Thoughts on craving

I have been thinking a lot about craving lately. What is craving, really? What’s it all about?

Craving seems to amount to a fundamental sense of being incomplete. When we crave, we want something to fill us up. We want to fill a hole, by taking something out there in the world and putting it into ourselves.

We’ve talked about ego fatigue and delay discounting lately. These are phenomena that strengthen the impulsive urge to take something – now! But where does that urge come from? What’s its origin, and what form does it take in our inner worlds?

I’ve long thought that most people who become addicted to something have been badly hurt or scarred while growing up. This view is shared by many others, including Gabor Maté, our Canadian addiction specialist. So we’ve been shamed or rejected by parents or close friends, punished when we didn’t expect it or understand it, bullied, raped, or abandoned, or maybe we’ve lost someone dear to us, maybe more than once.

Yet these wounds don’t explain the craving for something else. They explain why we suffer.

The thing is that suffering is part of life. Many many people in the world accept suffering as inevitable. Many who suffer do not become addicts. But for those of us who have been addicted, there seems to be a fundamental expectation that’s truly flawed: the expectation that we can be made complete by something out there in the world. What made us think that? What made us imagine that we could relieve our suffering in that way? Or does addiction reflect some crazy optimism, a hope for relief that never gets extinguished?

Addiction must start off with the very real experience of getting relief from something outside ourselves: a substance (like booze or drugs) or an act (like gambling or sex). We naturally stumble on such experiences in adolescence or young adulthood. (And note that addictive “acts” also put something into the self: a feeling of triumph or pleasure that was not otherwise available.) Then the thing that provides relief becomes a goal with greater and greater draw. Hence, we crave it when we have to go without.

Yet the conclusion that we become more complete when we have that thing…that can’t just come from a few arbitrary experiences of intoxication or pleasure. We must come prepared — predisposed — to feel that way. And then we find the key that fits the hole.

The belief that we are incomplete without that thing seems like a fundamental, bedrock assumption at the root of craving and pursuing addictive activities. What could be its origin?

More soon…but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.

27 thoughts on “Thoughts on craving

  1. Scott February 10, 2012 at 1:18 am #

    A fantastic topic and one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about.

    I have come to believe that my cravings are a direct result of my lack of self-worth on a subconscious level. From as early as I can remember I’ve had this hollow, empty feeling inside and the belief that I am just not good enough, fundamentally flawed, a failure, a fraud and not worthy of any true happiness. My head tells me this therefore my head believes it to be true.

    With these core beliefs, how on earth could I have any faith in myself to be able to provide any sort of true comfort from within – therefore the only option was to seek this comfort externally.

    I am in early recovery and am only starting to become aware of this. Becoming mindful of this has been an amazing experience for me and has allowed me to start make sense of my cravings and addict behaviour. As soon as I become aware that I am having a craving I start to look at what is going on for me – what emotional state am I in? what events are coming up that may be uncomfortable or painful for me? what past event am I being reminded of? Basically, what has triggered my belief of lack of self-worth and brought it to the forefront of my mind?

    In these times the pain becomes too much to bear and I know that I cannot rely on myself to relieve this pain from within therefore I instantly seek comfort from the outside.

    • lauren February 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      Well said, and very insightful, Scott.

    • Marc February 13, 2012 at 10:24 am #

      It IS very insightful. Looking inside and finding that hollow core, and the emotions that go with it, sounds like the first step of really digging yourself out of that lonely place you’ve been living in. But sometimes looking inside makes things worse for a little while, when the whole barrage of negative images comes flooding, and then it may magnify the craving for relief and comfort, too quickly or too thoroughly to resist. Looking inside is powerful and very productive, but maybe you need to hold onto yourself with great compassion while you’re doing so.

