The Four Universal Addictions

The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting
for our wits to grow sharper.

Eden Phillpotts


In The Four-Fold Way, anthropologist Angeles Arrien identifies four basic human addictions. These are “life-negating” patterns that underlie all addictions, whether to drugs, food, work, sex, etc. These four basic addictions are:

1. The addiction to intensity. This shows up when love is lacking.

2. The addiction to perfection. This appears when true excellence is misunderstood and true power is unrealized.

3. The addiction to knowledge. This is the opposite of wisdom.

4. The addiction to focusing on what's not working rather than what is working. What’s missing here is seeing the big picture.

Let’s look at each of these addictions and, finally, what they all share.

The addiction to intensity is a low tolerance for boredom. If things become too dull or too routine, people addicted to intensity will dramatize, sensationalize, and exaggerate their life experience in order to feel alive.

The ability to be present to one’s experience, whatever it is, depends on one’s capacity to experience love. Love is something more given than received. It’s an attitude, not of loving anyone or anything in particular, but of accepting unconditionally whoever and whatever is in front of us.

It’s said that, “if you can be offended, you will be.” To have standards of what should be or how someone should behave (or look, etc.) is asking for trouble. And the trouble comes from our own filters, which look for the gems in a whole lot of dirt. The intensity of these “holy grails” blinds us to the ever-present glow in all things.

The addiction to perfection leaves no room for mistakes. People addicted to perfection struggle to cultivate and maintain their self-image, a façade covering up who they really are. They have little tolerance for the vulnerability of authenticity.

Vulnerability is actually a sign not of weakness but of strength. The strong don’t deny but incorporate and learn from their “mistakes.” They know that growth means change, and change doesn’t make the past “wrong.” Every butterfly must first be a caterpillar; every adult, a child — and eventually, an old woman or man. The recognition that we are always doing our best leads to true excellence and true power, and these add up to great leadership potential.

The addiction to knowledge is a compulsive desire to understand and control. People with this addiction don’t like surprises. They need to know the outcome: how things are going to turn out. In other words, they have trust issues. Their need to know can lead to being self-righteous, dogmatic, arrogant, and critical.

The Tao Te Ching says, “to gain knowledge, add something every day. To gain wisdom, remove something every day.” With wisdom, we don’t need to know everything. We focus on what’s important: the ability to take life as it comes. With that, we gain patience and flexibility.

The fourth basic human addiction is focusing on what is not working instead of what is working. The truth is that 99.99% of our life is working. We’ve all experienced illness; even a tiny splinter can be incredibly uncomfortable. Our bodies are continually orchestrating countless processes that would, if they weren’t working perfectly, give us pain and dis-ease.  The same is true outside our bodies. Everything in the universe, far beyond our awareness, is holding in place this precious planet and our fragile life. If you think back to any accidents you’ve experienced, you know how easily things can “go wrong.”

Despite all we have to be thankful for, humans, like all animals, have evolved to have a “negativity bias.” To survive in the wild, you need to watch out for predators and other dangers. And yet other animals generally don’t suffer the stress of hypervigilance. They don’t make mountains out of molehills. This is the human mind blowing careful living out of proportion.

As Eckhart Tolle points out, there’s a difference between knowing that fire will burn you and fearing fire.  To appreciate the power of fire in our lives is to give equal attention to what is working.

All four addictions: to intensity, to perfection, to knowing, and to focusing on what’s wrong, are products of fear. Fear is always a constriction of awareness: we’re not seeing the big picture. When we do, we see all our blessings. We see abundance instead of scarcity. We can relax in gratitude.