces, of externalizing control.

Taking the place of self-control is the internalized voice of authority. We develop “hang-ups” that are really the fear of being hung, as in lynched. We’re imprisoned in our own minds, so a common, logical response is depression.

Highway to Hell

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small…
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all…
They hurt you at home and they hit you at school…
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules…
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear

John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”

Marshall Rosenberg, citing Ernest Becker, says depression stems from “cognitively-arrested alternatives,” that is, feeling trapped. Imagine someone following you around all day, constantly telling you all the things you’re not doing right. Where can you run? How can you fight back? How do you shut it off? What extremes would you go to to get them to just shut up?

One of the most common ways to shut off this inner dialogue is through substances. Drinking, for example, gives us some relief from the torment. Nicotine, video games, or anything that focuses our attention are all known to switch off self-talk.

To soothe the pain of unmet needs, we do whatever we can get away with. The more severe the pain, the more extreme the measures: the more willing we are to break the law. Addiction can even be a form of rebellion: a last, desperate stand against The System. After all, the “war on drugs” has always been a war on the individual.

The real intoxication is internalizing toxic shame. This happens long before physical intoxication, which is one way of fighting back: to try to silence the silencer, to poison the poison.

How Can I Help?

Maté offered a surprising response when asked how parents should deal with a drug-addicted daughter. “The first step is they’re going to have to be perfectly okay with their daughter using,” Maté replied. “They have to be perfectly okay with this. Say, ‘this is what’s happening.’ Not resist it or resent it. Not wish her to be different. Not work to make her different than the way she is. Because what this girl did not get in the first place was unconditional loving acceptance—not because they didn’t intend it, but because they couldn’t deliver it because of their own stuff.”

The point of harm reduction, a noncoercive approach to addiction, is to stop trying to get people to do what we want them to do. In NVC, that’s the last thing we want. With NVC, we don’t try to control people, to get them to change their behavior. “The more important the desired outcome… the more important it is not to make commands.”

When someone is doing something we don’t think is good for them, the most helpful objective is not to get them to stop. It’s to help them to find other ways of meeting whatever needs their behavior is meeting at less cost to themselves. Judging or blaming them only makes things worse. Better to communicate that you understand that they are doing the best thing they can possibly do.

And we do it together. NVC is collaborative, not pedantic. It’s not about convincing people of anything; it’s about really connecting. We can’t help others by treating them like rats or guinea pigs in an experiment designed to produce measurable outcomes. In domination culture’s grand experiment, these include becoming law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. To treat yourself this way is to set yourself up for failure and addiction.

Free to be You and Me

Above all, NVC is about getting us back into our hearts. As long we’re stuck in our heads, we will never break out of our invisible prison. Real recovery is not about “getting your life back together,” “healing,” or “becoming a better person” any more than it is about “getting clean,” “staying sober,” or even staying alive. Those can all just be different ways of beating up on yourself. The bottom line is that bettering is battering. The point is not self-improvement or even self-preservation but self-acceptance.

“Hold yourself,” says The Buddha, “as a mother holds her beloved child.” Be the parent you may not have had. Welcome your feelings and they will tell you your needs. Free your body and your mind will follow.

Alan Muskat serves on the board of SeekHealing. His website is AlanMuskat.com.