Kintsugi: a theory of addiction self-repair

(This kintsugi article also available as a streamlined slideshow!)


The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Every one of us is broken. But like kintsugi, the Japanese art of restoring chipped ceramics with gold lacquer, we can transform our weak points into strong, unique focal points.

No matter who or what broke you,

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Beautifully, powerfully imperfect. Stronger because of it.

But only when you fuse your pieces back with gold.

There are three steps in the kintsugi process:

  1. see your broken place
  2. mix your lacquer
  3. glue your pieces back together
A broken plate with heart pattern ripe for kintsugi.

To practice kintsugi, start with seeing your broken place.

“Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious… Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempt to escape distress.” – Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Pain motivates, impedes, goads. And if you were whole inside, you wouldn’t have an addiction. After all, products may be designed to be addicting, but they don’t hook everyone.

This pain arrives when certain emotional needs, which I’ve discovered through over a year of research into human-centered design, go unmet. And whatever you’re addicted to, it “fills that hole”, that psychological imbalance.

So if you’re addicted, your broken place prevents you from functioning like an undamaged, pristine, beautiful “teacup.”

Through personal experience, the best way I’ve found to fix this is to cast Purge. (If you’ve read my free ebook, Game On, you know this to be a Debuff.) Like a spellcaster, you have the ability to throw magic at yourself. In this case, it’s Purge:

You heal not by draining the poison but by infusing a counteragent.

But before I get to that, you need to understand the seven emotional needs I’ve identified. These are requirements; to be whole, you need them all. And you can be deficient in more than one.

Remember, addictions form when a psychological need goes unmet. The addictive object may facilitate that by being addictive, but it's a two-way street. Only through healthy substitution-- building a life that rules out addiction-- can you overcome the need. Escapism is a bandage.

For psychological health, our brains need these:

Validation / Love

Happy dog with flowers on her head
(image by Spiritze from Pixabay)

“All you need is love.” – The Beatles

Ever heard a drug addict (especially heroin users) describe their drug as “a warm hug?”

Social media, with its likes (hiding likes won’t help) and recommendations, often fills this need.

Validation / love can come from posting pictures of yourself, role-playing an attractive avatar to avoid poor self-image in RL (real life), even viewing softcore porn. You can also get validation from being useful to a group… do you know anyone who’s needy like that?

For me, softcore porn did it. I don’t have opportunities to be around many women, and my poor self-image and self-esteem made me miserable. Therefore, women who smiled, praised their boyfriends / the camera, and made me feel valuable boosted me when life smacked me down. However, it imparted toxic, painful expectations and made me more miserable when I compared my life… so I quit.

As much as I don’t like this truth, love is an action, not a feeling, and it comes from your thoughts, not others’ opinions.

Excitement

Special agent, exploding helicopter, fast car

Boredom is a form of pain; some of us would rather shock ourselves than sit in a room for fifteen minutes and do nothing. It’s also a motivator to fire up a session.

Unpredictability often drives engagement. Think refreshing your feed for new likes or content; the endless scroll; a new quest, match, level, or unlockable in a video game; autoplay; or a new page of results.

I believe excitement is anticipation, and that there’s two kinds: positive (expecting a good thing) and negative (expecting a bad thing). Both can even combine. For instance, the forbidden fruit effect involves positive (must be good if it’s forbidden) and negative (fear).

Harvard researcher Trevor Haynes, in “Dopamine, Smartphones & You,” illustrates it like this.

Dopamine firing. Unexpected reward = fires on reward. Expected reward = same amount fired on cue.
© Trevor Haynes and Rebecca Clements 2018

Anticipation enhances reward, and history builds expectation. Excitement pushes us from stagnation, and I believe it can be addictive in a world of mundanity. Though I have no evidence, my theory is that the more boring or depressing your offscreen life is, the more you crave action-packed video games, porn, or controversial social posts. If you’ve accustomed yourself to that source.

There’s likely some studies on dopamine surrounding this, but that’s a large enough topic for a separate article.

Pursuit

Painting of Don Quixote, medieval practicer of kintsugi through a craving for heroic quests
(Johann Baptist Zwecker, Don Quijote, 1854) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

“The human being cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually into destructive activities.” – Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

Pursuit, I believe, is about overcoming the short-term pain of stillness or its long-term consequences. To that end, want implies lack.