  2. Christine February 10, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I know you are zoning in on craving in this post but don’t forget the habitual, ritual, psychological aspects of using, drinking, smoking. eating ….. I am not an addict but I crave many things…like skiing when I see fresh powder of snowfall, steak when I smell the neighbor’s iqnited BBQ…getting out on my kayak when I see a calm river or lake. It’s not like I can do anything about it at the time so I have to push on and let it pass. But addiction is more complex I would think…psychologically this hit will make me feel better..habitually it is filling in the time for now and oh the ritual..preparing for the good feeling. I understand that cravings can be strong..but when accompanied by all these other partners it’s got to be downright powerful.

    • Marc February 13, 2012 at 10:28 am #

      Yes, habit and ritual are comforting in themselves, and they magnify the attraction. They also soothe you before you ever get to the drug or drink. You know you’re on your way…just a few things to prepare first. We’ve referred to an aspect of this state as “humming”…

  3. China Krys Darrington February 10, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    “Potholes in my soul.” That’s what I call them. And for a while the drugs would come in and patch those potholes up so my inner road was smooth.

    Of course, as addiction progresses, those transmitters start to burn out, the receptors wear down and the drugs just don’t fill those potholes very effectively anymore. My road is bumpy and my life gets unmanageable.

    But then I get clean and I’m happy to be off the dope but I still have those potholes so if feels like everything I *know* I should be grateful for is just getting sucked into this yawning maw of the black hole inside of my own addict nature.

    Why? Why can we have various levels of abuse or neglect or maltreatment and translate it into an understanding that there is something off kilter in us and that we need some external thing correct that imbalance? I have no idea. That may be the “missing link” of understanding why some become addicts and others who use don’t.

    Thanks for your post. Brilliant.

    • Marc February 13, 2012 at 10:40 am #

      “Potholes”…..wonderful image. Potholes are where your wheel gets stuck, and then you stop moving forward. That’s when you’re under the spell of addiction. Then, when you’re clean, it’s a bump, a perturbation. We’ve talked about that. About how important it is to keep moving despite the jarring impact of those potholes.

      But why oh why don’t they ever go away for good? Well, maybe because the brain doesn’t work that way. Important pathways never disappear entirely. You keep growing synapses, on new twigs, branching from dendrites, and you keep pruning, sculpting, fine-tuning… But the synaptic pathways that get activated by self-doubt get too much traffic to ever just….go away. If I can continue the metaphor, all that traffic maintains and even deepens the potholes.

      Forgiving, accepting, allowing emptiness, watching it, even appreciating it…. Those are the alternative routes that seem to allow us to keep going even if the old roads never disappear. More good stuff on that in subsequent comments.

  4. Roger G. Albert February 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I guess I think of craving as a physiological thing. When I quit smoking cigarettes decades ago after smoking for 10 years I craved cigarettes. And I gave in to those cravings now and again. Not anymore because I no longer have cravings for cigarettes. I’ve never craved marijuana or any other drug until…until the tipping point. Then, I think I could describe the feeling of needing more as a craving. It could be that the satiation that comes from ‘giving in’ to a craving fills a hole in my ‘soul’ or whatever, but I think it’s more ‘id’ than that, if you get my meaning.
    In our culture (and in some others over the millenia) the body has been the source of the twin evils of life: disease and death. As Ernest Becker points out in Escape From Evil disease takes away our ability to enjoy life and death is the absolute end to any enjoyment. So we try to deny death by thinking about bodily functions and pleasures as evil and by turning our attention to our ‘souls’ or our symbolic selves that don’t ever die. The keepers of our symbolic selves are our societies, which also enforce prohibitions against any hedonistic tendencies we might have. If cravings are physiological, they must be denied, conquered and overcome (for moral reasons). They are part of our ‘animality.’ Well, I think that cravings are more ‘id’ than ‘superego.’ That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to deconstruct our cravings to see how they might contribute to our many moral failings. We do that with everything else, why wouldn’t we do it with our cravings?

