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The Need for Instant Gratification with Addiction

By Cathy Patterson-Sterling, MA, RCC

Director of Family Services – Sunshine Coast Health Center

I am often asked by family members of loved ones with addictions if there are any common characteristics that I believe that most people with addictions all have.  Of course, there are common patterns such as self-sabotage cycles, perfectionism, a tendency towards selfishness or self-focused thoughts, and self-pity. Perhaps one of the strongest patterns that I witness is the need that many people with addictions have for “instant gratification” or, in other words, the hedonistic need for wanting something pleasurable immediately.

The problem with instant gratification is that it becomes insatiable. People with addictions cannot “fill up” or be satisfied if their needs for instant gratification are met because they are always left wanting more. In fact, individuals with addictions will often describe themselves as an empty shell just waiting to be filled up. As a result, these people “grasp” at material items, mood-altering drugs, hedonistic pleasures/indulgences like sex, or attention from others to make them feel fulfilled. Others will focus on their “outside worlds” by working compulsively to pay for expensive houses, material items, family’s needs, cars, toys, etc. Such individuals are successful career people who have a lot to show for their working efforts. The problem, however, is that they expect the outside world of material values and status to provide them with inner contentment. Material items and status are empty values and with a pattern of instant gratification, people with addictions become hooked into a cycle of just wanting more money, more attention, more status, more material items, and more resources to go towards increasing their drug supplies. One problem with “more” is that it is never enough because with “more” of the above, people in these cycles just want “more” of the same while still expecting to attain some elusive state of happiness. These people say to themselves that they will be “happy when …” Such individuals do not realize that happiness comes from within and is cultivated through an attitude of gratitude.

In order for people to be truly “filled up,” then they must build themselves from the inside out and not the outside in. This means that they need to connect with who they really are on the inside as they explore their identities, interests, personalities, skills, goals, and legacies rather than wasting more energy trying to become more affluent as well as prominent in the world. This does not mean that happy people cannot be wealthy or successful. Instead, individuals need to identify their real values from the inside rather than expecting a certain level of material comfort or a particular amount of mood-altering substances to make them happy. Such experiences are meaningless as well as fleeting. In order for people to be content, they need to express who they are from the inside out as they then use their skills/talents/strengths to help others.

There is a common saying in AA that reads: “You cannot keep what you are not prepared to give away.”  This means that if people want to be happy and stop the misery cycle of unsatisfied instant gratification (waiting for something on the outside to fill you up on the inside) then they need to give back to the world in some way. Such activities can include mentoring, service work, or volunteering. Once people fill themselves up from the inside out, then they can let go of the chains to instant gratification that keep their egos, distorted thinking patterns, and overall addictions in place. Recovery then becomes a new way of living and being in the world without having to feed the burdening desire for constant, immediate gratification.

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