Lacking is a form of pain, if sometimes self-created. Thus, we pursue goals to relieve the pain of not having something we want. For example,

  • working out to look / feel better and secure Love
  • playing Candy Crush at home to Calm down after work-based trauma
  • posting a lengthy theory to this blog because it’s my Identity to be bold

And it’s possible the root of motivation is pain, so we shock ourselves. Regardless, boredom is pain, and we can’t stay there very long.

Identity

A multicolor wireframe of a human head

“I think, therefore I am.” – René Descartes

“To thine own self be true.” – Polonius, from Hamlet by Shakespeare

If you were a tree, your identity would be your roots. Without strong roots, your trunk will bend and distort in strong winds.

TTo that effect, we define ourselves as what positive group we belong to. Profession, hobby, race, gender, media we consume. Positive, shared identity fulfills our Community need.

And if my hero Batman does not eat nachos, darn it, neither will I!

It hurts to not have an identity, to have no roots, to look in the mirror and not recognize yourself after a binge. Titles (positive labels) lift our self-esteem, which encourages us to stick to those, since cognitive dissonance — living a lie — hurts more.

Bottom line: being an amorphous blob hurts, so we create ourselves.

Calm / Autonomy

A man sitting on a stump stares out over the hills (self-reflection is the first step in kintsugi)
(photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels)

Do you use video games / porn / social media / Twitch streams to relax?

Mindless actions that don’t require a lot of brain power, like tapping, scrolling, and clicking anecdotally relieve stress. But problem gamblers also like playing in the “machine zone.”

It’s even possible to suggest scrolling, surfing, and new videos capture us in a “ludic loop” of novelty and pleasure until we realize we were vamping (staying up all night) again.

Natasha Dow Schüll, an expert in the parallels between Vegas-style gambling, video games, and modern user experience design, describes this as the numbness of escape.

Plus, anecdotal evidence suggests people with very stressful or client-facing jobs can be overwhelmed by what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotional labor.” (Also known as smile-mask syndrome or compassion fatigue). Schüll singles out waitresses, nurses, retail workers, insurance agents, and salespeople. Compared to more task-oriented roles, these people often have troubles gambling (or insert tech addiction here) to relieve the numbness of emotional fatigue.

Sound familiar? Who doesn’t go to something mindless after a long, stressful day?

Beauty / Awe

(from the film Dead Poets Society): "Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
(source: Dead Poets Society, © Touchstone Pictures 1989)

“I consider reality to be the thing one need concern oneself about least of all, for it is, tediously enough, always at hand while more beautiful and necessary things demand our attention and care.” – Hermann Hesse, My Life: A Conjectural Biography

Nature, art, good literature, music, God. <———> Consume a new product to fill the void inside
Higher reality; the good, the true, and the beautiful <———–> Mundane, drab, everyday reality
Timeless beauty, gratitude, love, light <————> Ugliness, how your life sucks, hate, darkness

Philosophers call it acedia, listlessness brought on by spending most or all of our time on capitalistic pursuits. Ennui? Apathy? In any case, a shallower, lower realm of thought, and a widespread cause of depression, though hard to diagnose.

Work → TV →Work → TV → Work → Hollowness

Dr. Steven Bartlett, in his groundbreaking book Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health, calls an inability to experience higher values and virtues a “disability of values.” He doesn’t blame hedonism (relentless pursuit and pedestalizing of sensuous pleasure), but I believe it’s a factor. And it leads to painful, empty mediocrity. (Oof.)

Instead of possessing, in his words, “traits [that] are blinders, constraints, and shackles that straightjacket and confine the individuals who possess them to a partial, impoverished experience of reality,” I advise meeting this need of beauty / awe.

And staying away from shallow news, vulgar forums, or piglike porn. Ugliness and mundanity injects a painful need for beauty.

Community

"Many people cling to severe, harmful addictions because they are indispensible adaptations to dislocation in an increasingly fragmented modern world. Nothing less than overcoming the dislocation that is intrinsic to the modern age, at least so far, can be expected to provide a stable recovery from addiction." - Bruce Alexander, lead researcher of the "Rat Park" experiment
"The drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed." - Bruce Alexander, reflecting on his "Rat Park" experiment

(follow Taming Your Tech on Instagram for more like this)

My go-to experts for this are Bruce Alexander, Johann Hari, and Gabor Maté. In the case of community, it may come down to a neurochemical need for oxytocin, the human bonding chemical. This, along with serotonin and dopamine, form the “happy hormones.”