    • Marc February 13, 2012 at 10:52 am #

      Analyzing the id. It’s like dissecting some slimy thing while it’s still quivering and squirming. I think of cravings as deeply related to loss. There is a need to acquire the thing that is missing, which builds on itself as it sucks in more and more associations and more cycles of relief and then further loss.

      But you mention the moment of “giving in” as having special significance, and I agree that that’s where the body, the id, the underground of our psyche takes over. Yes, the prohibitions are suffocating, oppressive, unbearable. They may be society’s way to keep us above ground, but we DON’T like how they feel. So there is that wash of child-like rebellion, when we say “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want. I’ll do what I FEEL like doing.” It sure is a relief, but it causes more suffering. And society can then rightfully say: I told you so.

      When I was six, I slid down an ice hill at my school. When I got back to the top of the hill, I was reminded by the teacher on yard duty, in no uncertain terms, that this was forbidden. NO SLIDING! Within 5 minutes I did it again. It wasn’t really defiance: I just wanted to do it so badly that I forgot about the rule. Again! The teacher took me (by the EAR) to the principal’s office when I got back up to the top. I knew I had it coming.

      Years later, giving in to craving, taking drugs, stealing drugs, was more and more tinged with defiance. But the urge to be free and spontaneous was still the same as it had always been.

  5. fredt February 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    We attempt to relieve our suffering. If only we could find something to relieve that suffering, it would go away. Maybe. Then in a immature mind we hit on the idea we are not enough, and that produces the craving. It is the implied memory and imprinted reaction that develop the first few tries, and we do get a bit of relief from the suffering. But the effect does not last.

    The suffering was real, but now we need to separate out the cause, and deal with the cause, in real present time. More on my sites.

    • Marc February 13, 2012 at 11:00 am #

      The idea that we are not enough comes early, indeed. All it takes is watching Mom walk away, shaking her head in disapproval or disgust, or seeing her flirting with Dad…implying all those adult things that we can’t even imagine…or seeing Dad look back at his newspaper while we’re showing him our very best colouring, or pondering on why it was necessary to have another child. Wasn’t I enough for you? What am I lacking?

      The sense of insufficiency is sort of a metaphor that comes with the pain of rejection. But it’s such a powerful metaphor, and I think it first appears in very early childhood.

      Please feel free to provide a link to your own website!

  6. Richard February 11, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    I like the theory of R.D.S. Reward Deficiency Syndrome. Some how I figure I never got the attention, the pats on the back needed to fulfill those rewards of comfort and joy as I grew up. So in turn I use drugs as a self medicating in receiving the rewards I so desperately need in making my life complete. Its a vicious circle of underline issues of the past that keep me in the quest of fulfillment, comfort and joy. But I know issues from the past that are unresolved are only heightened by the use of drugs and are in the for front of my mind as a constant torment needing to be suppressed. For many those cravings can only be relieved threw drugs or alcohol, bringing some kind of comfort, even then I know many who have a bad trip 9 times out of 10 just to get that 1 experience of relief. Today I’m no longer dependant on any mind altering substance in my everyday life, and when ever possible bring closure to all the unresolved issues in my life. I find dealing with issues as they come and bring closure the best way in staying clean. Their will be dark days, today I allow myself to go threw the grieving stages I know longer dwell on issues, Knowing is Half the battle seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and finally reaching that light has set me free.

    Reg; Richard

    • Marc February 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

      Your message is very heartening to many of us. Indeed the devil of addiction is that it makes the hole larger and deeper over time, even while it fills it for a few hours. And that’s why I linked to the video of the marshmallow task, last post. Addicts (and young children) are in deep trouble if they can only think about right now.

      In allowing yourself to feel pain, you take the long view. You know that time stretches out ahead. It’s not just about now. What you take or don’t take will affect every moment from now on. So you let yourself suffer a little and you end up feeling more whole as a result. That is the way to go. Congratulations on your work and your prospects.

      When Baba Ramdas wrote “BE HERE NOW” there should have been a footnote!

