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Is It Addictive Relating or Is It Subconscious Fear of Intimacy?

Addiction seems a paradox, as psychologist and author Dr. Brenda Schaeffer pointed out in a ground-breaking book published in the late 1980s, titled Is It Love or Is It Addiction, a frantic attempt to get control over our life that, instead, relinquishes control to some substance, activity or person.

It is also a cheap substitute for authentic living, and an ineffective and potentially lethal option at that.

At best, addiction offers quick-fix doses of relief that merely hide, mask or numb the pain of deep unfulfilled emotional expectations, a heaviness lugged around, day after day.

  • Addiction is a behavior pattern we cannot stop despite evidence of its harm and increased problems in our lives.

There are many types, some widely known, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, food or spending, and others less so, such as sex and love, angry outbursts, fault-finding, pornography, hoarding, and so on.

Neuroscience has given us a better understanding of the neural operating systems of the brain that control addiction. Studies show addictive relating, sex or love addiction seem to activate many of the same physical reactions in the brain and body.

The high is produced by pleasure-inducing neurochemicals, dopamine in particular, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the formation of addiction. Offering a rush similar to adrenaline, dopamine affects brain processes that control emotional responses of pain and pleasure. It also determines what actions we take, as it transmits “teaching” signals to the part of the brain responsible for acquiring new habits and behaviors.

Notably, a key marker, as shown by the work of experts in the field of addiction, such as Dr. Patrick Carnes, author of Out of the Shadows, and A Gentle Path Through The Twelve Steps, is the presence of multiple addictions once the presence of one addiction is found.

This isn’t surprising. Why?

  • Regardless the form it takes, addiction is a pattern of thinking that is rooted in and driven by fear.

Addictive thinking is a dependence on something or someone outside of us to fulfill inborn yearnings for love and meaning, to help us feel secure and valued so that we can stop feeling bad.

Our brain is wired to form certain protective patterns in the first years of life. These neural patterns were vital to us in early childhood, in truth, they helped us survive childhood, a time when emotional vulnerability was dangerous.

This thinking operates as a life strategy that takes a defensive approach, either “fight” or “flee,” to dealing with the naturally occurring pain and challenges and stressors of life. Our brain is always in one of two modes, a learning mode or protective mode.

In learning mode we are open to learning from life challenges, big or small, perhaps even seeing them as nudges to get us out of old ways of dealing with fear. In contrast, in protective mode, our “fight or flee” response is triggered, thus, we may view events or actions of others as threats to our personal worth, adequacy, value as human beings.

Once set, these habituated responses can endure a lifetime as they operate beneath the surface of our awareness, subconsciously, for the most part.

They often continue to affect our relationships with parents and siblings; yet they seem to be most intensely played out in our relationship with a special person in life — the couple relationship.

Unless we learn how to handle them, they can rob us of our sense of efficacy and agency in life, and leave us feeling powerless.

  • Addiction is a relating pattern that helped us survive childhood, yet can rob us of a sense of agency and purpose as adults.

Addiction is a relating pattern associated with the fear or shame of not “being good enough” or “having enough” or “deserving enough” — and therefore a reliance on some external substance, activity or person to make us feel good.

In truth, fear of intimacy may be our greatest fear. It is in intimate encounters with those closest to us, after all, that we feel most vulnerable. This is where our core existential fears surface — rejection, inadequacy, abandonment — as we struggle to feel recognized, loved and valued in relation to each other.

It is also in the context of close relationships, in early childhood, that we first learned to rely on certain strategies of defense to keep the fear and associated painful feelings at bay. Our deepest fears, therefore, are relational in nature. The defensive strategies our brains employ make sense. They tell us we do not feel safe enough to be our authentic self in our relationships. Since our deepest yearnings are to love and contribute value in life, this scares us.

In fact, fear itself scares us, thus, we turn to quick-fix ways to relieve or numb the pain, such as with substances, activities, persons, whatever we’ve learned “works.”

The question is: are we really in danger, or merely captives of old limiting beliefs, which no longer serve us? In most cases, it’s the latter.

Pain and fear, in adulthood, can be our greatest teachers. They are signals, telling us that certain beliefs, thoughts, and associated behaviors, with which we’ve learned to “control” or avoid feeling our fears are … no longer working.

In truth, it is these quick-fix solutions to problems that are the problem — and cause of needless suffering.

  • What poses danger to us as adults is not fear itself, but rather the protective thinking patterns that cause us to fear feeling fear.