But while there’s overlap when it comes to love, oxytocin also gets boosted by prosocial activities like conversation, contribution, giving, and empathy. Physical touch, too, but that doesn’t matter much if your community is virtual–the others compensate.

Morphine consumption was high among rats deprived of social interaction, isolated in dark, cramped, individual cages. But among the rats living in a “Rat Park” paradise with overflowing food, friends, fun, and mates, consumption was almost none.

(You need to read about that experiment.)

We all want to belong, hence why exile was an ancient form of torture. Isolation drives us mad. The drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed.


(Note 1: similar needs exist, such as safety, which I lump into Calm / Autonomy. Catharsis may be another, as well as intellectual stimulation, which I’d list under Beauty / Awe.)

(Note 2: Each person has different levels they need to meet. For example, introverts need less Community, people with stressful jobs need more Calm / Autonomy, and insecure people need more Validation / Love.)

Kintsugi and the ego

Note that all of these needs flatter the ego; they aren’t just states of mind.

Poor advertisers promise their products will make you happy (vague) or comfortable (fleeting). Clever marketers flatter the ego, or they build it into their products through intuitive interfaces [smart / capable] and other features, like achievements [accomplished]. There’s something to be said about flattering the ego.

And done well, this is one way manipulative products hook you: feeding your ego. But this article is less about blame and more about self-repair.

So, in which need does your kintsugi broken place reside?

Offer yourself a rose, with kintsugi
(image by valentina florez from Pixabay)

Once you’ve got it, to practice kintsugi and fuse your pieces together, you need to mix your lacquer. That is to say, you counteract each hole in your needs with its opposite, some of which I outline below.

These are ways we like to feel, ways to flatter the ego and detoxify. While they don’t all correlate with a need– indeed, they aren’t needs– they form the lacquer used to glue your pieces together. So make your own mix with these (and read until the end for the fusing technique):

Kintsugi lacquer (healing states)

  • Smart
    • Getting frustrated by a problem or puzzle hits your ego. As a result, if repeated over years, through negative self-talk or taking failures too hard, this leads to a hole in Validation / Love. And by the way, we’re all smart in some areas and dumb in others.
  • Accomplished
    • Every game (your life included) has Levels and Quests! Achievements, unlocks! Because without them, you’d be lost, confused, and you’d quit.

      This one hits me, so here’s my experience: not engaging in society’s expected experiences, not living up to standards, not being a real man, hurts. A lack of accomplishment creates the most multi-pronged void of all: Validation / Love (negative self-talk, inferiority complex), Pursuit (if we believe we’re irredeemable), Identity (lacking a proper, expected base), and Community (if we withdraw).

      But this old Instagram post helps me.
Self-esteem pyramids: we're all low in some pyramids and high in others
  • In Control
    • Perhaps the obvious one. When we feel out of control by what life throws at us and we act out, this is a void in Calm / Autonomy. In reality, we have more power than we think. (Albert Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy)
  • Attractive / lovable
    • No one wants to feel undesirable. Unfortunately, if Validation / Love or Community is the thing we crave and some vice (porn especially) gives us that feeling, it can lead to addiction whenever life crushes our self-esteem. That harem will, after all, always be there for us…
  • Powerful
    • Power feels great! Weakness stings. Not feeling powerful may lead to a need for Excitement through action-packed video games, just to gloat over n00bs. Or it can manifest in taking on a guild leader role, moderating a forum, taking charge at work, etc. In fact, feeling weak stings so much it necessitates shifting to a more powerful Identity in a different Community. Some synonyms include capable and competent.
  • Enviable
    • We all want something to brag about to prove we’re not nothing failures. And sometimes we buy things to prove that. Feeling unenviable can lead to a void in Validation / Love (this might be the most common void) and Identity.
  • Unique
    • We’re all unique… just like everyone else. An excessive desire for this may come from a void in Identity (roots) or Beauty / Awe (transcending our surroundings feels good), though it’s not bad on its own. Actually, its often used by people who play online video games, to become a second, better self. So only when it’s addicting is it bad.

And again, these are all wounds to the ego.

So, how do you cast Purge? How do you fuse your broken pieces together?

With your kintsugi lacquer ready, begin brushing.