      • Richard Henry February 18, 2012 at 5:15 pm #

        Thanks Marc! Respect, heres a link I found that may help others understand. Helping other addicts has become an addiction in its own, hahaha…
        Reg; Richard

        • Marc February 20, 2012 at 11:17 am #

          Sounds like a big improvement over other addictions I’ve known.

  7. julia February 11, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    I don’t know what causes cravings, it feels like I’m attempting to feel a hole deep within me. I have learnt, not to ignore or resist my urges, rather to be at peace with them. Sitting comfortably with the pull to eat, shop, go out, and saying this is alright, it is part of who I am and I will be just as kind to this as I would someone else who is having difficulty. Inviting my cravings in for tea and having a friendly chat with them until they go. Of course, I often forget to do this and before I know it I’ve just spent more money or raided the fridge. With practice though I hope to get better at being with my addiction and not acting on it.

    • julia February 11, 2012 at 11:48 am #

      That would be fill a hole deep within…a Freudian slip perhaps???

      • Marc February 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

        I’ll get to Freud next post. Stay tuned…

    • Marc February 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      You sound like an accomplished Buddhist. Whether you are or not, that is the “treatment” that modern Buddhists recommend.

      To be at peace with one’s urgings… What a blessing! Many of us manage that most of the time, and fail only when those cravings swell up like a tidal wave.

  8. Jaz February 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    Hi everyone,

    I always find it difficult to brave through the experience of lack, incompleteness and longing. However it seems that there are problems with the opposite situation as well. According to a story told in classical antiquity it is possible not to experience incompleteness. Narcissus lived his worry free life never understanding the longing that so many of us experience. His demise came when he realised the consequences of his lack of lack. The rest of us poor beggars can at least occasionally experience that relief, but Narcussus was completely f****d up. Incompleteness may not be such a bad thing, after all. It lets us fall in love, attempt to make that perfect work of art and so on. It makes us reactive–we respond to the world; we live rather than merely exist like inert metals. To continue chemical metaphor, platinum may be precious and valuable but it is also chemically dead. Corny as it may be, I’d rather be modest carbon and sustain all life on Earth. We are all incomplete, addicts and non addicts alike, and if there is any credence to be given to Jacques Lacan’s theories it is precisely in the gap between our interior experience of imperfection and the outer image of perfect version of ourselves that our subjectivity is born. Not that I think that Lacan got everything right, but, perhaps, our sense of incompleteness deserves more credit than it’s given. Again, it lets us be moved, reactive, alive. It, of course, brings us hurt as well. Nevertheless it seems that we are better off if that incompleteness is preserved. Substances efficiently fill holes at any given time. If they work no gaps are there, once they stop working there is only one gap left, instead of many. Chances are we are better off keeping all our potholes, uncomfortable as they are, and just try to roll as best as we can. Occasionally, we roll magnificently.

    • Marc February 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      This is very thoughtful and very provocative! Well, okay, Narcissus was full of himself, and that became a real stumbling block. Mind you, the Greeks made lots of things tragic. But those with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (named after Narcissus, of course) are also excessively self-involved. And, not only are they not happy, but nobody much likes hanging out with them.

      So we don’t want to be “over-full”…and I just wonder if that has anything to do with the topic of anorexia/bulimia, addressed by a recent reader.

      But your overall point is well taken. The reason narcissists are a drag is because there’s no room to interact with them. There’s no space within them that can be shared. More broadly, it’s so true that we need a degree of incompleteness in order to create, to love, to move forward, to hope, and to imagine. John Lennon comes to mind.

      Your reference to Lacan is very sexy. I’ll counter with Freud and Klein next post. But meanwhile, I want to mention a book that I love very much. It’s called The Embodied Mind. Here’s the link:

      In this book, Varela and colleagues show amazing parallels between the study of the mind and brain, in Western science, and the Buddhist study of the mind, which is thousands of years old. And here’s what they say about being incomplete:

      In Buddhism, there is an ongoing search for the self in all the particles of consciousness, perception, and so on. But when people meditate for a long time, they apparently never do find “the self”. The reason for that is because, if there was a solid hunk of “the self” within our mental processes, then there wouldn’t be room for experience. Experience means constant openness to the world, which requires, as you say, Jaz, some degree of incompleteness.

