Are you addicted to yourself? Understanding Ontological Addiction

Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning, examines how we can be addicted to ourselves – and puts readers to the test.

Across the globe, we are seeing examples of public health problems arising among increasing numbers of people. These include obesity, mental health issues, physical inactivity and problematic leisure time activities, such as social media use, video game playing and mobile phone use.

These public health concerns are often referred to as separate issues yet, while these problems certainly affect people in very different ways, they appear to point towards a more systemic underlying issue that is likely being fuelled by modern materialistic and technology-driven lifestyles.

According to a new psychological theory I developed called ontological addiction theory, a key component of this systemic underlying issue appears to be a growing tendency for people to become addicted – to themselves!

Until recently, it has generally been accepted by the scientific community that there exist two primary categories of addiction: chemical addiction (e.g., addiction to drugs and alcohol) and behavioural addiction (e.g., addiction to gambling, work, or computer games). However, ontological addiction reflects a new and third category of addiction, which occurs when a person becomes addicted to their beliefs concerning who they think they are and how they think they exist. In essence, ontological addiction means that a person becomes “self-addicted”.

Attachment to “Me, Mine and I”

A key principle of ontological addiction is that the ego can take on many forms such that people who, on the surface, do not appear to have a big ego, may still have significant ego issues. For example, while it’s easy to associate a narcissist or somebody with a superiority complex with having a big ego, a person with an inferiority complex could also have entrenched ego issues because they may still be thinking in terms of “Me, Mine and I” (e.g., such a person might think along the lines of “I’m not as good as that person” or “those people are better than me”).

Similarly, a so-called considerate person performing an act of kindness might not normally be associated with having a big ego, but according to ontological addiction theory much would depend on whether deep down, they were actually hoping for some kind of gain, reward or recognition. Thus, ontological addiction theory necessitates a re-evaluation of current scientific understanding concerning the ego, including in terms of both the gross and subtle ways in which the ego can govern our choices, thoughts and behaviours.

Social media and the ego

In addition to wanting to understand more about how the ego can limit our potential to grow and flourish as human beings, another factor that prompted my research into ontological addiction was observing how, in modern technology-driven society, we appear to be constructing new layers of ego, which, for some people, can further obscure their understanding of who they really are.

For example, when using social media, people can construct another layer of ego that relies on likes, shares and followers for its existence, but that does not reflect an accurate portrayal of the individual’s true nature. In this manner, problematic social media use can cause people to experience ontological addiction at a greater level of severity. Indeed, if we interact with social media and technology mindlessly, then rather than use them, they start to use us. This leaves us with little time and space to investigate the true nature of ourselves and it tends to further distort our perception of reality.

Being self-addicted becomes exhausting after a certain amount of time and it appears that the more caught up in ourselves we become, the more depleted we feel and the more distant we find ourselves from the possibility of embracing all that the present moment has to offer.

Perhaps the analogy of a wave and the ocean is a useful means of explaining this concept further. If a wave gets caught up in itself and starts to become attached to the idea of being a wave, then it reduces the likelihood of it realising that in addition to being a wave, it is also an inseparable part of the entire ocean.

A new perspective on “Selfhood”

Most Western psychological models relating to human functioning imply that the self exists as an identifiable and independent entity. However, ontological addiction theory offers a new perspective on “selfhood” and asserts that we (and indeed all phenomena) do not manifest as discrete standalone entities, but rely on innumerable causes and conditions for our existence.

For example, the human body exists in reliance upon the wind, rivers, oceans, plants, and animals – we breathe in others’ out-breath and they breathe out our in-breath. The fact that phenomena are fundamentally interconnected (i.e., to the point of being without identifiable boundaries) means that they are of the nature of “non-self”. In other words, we are “empty” of an inherently existing self, but we are “full” of all things.

According to ontological addiction theory, by believing they exist both inherently and independently, individuals cement their sense of self to a point that they relate to themselves as the centerpiece in a world in which all other lifeforms, objects, and concepts are deemed to be less important. Perceiving the world like this offers reward in the form of a more secure sense of selfhood, and it is this reward mechanism that gradually leads some people to become addicted to themselves.

Ten questions to gauge self-addiction

The following ten questions will help you reflect on the extent that ego governs your choices, thoughts and behaviours.

Respond to each question by answering either: ‘‘never’’, “rarely”, “sometimes”, “often” or ‘‘always’’, and then score your answer as follows: ‘‘never’’ = 1, ‘‘rarely’’ = 2, ‘‘sometimes’’ = 3, ‘‘often’’ = 4, ‘‘always’’ = 5.

High scores indicate greater levels of self-attachment and scoring 4 or more on at least six of the ten questions could be indicative of ontological addiction.

How often during the last year have you …

1. Thought of how you could increase your wealth, status, or possessions?
2. Felt you were right and others were wrong?
3. Been offended?
4. Felt superior or inferior to someone else?
5. Been unable to let go of a situation after being advised by others to do so?
6. Thought about how others see you or what they think of you?
7. Felt regret after doing something kind?
8. Put your own interests before those of others?
9. Felt you needed to occupy yourself more to avoid being on your own?
10. Become tired, stressed or unwell because of keeping up appearances?

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