The appropriate use of the word “addiction” is a hotly debated conversation among mental health professionals and researchers.  

Initially, widespread addiction was used to describe an intense focus on using a certain substance(s) (Nicotine, Alcohol, Opioids, Methamphetamine, Cocaine), to the point where the person’s ability to function in day-to-day life becomes impaired. 

Obviously, people can and do form *bad habits* around all kinds of behaviors. What started out as an analogy, “I’m so addicted to this pie!” seems to have become a widespread belief that just about anything pleasurable or habit-forming can and *should* be labeled “addiction”.  

I just finished two books by mental health professionals (overall I really liked the books!)  that labeled certain behaviors as “love addiction” and “emotional addiction” without any discussion of or consideration for the scientific validity of this label. 

I am not a fan of this trend.  

I feel Big-Annoyed feelings about this trend.  

Why do I feel Big-Annoyed feelings about this trend?  

Because labeling things as an “addiction” (without evidence that it is an addiction) does active harm. 

The most egregious example is in the case of “sex/porn addiction”.  Despite the popularity of the concept and the well-funded research, there is no evidence to support that “sex addiction” is a valid or helpful label, which is why it is NOT listed as an official diagnosis in the DSM(American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  Lots of therapists and mental health programs make lots of money treating “sex addiction”, but there is no evidence that this is a valid label, nor are these treatments evidence-based.  

A list of Things that routinely get labeled as addictive (WITH NO EVIDENCE) : 

  • Sugar

  • Sex

  • Porn

  • Love

  • Emotions

  • Gaming

  • “Junk food”

  • Salt

  • Masturbation

  • The Internet

  • Self-harm

  • “Likes”

  • Exercise

  • Being Right

  • Cutting

  • Food

  • Nail Biting

  • Social Media  

Yes, you can have problematic, compulsive, and genuinely distressing problems centered around all of those things (and every other thing that feels good).  Is pleasure reinforcing? Yes. (That is actually the definition of pleasure).  Is it possible to have compulsive and habitual behaviors that get in the way of your best life? Yes.  Is this addiction? No.    

But why?  Why can’t we just call it ALL addiction?  After all, aren’t we all a hot mess? 

Labeling/diagnosing something as “addiction” labels that behavior *as-the-problem*.  As In “Your Problem IS: You Are Addicted to Porn!”  However, compulsive behaviors around sex or the internet, or food are symptoms. If you have an infection, Tylenol will make your fever go down, but you aren’t addressing the deeper problem. The fever is a symptom, treating symptoms as *the problem*  can be very harmful. 

Then what is the deeper problem? 

It depends on the person and their context.  How is their connection, their belonging?  How is their sleep?  What kinds of stories do they tell about themselves? What are their values and beliefs? Are they harsh and rigid toward themselves and others? Do they have a history of trauma or abuse? Unprocessed grief? 

See it gets messy quickly. 

“Addiction label”= Tidy. 

But also wrong. 

And shaming. 

Shame research shows that shaming increases bad habits and compulsive feelings.

Like if giving someone Tylenol made them feel worse, and actually made the infection worse. 

So stop it. 

If you are one of the people who tried a 12-step program for love or food addiction and found it genuinely helpful, I do not mean to diminish your experience, I’m happy for you.  Twelve-step programs, when done well, have helped many people (although not a majority of people), and if it worked for you, it worked for you! 

But if you are struggling with compulsive feelings or bad habits, rather than labeling your behavior as an addiction, ask yourself (with compassion, curiosity, and non-judgment) what underlying causes are at play. Labeling behavior as an addiction just doesn’t give us the information we need. 

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