Have you ever heard of the term Shadow Addiction? Shadow Addictions are becoming incredibly and increasingly more common in our society. The spike in the number of younger therapy clients coming to me with shadow addictions inspired this tip.

First, let’s clarify what an addiction is. Psychology Today gives a great overview of addiction, stating, “Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance [alcohol, cocaine, nicotine] or engages in an activity [gambling] that can be pleasurable but the continued use of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work or relationships, even health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.” It goes on to explain different types of addictions and the biology and chemistry behind them and how to seek out treatments plans. I encourage you to take a look.

While shadow addiction is a form of addiction, it is, on the surface, socially acceptable. It does not necessarily interfere with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work or relationships, even health, as stated in the definition above, but that does not mean the behavior is not negatively impacting quality of life.

When we think of “addicts”—whether it is gambling, sex, drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, etc.—we think of a person whose compulsive behavior is out of control and obvious. A shadow addiction, on the other hand, does not necessarily debilitate the sufferer, but the effect it has on relationships and sense of self and overall functioning is real and, left unchecked, can lead to a full-blown addiction.

The real question about any mood-altering activity is: Are you controlling the behavior or is it controlling you?

For clarity, let’s use exercise as an example. An addiction to exercise could be working out five hours a day in a bulimic-type fashion. The shadow addiction might present as exercising for an hour a day, every day, and needing to get in that hour. If the quality of your entire day is ruined if circumstances arise not allowing you to exercise, that extreme response is out of balance. On the surface, exercising an hour a day seems healthy, and you may admire someone who possesses such a high level of motivation, but quality of life is impaired if that hour a day is a compulsion. The high level of emotional distress that accompanies deviating from the prescribed schedule indicates a shadow addiction.

A therapist friend recently told me a story that illustrates shadow addictions perfectly. She said she had a client who came to her saying she had a drinking problem. When she inquired how much the client was drinking daily, the client replied, “I have one Scotch nightly.” When the therapist seemed a little confused, the client went on to say, ”But every other minute of the day, I think about taking that drink.” You can see how this is a problem.

I quit drinking when I was twenty-one. I have an addictive personality and background, so I am very aware of my own shadow addiction tendencies. Although I stopped drinking young, my struggle with transferring that addiction to other behaviors has been a lifelong challenge. I can still easily get sucked into mood-altering activities from compulsively training for a triathlon to being inflexible about a vegan diet, which binds anxiety about other things.

My heightened awareness of my addictive nature challenges me to skip working out and choose a lazy Sunday with my husband once in a while to maintain a healthy balance. Trust me, if I were not vigilant, I would be actively addicted to many things. But I do the hard work of checking in, staying in therapy, and keeping an open dialogue with my friend and addiction expert Patty Powers, because I love my sweet life.

What are your shadow addictions? What behaviors negatively impact the quality of your life?

The most common shadow addictions I see in my practice are alcohol, social drug use, technology, sex, and exercise.

If I said you were going to do a thirty-day cleanse starting now and you could not engage in your chosen shadow addiction behavior, would you be able to do it? How does the thought of it make you feel? This is an opportunity for you to dig deep and get real with yourself. Having an addict’s mind, I know intimately the frightening power of denial as a defense. Why wait until something bad happens to wake up in your life? Now is the time.

As they say in addiction circles: Anything you put above your recovery you lose. In the case of shadow addictions, it might be more accurate to say: Anything you put above being fully present in your life suffers.

What is suffering in your life right now?

I would love to know how you feel about this topic, so please drop a comment! I am here to help.

I hope you have an amazing week, filled with relaxed joy and pleasure, and, as always, take care of you.

Love love love


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  1. Hi Terri!

    I’m only discovering this post now ^^
    I’m also discovering that the unease I’ve been feeling whenever I would skip a day of exercise (1 hour a day, everyday) is connected to a state that actually has a name!
    Exercise has definitely been a shadow addiction for me. And since I also tend to be the all-or-nothing/reactive type, I haven’t been exercising every single day anymore for the past four months… Just to see what happens. Well, I feel like crap, especially as I’ve gained weight and regularly struggle with poor body image since my teenage years (I’m 34).

    I’ve had the hunch for a while that my relationship to exercise is unhealthy. So right now I’m more or less “forcing” myself to slow down, and I started yoga recently. I can already hear that inner voice saying “3 classes a week… You sure that’s enough?”… Ugh

    Exercise feels like the “easy way” to feel good about myself. And I also feel that I need to learn to be at peace with who I am, without basing my self-esteem mostly on how much I exercise, or on how toned my body is.

    I finished Boundary Boss a few days ago. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for writing this book. It has me thinking of new healthier ways to build self-esteem!


  2. I’m starting to justify taking benzodiazepines. I’ve had chest tightness and anxiety resulting in panic attacks and dangerous elevations of my BP. Vistaril doesn’t help. Antipsychotics cause MAJOR neurological problems. I used to manipulate doctors into prescribing me what I wanted. I know several who will prescribe them to me. I’m feeling that they are “medically necessary.” I’m even thinking nonsensically that the withdrawal is not as bad as an SNRI one. I’m telling myself that I would just take it prn in emergencies and that way I would not become addicted again. This is the mind of an addict. I am not sure what I will do. I’ll probably get someone to prescribe me a bottle to have. This is when using something prescribed is in the shadows. There is really potential death here. I have NOT tried all other methods of dealing with my anxiety and because of that very fact, I don’t feel I would be “clean.”