      But let’s not get too intellectual about all this. Sometimes, for some of us, there is a terrible, forlorn sensation that something, some part of the self, is MISSING. Incompleteness is one thing, but big gaping holes are a bit much. I think that’s the sense of incompleteness that addicts attempt to resolve.

      So….can they be helped by the advice to allow themselves to be incomplete? Or by the knowledge that we are fundamentally incomplete? The answer is: I don’t know.

  9. lauren February 13, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi all,

    I heard a review of your book on the radio on the way home yesterday and immediately put a copy on hold at the library. I also sent a question to Marc and he suggested I post it on this forum to get the opinions/ thoughts of others. Here goes…

    Could drug addiction work in a similar way to Anorexia Nervosa? I’ve had this condition for 15 years (over half my life). But over time, I’ve noticed that it has evolved. It ceased to become about weight a long time ago. It’s not really even about food anymore. It’s about coping. I liken myself to a high functioning drug addict. I have a PhD, a full time job, a close circle of friends, and a killer-high level of anxiety. in order to cope in the world, I need to eat enough food to live and function, but not enough to allow me to feel emotions. I have a deep sense that the root cause of the perpetuation of this problem is caused by structural problems in my brain. Have you any thoughts on this?

    • Scott February 13, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      Hi Lauren

      I’d like to share my personal experience of my time spent in rehab. I was amazed at the range of issues that people were in for – drug addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, sex/love addiction, co-dependency, compulsive overeating, bulimia & anorexia.

      Even though each had their unique differences, the similarities that each and every one shared were overwhelming. It showed me that the disease of addiction sits at the core of one’s soul and is the same for everyone – even though it may play out in different ways for the individual, it is the same thing.

      For example – the rehab that I attended followed the 12 step program, we as a group attended different meetings of 12 step fellowships most days and it was amazing to see people connect through the similarities – we has co-dependents connecting with shares from drug addicts, drug addicts connecting with shares from sex/love addicts, over eaters connecting with shares from gambling addicts etc.

      During our therapy sessions, time and time again, we had 100% of the wide range of people connecting through the same issues – poor self-esteem/self-worth, spiritual disconnection etc. It was a real eye opener for me and an experience that has helped in shaping my recovery and my new view on life.

      I wish you all the very best

      • Marc February 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

        This commonality among the experiences of addicts of such different stripes… is hugely important. It connects to the idea, in the neuroscience of addiction, that there is a “common pathway” for all addictions. I’ve read the research, and you won’t be surprised to hear me say that there is a part of our brain — the ventral striatum, one of the chief consumers of dopamine — that is ALWAYS involved in craving and addiction. I talk about the v.s. a fair bit in my book, and I’m going to bring it up again, next post.

        I think that this notion of a “common” neural pathway is the ONLY way, scientifically and systematically, to make sense of the sharing you talk about, Scott — the similarity in our experience of our drives and our inability to overcome them, no matter whether we’re anorexics or alcoholics, gamblers or gamers. More on that soon…

    • china February 15, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      I absolutely think that eating disorders run a similar line; biopsychosocialy, as all addictions. somehow along the way, or experience coupled with our own strange internal psychological landscape crossed wires and has convinced us that our maladaptive actions are providing us some needed “relief”.

  10. John Becker February 24, 2012 at 6:09 pm #

    Craving, even active addiction; maybe the alternative is scarier…

    There is a pain – so utter –
    It swallows substance up –
    Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
    So Memory can step
    Around – across – upon it –
    As one within a Swoon –
    Goes safely – where an open eye –
    Would drop Him – Bone by Bone.
    Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), lived all her life in Amherst, Massachusetts. Most of her poems were discovered, in the room which she had rarely left, after her death. She had made little effort to get them published during her lifetime.

