Handling Shadow Addictions!

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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Terri Cole, founder and CEO of Live Fearless and Free, is a licensed psychotherapist, transformation coach, and an expert at turning fear into freedom. For almost two decades, Terri has empowered companies, celebrities, professional athletes and individuals to Live Fearless and Free. Recently, Terri released her first CD Meditation Transformation. Follow Terri on Twitter @terri_cole.

  • Kim

    Beautiully written and o true. Thank you

    •  Kim-
      I am so glad the post resonated with you! So glad you are here with us <3

  • RMDauben

    Dear Terri,
    Thanks for sharing such a profound observation. As I read your article I began thinking about why we become addicted and to what. I thought about alchohol and its’ effect on us. For me I really don’t like drinking, which I don’t do anymore, because of the effects, and because I discovered that whenever I would drink it was because I was “feeling” anxiety of some type.  It took many years to realize this as I learned to become “AWARE” of my thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviors. What I have learned is to be aware of my thoughts and if they serve me in a good way or bad way. To judge something is weakness, but to observe something is power. Accepting what is, without judgement is most powerful because we can see it for what it is, true or false, perception and nothing more. A powerful question to ask yourself is “What am I running away from”? Or, “What am I denying”? Another is, “What and why am I resisting”?
    All of those questions are powerful and when asked, without judging the answers, when they come to us, we can discover our often false perceptions about who and what we “Think” we are. I have discovered, and currently writing two books , that we “OPERATE” either on Purpose or by Default, depending on our O/S (Operating System-Thoughts). We live consciously (Awareness) or unconsciously (Unaware) of our thought processes. Sadly, I think most of us are running by “Default” and it’s because we have not been taught or learned to use our minds instead of our minds using us! I do hope you will write more about this and share your insights.

    Much Love,


    •  Wow Rich, right on! Your insight is super refreshing and I love that you are writing it for all of us to benefit from 😉 “To judge something is weakness, but to observe something is power” just so true so thank you for sharing your insight here with us! <3

  • Dia Draper

    I just stumbled upon this blog today and saw the title “shadow addictions” and had to read on!  I hadn’t heard this term before, but I have definitely experienced it.  Exercise and “me time” come to mind, but also this– I recently discovered that I’m addicted to discomfort within the personal growth process!  I blogged about it last week (http://illuminatelifeblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/addicted-to-discomfort-me-too/) and am pretty sure this fits in the shadow addictions.  Mostly personal growth is viewed as extremely healthy, but I was so into it that it felt wrong to enjoy my life.  I did a little exploring and have been working on letting it go.  Thanks for this post– it’s a really helpful context for what I was noticing!

    •  Dia-
      I am so glad you stumbled upon us here at The Daily Love <3 What you are saying is really an excellent point to ponder. With clients who are very resistant to change I sometimes feel that they are so attached to there misery that they resent me trying to take it from them and this is in some ways the flip side of that coin. Almost a feeling of never arriving at the enlightenment or mental health level that you seek. Your insight into your feelings and behavior are right on and I have no doubt will help others on this path of evolving-with purpose-in this life. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insight here with us. I hope you come back often <3

  • Chris

    The thought of giving  up exercise for 30 days scares me for sure! I’m not sure if that qualifies as a shadow addiction but I know I have shadows that I even hide, repress, and deny to myself. Exercise is tied pretty closely to my self esteem and how I allow myself to feel. For example if I have a presentation or a big meeting scheduled for work I feel I will be off if I don’t get in a good workout in the morning before my event. It gets me in the “zone” is what I tell myself. I’ve always though if I became physically injured and could not exercise I would be in trouble. I do have a hard time taking a day off from exercise too but when my body tells me to I generally listen. Often times when my body feels beat up I will do yoga as I have heard that is a way to give back to our body. Regardless, if I am addicted to exercise, and I do joke about being an endorphin junkie frequently, it is the healthiest addiction I’ve found and I’ve had a lot of them! Drinking, drugging, and gambling to name a few so I will say my addiction quality is going up?! LOL

    •  Chris-
      Thank you for your astute comment. I am a firm believer is the good, better, best scenario when it comes to additions. Way better to have that kind of addiction then smoking crack, right? lol! Shadow addictions are generally much less damaging to life and limb (or lung for that matter) than straight up obvious addictions. Keep up the good work (and maybe start thinking about the other ones you mentioned…;) <3

      • Chris

         Thank you for the response Terri. I’m slaying these addictions one by one… some have been harder and/or more damaging than others. Quit using drugs in April 2004, quit drinking in Februray 2005, quit tobacco in December 2007, sports gambling still rears it’s ugly head sometimes (been back and forth with quitting the last few years but way more off than on with that habit) but I don’t plan to quit exercising anytime soon! Did I read that you are into triathlons? Come do The Stroke, Spoke, and Stride! It’s a sprint triathlon I organized to honor the memory of my late Uncle Steve… next August will be the 4th year.

  • tc

    Dear Terri,

    Exercise used to be my shadow addiction. I used to have anorexia / bulimia but faced my demons (was tough!!) and now create healthy habits. I work in the fitness industry now, and am really conscious of when I notice similar old habits in someone that may be going through what I used to. I do regular BMI testing, fuel my body with healthy foods good for training & healthy (studying nutrition also!) and don’t let myself get addicted to the endorphins. Turned a negative into a positive. One thing that still frustrates me (if I may) is when after all my freaking efforts to be good to myself, I get accused of being too thin by a peer when my muscle tone has improved greatly and they are fully aware of my healthy habits & everything in moderation. Some people are naturally small, and I can’t tell u how annoyed I am to be picked at and prodded into a category I no longer fit in to. And I quote Elenor Roosevelt “you’ll be damned if you do, and you’ll be damned if you don’t and only you know if you really have a problem. A shadow addiction is something I overcame. Much love to you Terri for creating awareness xxxxxxxxxx

    •  tc-
      Good for you! Sounds like you have a handle on your shadow addiction and your awareness will keep you healthy. Remember: What other people think of you is none of your business. The less energy you put into that drama the sooner it leaves your experience. YOU know you are ok so carry yourself that way and if someone makes a comment let it be known that you are not interested in their un-asked for opinion. Period. You can do it! <3

  • Sussie

    Hi Terri,
    Shadow Addiction can also be whinging, over talking, usual things we do, to extremes, all because we want to avoid what we are feeling deep inside ourselves.
    It’s an over-use / abuse / tool we have discovered for a distraction from our yucky/anxiety type of feelings; which we basically chase the buzz of the endorphins running through our veins – wanting that chemical high…which there is nothing wrong with it – just only keep an eye on it…because if you don’t get it regulary you do get cranky!

  • Wow! I loved reading this! I actually know exactly what my shadow addiction was: Extreme Couponing! Sounds crazy but it began to take over my life–all I thought about was getting to deals and would rather go get free unnecessary items than spend time with my family. One day I just realized that I was actually wasting money by driving everywhere, not to mention the amount of time I spent on it. And- we didn’t need or use a good majority of the items, which I ended up donating. I am glad to have found a name for it though and that I wasn’t just crazy! 🙂