  3. Could thinking about food and weight be an addiction? I used to engage in eating disorder behaviors and have stopped that many years ago – however, I still THINK about different ways to eat and different ways to “control” my body. I don’t actively engage in any destructive behaviors (I eat healthy and exercise moderately) however I still think about it EVERY day…could just the thinking about it be a shadow addiction??? I do find it extremely annoying and wish I just didn’t have to think about it at all….thoughts??

  4. Terri, love your stuff, didn’t know you got sober at 21..that’s awesome. I got sober at 33, a little over 21 years, but I would say that food and men are my shadow addiction, especially after a recent divorce, although the food has been replaced with a personal trainer (woman btw) and healthy food, not Kit Kat bars and ice cream……but dating, a new concept for me since 20 years, seems to be the new shadow, not being able to or wanting to sit with the feelings…..Thanks for being part of my life….

  5. Hi Terri,

    This is a good article. Once again, you’ve put something out there and articulated it. I think my shadow addiction for some time has been my incessant reading of romance novels (read: Fifty Shades). Obviously, it was a way of fullfilling the lack of pleasure in my life (not just sex). But for the last few months, after being more aware of my other issues, I chose to actively screen the stuff I read and put in my brain. Thus, I started following you on Twitter and other inspiring persons like yourself. It is true what Marsha commented that “realizing them is a major step, getting past them takes time.” But even if they do, it feels a whole lot better when I’m in control.

    Thanks again for all that you do 🙂

  6. I’m having difficulty here discerning between addiction addiction & shadow addiction. I’m addicted to Nicorette gum. I get sucked into the computer like a black hole. And as Vic pointed out–I can be pretty compulsive with social media. I can get lost for hours shopping online. Lately I’ve been buying stuff and returning 80% of it–so now tracking, packing and shipping have become part of my routine. I can’t go for more than several hours without wanting to be with my cats. I am addicted to my cats and always need to have at least one of them near me and traveling without them gives me separation anxiety.

    For several months now I’ve been compulsively following Louise Hay’s Colors & Numbers; which is dressing in a color and wearing jewelry that vibrates to your own personal number on any given day. Seriously, this has become de riguer and it means that I have actually need to check my colorstrology calendar before dressing & I become anxious about adhering to it. It’s even added to my shopping issue; because it’s imperative that I wear something red on my personal number 1 day. Avoiding wearing all black anymore is key here. Nuts. I know. So would we consider this a “shadow” addiction?

    I’m also obsessed with losing weight and live primarily on shakes & nutrition bars (I’ve recently lost 20 lbs). Real food–even if it’s perfectly healthy and eaten in reasonable portions–is guilt-inducing. I still struggle a bit with addictive relationships. I could go on and on and on. I am a certifiable, addict’s addict. Even though I’ve long since quit drinking, smoking (cannabis & tobacco) & other vices, I’ve replaced them with a host of other behaviors.

    Recently I’ve been reading about the Jungian concept of our “shadow” personalities and supposedly, it’s healthier to face and embrace our shadow selves because they’ll creep up on us with a vengeance if we totally repress them. That’s not to condone allowing them free reign, but addiction is only one of mine–and it’s been a life-long struggle in one form or another. And I’m well aware that basically, it all boils down to filling a void and warding off loneliness.

    Ultimately, what I’ve found is that I usually need to “bottom out” on a behavior before I can begin to change it–i.e. junk food, overeating, maxing out credit cards or having had so many cats in a small space that I was over-whelmed–not to mention financially tapped out. So are we talking about vice here? And is it possible to not have any at all? Especially for an addict? Aren’t mildly disruptive or destructive consequences better than major ones? Although in my case I think that cumulatively, they might be tantamount to one biggie–except I’m not posing serious physical danger to myself or others (I hope)…..

    And why can’t I get addicted to exercise, work or making money? Wouldn’t that be fabulous?

    1. Daisy Mae,
      Thank you for sharing your questions here 😉 I think you pose a valid question and you are describing a transfer of addictive behavior. For sure behavior that does not physically harm you or another is better than behavior that does but what you are describing is still fueled by compulsion which means it is still controlling you although you clearly have insight into your behavior. You did not mention being in extreme pain about what you described which is usually the motivation for change.
      Shadow self and shadow addictions are different things. Embracing shadow self is accepting all parts of yourself even the parts you don’t like and to have empathy for how those parts got there. I think you can become similarly addicted to healthier behavior but balance would be what I wish for you. Sending you good healthy energy right now <3

  7. mine would be exercise but also, maintaining a positive self talk, , I nag myself and can seem to let the worst sometimes get the best of me, I have read about the shadow effect and would love to find a way to deal with it daily, there are so many shadows ( at least for me) that it may take a while to uncover and get to the bottom and release them, wouldn’t it be nice if we could release our shadows in a short period of time, I know realizing them is a major step , getting past them takes time

    1. The BG would most likely say that control is not the only thing we mere mortals are deluded about lol! Seriously I believe that really anything can be a shadow if you use it as a way to avoid feeling. If meditation and a rigid schedule makes it difficult for you to ever be spontaneous and actually live your life, if you judge everyone who does not have a practice or if you practice so many hours a day that you cannot hold down a job than meditation has become a shadow addiction. Thank you for your insightful question and for being here with us <3

    1. Petra-
      The first step is to find a different way to add pleasure to your life. Smoking does not actually raise the quality of your life, it allows you a certain number of minutes a day to get numb and mood alter. When I smoked for years it was the only time I allowed myself to relax and stop go go going so trust me I feel you. You must start to visualize your life smoke free in order to create it. So just start by picturing yourself healthy, not stinking like smoke, not feeling bad about harming your beautiful God Pod and breathing easily. As you visualize really feel the feeling of being free from this behavior that is controlling you and things will start to shift. Let me know when step one is completed and I will try to help you with step two! So glad you are here with us <3

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