In recent years, the language of addiction has been applied to an ever-increasing range of behaviors – one recent study even claimed that college students are “addicted” to self-esteem! Unfortunately, as the psychoanalyst Donald Nathanson has noted, attaching the addiction label to someone’s behavior “is merely shaming or frightening unless addiction has been defined in terms of” its psychological function. Rather than simply calling these various behaviors “addictions” or “compulsions,” we need to ask what lies behind them:
Why do some college students continually need to be told they have personal value?
Why did Anthony Weiner seek ongoing reassurance from his sexting partners that he was attractive, virile and worthwhile?
What does the addict seek to avoid when he turns to his drug of choice, be it pharmacological, relational or sexual?
The answers seem obvious enough. If no amount of praise or positive reinforcement can satisfy some college students, if they continually “come back for more,” it must be because they struggle with low self-worth, or what I would call a sense of basic shame.