What danger? The danger of getting stuck in survival mode! We have inborn strivings that propel us to do more than survive – to thrive! The idea of not fulfilling our inner purpose to live in meaningful connection to self and others, to contribute in unique ways to life and others, I believe, is what scares us more than anything else.

It is more useful to embrace our fears as action flags. Our fear of inadequacy, rejection or abandonment, for example, can be viewed as reminders to stop focusing on fears and defenses, and focus instead on the love we came to bring to life — the song that no else can sing.

Love is the most compelling force in life. This is both substantiated by the latest findings in neuroscience and brain research, and proclaimed from the beginning of recorded history by prophets and sages in every culture and spiritual tradition around the world.

The willingness to face our fears and be vulnerable makes it possible to empathically connect, an essential aspect in the formation of emotional intimacy. These are building block of great relationships.

So, if feeling our fear and painful emotions is not the problem, why can’t we get past these fears?

  • Limiting beliefs cause our subconscious mind to misinterpret events and actions of others around us as threats.

The part of our brain that runs the autonomic systems of the body, the subconscious, completely bases its reality on our beliefs. It does not know the difference between reality and myth, nor does it recognize the past or future. Its reality is always in the present. If we still believe subconsciously that we cannot handle certain emotions, persons, situations and so on, guess what? It becomes our reality.

Thoughts shape our actions. Fear that activates our survival response jams the processes of our brain, as it prevents our mind and body, logic and emotions, the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind from working together. Fear is activated by limiting beliefs we hold.

Limiting beliefs mislead us into looking for love and value where it cannot be found — outside of us! Anxiety is a misinterpretation of what poses a threat to our sense of safety and connection with self and others.

It causes obsessive, desperate and compulsive thoughts and actions. We erroneously believe others hold the power to determine how adequate, deserving, worthy of love we are. We don’t “see” our power to choose what we believe about our self, life and others.

The solution? Conscious re-conditioning of our brains. By consciously choosing to think and behave in ways that allow us to get comfortable with what would normally trigger us, we also take charge of what hormone our brain releases into our bloodstream.

In this way, instead of reinforcing the old response (and associated hormones such as cortisol), we are commanding our brain to release the safety and love hormone, oxytocin, which restores our body to a relaxed state. If we then also take the time to observe how good this feels, our brain releases dopamine to reinforce this positive change.

(We don’t need artificial doses of oxytocin in the form of pills, by the way. Why pay for it, when we are designed to learn to relate in caring and responsive ways that release it naturally?)

It is in key moments, when we would normally relate otherwise, that we have an opportunity to rewire the reactive neural structures of our brain, and develop our emotional mastery – all in one stroke! According to neuroscientist Dr. Allan Schore in Affect Regulation and the Repair of Self, one such exposure to oxytocin can make a lifelong change in the brain.

  • Break free of addictive relating to restore self-love, authenticity, creative expression and sense of intimacy with own life.

It takes dedication and commitment to transform old wounds and adopt new patterns of thinking and relating, and instead rely, more and more, on our own inner sources of strength, wisdom and compassion to support us in creating meaningful lives. In the words of existential philosopher in the 1900s, Martin Buber:

“Every man’s foremost task is the actualization of his unique, unprecedented and never-recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, and be it even the greatest, has already achieved.” 
— Martin Buber

The “work” is challenging, yet easier than we think. The willingness to courageously face our deepest fears stops the suffering that stems from avoiding it. This in itself gives us good reason.

Part of the “work”:

  • Begins with a life long commitment to choose to live authentically and honestly in relation to self and others.
  • Involves understanding how our brain works, and the power of our thoughts and emotions in shaping behaviors.
  • Requires courage to become more aware, present and reflective of our mind and body, our inner experience of life around us.
  • Involves a willingness to face our fears and transform them into courage, and simultaneously, to fully accept self and others, and learn to love with our whole heart.

Breaking free of addiction is a choice between pain or suffering. Only the willingness to face the pain of what we most fear can stop the suffering caused by addictions.

It’s a process that grows our courage to love and fully accept ourselves to such degree that there are no emotions we fear, hide from or seek to numb.

The choice is always ours to make. We have to want to let go of old comfortable patterns of thinking to become the self-aware choice makers and creators of our lives we aspire and are meant to be. So,

  • Stop waiting for some activity, thing or person to complete or fulfill you emotionally.
  • Turn inside, instead, to understand and know yourself, your needs, wants and yearnings.

Breathe and assure yourself: You are designed to shine radiantly regardless the circumstances around you.

Is It Addictive Relating or Is It Subconscious Fear of Intimacy?

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2011). Is It Addictive Relating or Is It Subconscious Fear of Intimacy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jun 2011
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