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Developmental Theory and Addiction

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D.

In a previous section, we discussed human develop from a biological perspective; i.e., evolutionary theory. We noted that the human brain functions in a manner that compels us to pursue pleasure. However, we further emphasized we are not slaves to our biological urges. Developmentally mature individuals move beyond the simple pursuit of pleasure. We now discuss development from a psychological perspective. We will discuss the importance of developmental maturity as it relates to addiction and recovery.

teen girlWe've already reviewed the importance of beliefs and expectations with respect feelings and our behavior. Now let's consider these beliefs and expectations together as a whole. Let us call a person's entire set of beliefs a method of making meaning out of experience. Through our five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) we receive an enormous amount of data. Our minds must interpret this data and must make sense out of it. We attach a meaning to our experiences. This of course is a subjective determination, unique to each individual.

Not surprisingly, psychologists have studied these methods of making meaning in terms of complexity. We can easily observe these differing degrees of complexity in children. Let's say we are discussing Santa Claus with children. These discussions will widely vary, according to the child's age (their developmental level). With a five year old, we might hear about how exciting it will be to see what Santa will bring this year. Eight year olds might be more skeptical about Santa. How does he fit down a chimney? What about the kids without chimneys? How can he possibly travel the world in one night? An 11-year-old no longer believes in Santa Claus. We might talk about the fun of believing in magical events. We might discuss the importance of the Santa Claus story in terms of family rituals. With adults, the discussion of Santa might include the symbolism of the story. We might consider the meaning and philosophy of the story. It becomes evident, as children's developmental maturity increases, the meaning of Santa Claus changes. In other words, as they matured their meaning-making became more complex.

It is easy to observe increasing levels of complexity in the meaning-making systems of children. It is much more difficult to observe and measure these levels in adults. Nevertheless, these levels do exist in adults. You guessed it, psychologists and others have studied this.

People can recover simply by increasing their developmental level. Such a statement may seem rather astonishing but we can readily observe this principle in children. The selfish behavior of a young child on Christmas morning disappears as that child grows older. Older children begin to consider Christmas a meaningful, enjoyable family ritual.

As adults mature, they have a greater capacity to delay immediate gratification. Mature adults can defer acting upon their own immediate desires. They are better able to consider their actions in terms of their relationships. They also have increasing capacity to understand the "bigger picture" of groups, organizations, and society. They understand how each individual fits into this bigger picture. Adults develop an increased sense of morality. A mature adult does not simply base their morality on a code learned from others. Mature adults have a deeply-held, personal value system. Clearly each of these capacities would be beneficial to someone struggling to recover from addiction.

However, in addiction recovery, we often see people who are still rather under-developed (immature). Robert Kegan is one of the premier leaders in the study of adult development. Kegan notes that many adults (not just addicted persons) need to move from a second-order of consciousness to a third-order (Kegan, 1998). At a second-order level of consciousness, individuals lack an appreciation of the needs and perspectives of others. At the third-order level of consciousness they gain an appreciation that others have equal standing in the world. It is not difficult to imagine how a transition from a second-order, to a third-order, would benefit people recovering from addictions.

A transition from the third- to the fourth-order of consciousness may also be beneficial. At the fourth-order level of consciousness, people have developed a form of grace. These people can accept parts of themselves and others that they previously considered unacceptable. They also have an increased tolerance for the ways different people view morality. This increased acceptance of moral differences occurs because mature people understand that each person will develop their own moral code according to their own deeply-held, personal value system.

These developmental transitions can require several years to several decades (if they occur at all). These developmental shifts can be highly beneficial. Many people consider psychotherapy a form of accelerated growth and development. Therefore, it can be very helpful during recovery because it serves to rapidly increase developmental maturity. It can also explain why people can recover from addictions with little to no assistance. They simply matured and moved beyond their addiction.

When a developmental shift occurs during recovery, it brings about a fresh perspective. With greater maturity, people experience the urgency of cravings and the desire to escape life's momentary discomforts in a new way. Although the urgency might not diminish, and the desire to escape may remain, a mature person understands this within a larger context. "Yes, I have a great desire to gamble this weekend. But I'll cope with that desire somehow. If I gamble, I'll probably lose a lot of money. I usually do. As hard as it will be not to gamble this weekend, I'm not willing to upset the people I care about. They are too important to me."

This capacity to understand the bigger picture is what "develops" in human development. That capacity is at the root of all motivation to overcome addiction. If people only focus on the individual pleasure of addiction, the choice of whether to continue or stop is an easy one. Continue! It is only by focusing on the larger context that a different choice emerges. What happens after the high? What happens to the people I care about? What happens to my projects and activities in life? What happens to my health and my future? Our appreciation of the larger context allows us to rise above the press for immediate gratification. This appreciation is central to recovery from addiction and provides the motivation to change. We discuss motivation and change in the next section.


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