Compulsion, Expanded


In my last post I described the three elements of addiction, which were:

  1. Compulsion
  2. Tolerance
  3. Withdrawal

I want to take this time to explore in more detail exactly what is meant by compulsive behavior.

In the book Neurosis and Human Growth, Karen Horney discusses compulsion. The specific illustration she is using involves narcissism, which one can view as an addiction, with the mood-changer in that scenario being narcissistic supply. So you can view the word “glory” as “narcissistic supply” and replace the former word with the latter term in the following excerpt to more clearly illustrate how Horney’s description is related to the concepts of narcissism and addiction as we’ve been discussing them in this blog:

When we call a drive compulsive we mean the opposite of spontaneous wishes or strivings. The latter are an expression of the real self; the former are determined by the inner necessities of the neurotic structure. The individual must abide by them regardless of his real wishes, feelings, or interests lest he incur anxiety, feel torn by conflicts, be overwhelmed by guilt feelings, feel rejected by others, etc. In other words, the difference between spontaneous and compulsive is one between “I want” and “I must in order to avoid some danger.” Although the individual may consciously feel his ambition or his standards of perfection to be what he wants to attain, he is actually driven to attain it. The need for glory has him in its clutches. Since he himself is unaware of the difference between wanting and being driven, we must establish criteria for a distinction between the two. The most decisive one is the fact that he us driven on the road to glory with an utter disregard for himself, for his best interests…We have reason to wonder whether more human lives – literally and figuratively – are not sacrificed on the altar of glory than for any other reason…Here a truly tragic element enters into the picture. If we sacrifice ourselves for a cause which we, and most healthy people, can realistically find constructive in terms of its value to human beings, that is certainly tragic, but also meaningful. If we fritter away our lives enslaved to the phantom of glory for reasons unknown to ourselves, that assumes the unrelieved proportion of tragic waste – the more so, the more valuable these lives potentially are.

Another criterion of the compulsive nature of the drive for glory – as of any other compulsive drive – is its indiscriminateness. Since the person’s real interest in a pursuit does not matter, he must be the center of attention, must be the most attractive, the most intelligent, the most original – whether or not the situation calls for it; whether or not, with his given attributes, he can be the first. He must come out victorious in any argument, regardless of where the truth lies. His thoughts in this matter are the exact opposite of those of Socrates: “…for surely we are not simply contending in order that my view or that of yours may prevail, but I presume that we ought both of us to be fighting for the truth.” The compulsiveness of the neurotic person’s need for indiscriminate supremacy makes him indifferent to truth, whether concerning himself, others, or facts.

Furthermore, like any other compulsive drive, the search for glory has the quality of insatiability. It must operate as long as the unknown (to himself) forces are driving him. There may be a glow of elation over the favorable reception of some work done, over a victory won, over any sign of recognition or admiration – but it does not last. A success may hardly be experienced as such in the first place, or, at least, must make room for despondency or fear soon after. In any case, the relentless chase for more prestige, more money, more women, more victories and conquests keeps going, with hardly any satisfaction or respite.

Finally, the compulsive nature of  a drive shows in the reaction to its frustration. The greater its subjective importance, the more impelling is the need to attain its goal, and hence the more intense the reactions to frustration. These constitute one of the ways in which we can measure the intensity of a drive. Although this is not always plainly visible, the search for glory is a most powerful drive. It can be like a demoniacal obsession, almost like a monster swallowing up the individual who has created it. And so the reactions to frustration must be severe. They are indicated by the terror of doom and disgrace that for many people is spelled in the idea of failure. Reactions of panic, depression, despair, rage at self and others to what is conceived as “failure” are frequent, and entirely out of proportion to the actual importance of the occasion.

To make it even clearer, reread the preceding excerpt a few more times, but with the word “glory” replaced by the words “a mood change” or the words “a high.” Do this to get an idea of how compulsiveness applies in a broad context across all types of addictions. Replace the word “glory” with any other mood-changer you can think of, like “a sexual conquest.” In general this is a good intellectual habit to cultivate: taking information and applying it to different contexts to see whether or not they still apply.

So to sum up Horney’s insights about compulsions in general terms:

  1. Compulsion is characterized not by “I want” but by “I must in order to avoid some [emotional] danger [in the form of a negative mood].”
  2. Compulsion creates an utter disregard for oneself and one’s best interests. For example most red-blooded males love sex, but most of them won’t take the outrageous, self-destructive risks for it that a sex addict will. Most of us love junk food, but few of us will binge to the extremes that a food addict will.
  3. Compulsion is characterized by indiscriminateness. Someone in the grips of a compulsion, if given the choice, may certainly not mind a higher-quality mood-changer, if given the choice, but if not given the choice, any quality of mood-changer will do. This is why many alcoholics will drink terrible liquor or even vanilla extract if their liquor of choice is unavailable, why sex addicts will have sex with some terribly unattractive, high-risk partners if their preferred type of partner is unavailable, and why a narcissistic woman will accept the attentions of a low-value friendzoned guy when she doesn’t have access to a high-value man’s attentions.
  4. Compulsion is characterized by insatiability. It’s never enough. The high wears off quickly, and the reality is almost always incredibly disappointing in comparison to the anticipation.
  5. Compulsions are characterized by disproportionate responses, especially to their frustrations. Someone in the grip of a compulsion may seem inordinately happy to attain the object of his compulsion, at least for a short time (although this usually wears off quickly due to the insatiability component). But you really see the disproportionate response when the compulsion is frustrated. The reactions can be intense rage, depression, suicidal ideation, desperation, and illegal behavior ranging from theft to murder.

Recommended Reading:

Neurosis and Human Growth by Karen Horney. One of the best books on mastering human nature I’ve ever read. Maybe even the best. Highly recommended.