    On 19 February 2012 04:03, Marc Lewis wrote:

    I hope you enjoy this most recent entry to my blog.


    Marc Lewis
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    Memoirs of an Addicted Brain

    More thoughts on craving

    More thoughts on craving
    Feb 18, 2012 05:27 pm | marc

    Last post, I emphasized an assumption of incompleteness as the foundation of craving. This feeling was referred to by readers as a hole, or pothole, or just plain lacking something. There is a lot to that, for those of us who put things (like booze or drugs) into us, in order to fill us up. … (Read the rest.) Read More

    More to read:
    Thoughts on craving
    Ego fatigue and the pull of the present
    Countdown in the rat lab
    The pivot point
    The birthright of suffering in the emotional brain

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  11. Richard February 26, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    Excepting “That’s Life” is not for me!

    Falling to the norm of society.

    Anyone can work day in day out, follow routine, to me that’s dysfunctional. Think outside the box! “If it ain’t broke, brake it” I guess I fall out side the norm, I can not, or will not, accept” life on life’s terms”. To me accepting life on life’s term is an unwillingness to change, “Dead Heads” a society who has given up their right for choice.

    We all look to escape reality any chance we get, why do you think their is such a monopoly over things like cable, T.V, music, lottery. It puts us in that dream state, like retirement, it gives us hope, acceptance in throwing our life away to work, in slaved to depth and taxes, interest.

    Some of us turn to ADDICTIONS to escape, like cocaine, with no alternative medications you can became dependent, it puts you in a state of mind of ultimate escape. We are being robbed of our full potential, how many of us fall short to their natural talents, in the work force and only settle with what their are taut. Becoming stuck employed, just putting in their time to pay the bills.

    Most are to closed minded to see outside the box normally, we become blinded to life’s opportunities, opportunities beyond your greatest imagination, stuck in the materialistic things. Do you know why they don’t have an alternative medication for cocaine? Like what I like to call a “MOOD BRIGHTENER” because they don’t want you to see out side the norm. All they want to give us is sedatives, blockers, inhibitors, anti-depressants, they want you to be closed minded in accepting life on life’s terms.

    I will not accept anything less then my full potential, Like my son puts it, “One Life One Chance Gotta Get It Right” I for one I’m not going to waist it away working, just to survive. Time for change, we can’t keep neglecting our kids, the nurturing needed in keeping our family’s together and accepting divorce as an easy way out. We must bring back the family traditions, Faith, morals, helping in the needs of others, life is not all about what we want , but what we need.

    We have accepted the increase of the cost of living where we need a double income to support a family. This at the expense of our children at the early stages of development where they need nurturing we have failed. This putting in need of rewards out side the family, many turn to the work force again, addicted the the rewards of money. The more you make the more you want, the higher the income the bigger the house.

    Is this the real so called CANADIAN DREAM driven by greed to the materialistic things in life, we don’t really own anything. The vision of self worth as success and the promise of retirement. is to be the goal for freedom? from depth?.

    At one point in my life I almost fell to their legal alternative escape of alcohol, they keep this alternative available because its a downer. I could have stayed an alcoholic and died an alcoholic, but that would have been giving up to living life on life’s terms, again its time for change in accepting “That’s Life” Bring back our right for choice.

    If cocaine for me is an alternative self medication in seeing things clearly, why can’t I get an alternative legal prescription, Mood Brightener? Is it not my choice to enhance my creative thinking, bringing clarity to to seeing things?.

    Is it not my choice to take a stimulant to enhance my daily living, and not fall short to my full potential?But as a result of not accepting life at its weakest I become depressed , so again what?… I need an anti-depressants?

    I think not, anti-depressants is not for my mind, but for my body, its not for an unbalance. I’m sadness in the world as we see it…


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