Making kintsugi

Here, “brushing” means patient practice of applying the counteragent to your wound, over and over again, however long it takes. Kintsugi is a practice. Besides, the above nouns list and adjectives list don’t correlate exactly– since this is an imperfect theory– but here are some example lacquers.

And remember, don’t just detoxify; like a pendulum, swing back in the other direction of your wound. (This is the “golden highlight” part.) Only you have the opportunity to turn your broken place into your strongest, most unique asset.

Fire and water balanced between the hands illustration (yin-yang)
(image by Comfreak on Pixabay)

Kintsugi example one: love

Wound: Validation / Love, Identity
Lacquer: Accomplished
This is me. Since I’m not “good enough” by conventional standards due to being hindered by lack of experiences, I have low self-worth in some areas. This led to softcore porn addiction where the actresses made me feel romantically attractive, and it devoured years of my life. But by entrepreneuring with this blog and all the work it entails, I feel like I contribute and help people. And as I’ve discovered, giving love feels about the same as receiving praise. Thus, my weapons are metta meditation, the breath exercises in my upcoming breathwork book, and pursuing something I care about– this blog.

Golden highlight: Love
Removing porn infused me with intense desire to be loving, compassionate, loyal, attentive, and the best future husband and father I can be. I now know by experience that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and so I hold myself to more realistic standards. Besides, love glosses over and sometimes finds cute imperfections.

Kintsugi example two: gamer

Wound: Calm / Autonomy
Lacquer: In Control
This person is a college student who moved away and is living on his own for the first time. Prior to college, his parents structured his life rigidly so he’d get into a good school and get a good job. He, however, doesn’t want to study what they want him to study. In his first year, he spends hours each day on an MMORPG as a way to feel in control of his life, something he’s never had. But his grades slip and his health deteriorates. His parents and roommate worry about him. However, he uncovers his Why and uses the techniques therein to structure his life with the right amount of autonomy: not too loose, but not suffocating. His favorite is the Magnetic Cap, through which he gains the time to now study art! Whoo!

Golden highlight: Unwavering
Being able to structure your life with Magnetic Caps, XP, etc. and not giving in to distractions makes you a powerhouse in whatever field you choose, since talent = practice. Discipline, persistence, and willpower also put you ahead of the competition.

Kintsugi example three: a higher plane

Wound: Beauty / Awe
Lacquer: Smart, Unique
In contrast, this person has a tedious job with not much future. It’s dirty, smelly, and ugly, and her coworkers voice endless complaints. Not that she can blame them, but she has to stay for the money. So instead of going crazy as every minute drags on, she joins a book club and reads on her downtime. Later, she looks up references the authors made to art and history and other books. Maybe she finds positive role models or untapped strength. And thus she escapes her dingy, vacuous job feeling rejuvenated, no longer turning to binge-watching mindless YouTube nonsense on her downtime instead.

Golden highlight: Virtue
Practicing virtue combats acedia (the empty consumerism I mentioned above). Some philosophers say it’s the only thing that matters. Patience, empathy, or just puzzling over what is truth, entering a higher plane of thought distracts and intrigues. And intentionally living by a code forms a smart, unique Identity which imparts meaning to suffering, thereby reducing it.

Cast Purge: detoxify your wound with its opposite

I know you’re broken. And I know you can change. If your addiction is caused by one of these needs, glue your broken pieces back together with golden lacquer created from its opposite.

Lacking Love? Learn to love. Validation? Internal.
Lacking Excitement? Before you start, set a timer.
Lacking Pursuit? One tiny step at a time.
Lacking Identity? Remake yourself.
Lacking Calm? Breathwork. Lacking Autonomy? Build your own hierarchy.
Lacking Beauty? Consume or make art. Lacking Awe? Scan nature.
Lacking Community? Participate elsewhere.

Then you’ll have a beautiful, whole teacup with a golden lining. A stronger place because of the broken time. And no space for addiction.

Oh, I know it’s hard. The hardest thing. I don’t think I can ever learn self-compassion. But my instant repulsion means I’m touching a sensitive nerve, and I’m on to something.

All things considered, though, this kintsugi theory is just a theory. It’s up to you whether you inject the counteragent.

Because at the end of the day…

The strongest, most beautiful kintsugi stresses its golden joinery.

Lastly, take this poster I made for you! And stick it somewhere you’ll see often on your journey. (Your desktop is fine.)

It’s not perfect… just like kintsugi. : )


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