Problem gamblers typically believe, as they head out the door to the nearest casino, that their full and sincere intention is to win money. Little do they know they’re acting out an emotional attachment to the feeling of losing.
Such gamblers typically do become, in the derogatory sense of the word, losers. They can lose their money, happiness, self-respect, and perhaps their loved ones and home as well. At this point, indeed, we see them as losers.
Yet it doesn’t occur to them that they actually want to lose. Why would anyone, even “losers,” be determined to lose? That level of folly defies common sense. Consciously, of course, problem gamblers do want to win. On the surface, winning money is their all-consuming passion. But unconscious dynamics in their psyche are playing a different game—a game of self-sabotage and self-defeat.
The dynamics of our psyche require us to experience repeatedly our unresolved negative emotions, however painful. A person who is sensitive to feeling refusal or loss, for instance, typically goes through life repeatedly experiencing this suffering. The impression of being refused likely started in childhood, and it continues through life as a psychological conflict: The adult is desperate to get some reward or benefit, at the same time that he or she is expecting refusal or loss. This person will be burdened with the suffering the conflict produces, unless the conflict is resolved with insight and awareness.
Problem gamblers have an inner conflict. They are desperate to feel the drug-like euphoria of winning in order to cover up their deep affinity for feelings of emptiness, loss, refusal, worthlessness, and passivity. Those negative emotions are powerful, and the thrill of winning is able to cover them up—if only temporarily. These negative emotions can also include feelings of deprival, helplessness, self-rejection, and self-hatred. The more that chronic gamblers lose, the more intensely they feel this unresolved negative congestion within themselves.
Recurring gambling losses are usually accompanied by intense inner-critic reproaches. Our inner critic jumps all over us with scorn and mockery any chance it gets, and big financial losses are ammunition for it to shoot us down. In losing, problem gamblers bring, in the form of inner-critic scorn and mockery, the wrath of hell down upon themselves. Their gambling losses facilitate their unconscious emotional addiction to self-punishment. This punishment is inflicted by the inner critic and accommodated and absorbed, with feeble face-saving defensiveness, through inner passivity.
Such inner conflict goes back to childhood when we felt (or were) chastised or punished for being bad or allegedly being bad. Foolishly losing our precious money and then punishing ourselves for this behavior is simply another way to repeat what has been from childhood an unconscious, compulsive pattern. When we see and understand all this, we can break free of the pattern.
Problem gambling is simply a means of acting out one’s deeper emotional addiction to painful, unresolved inner conflict. If for some reason problem gamblers weren’t able to gamble, they would likely act out their inner conflict in other ways, perhaps through substance abuse, job failures, or relationship problems.
Gamblers typically display optimism as, from day to day, they venture forth to risk their money. This optimism is probably, at least in part, an expression of lingering infantile megalomania and omnipotence. Behind their passivity is the conviction that they possess some hidden power to prevail. They believe in their special powers to defy the odds, as if they have magic on their side. This irrationality is felt like this: “I’m going to win because I can feel it. I know it’s my day!” The more acutely they feel this special power, the more intensely they’re covering up the underlying passivity, which is, in part, the mysterious allure of feeling oneself to be at the mercy of fate.
The optimism is also self-deception: the optimism covers up the impending collapse into self-loathing. This self-loathing is the unconscious emotional absorption, through one’s inner passivity, of the inner critic’s full-on assault for the folly and stupidity of losing so much money. This is a “game” people can play with themselves in many different ways. The game involves our passive willingness to absorb self-punishment for some real or imagined transgressions or for alleged defects of personality and character.
People can also be deluded into thinking that their risk-taking is a form of aggressive behavior. “I’m not passively putting myself in harm’s way,” their defense reads, “I’m the aggressive taker of risks.” This is pure self-deception covering up the willingness to continue experiencing the old, familiar passive feeling from childhood of being at the mercy of fate.
To some degree, we’re all challenged by self-defeating inner dynamics. Not only can we feel the pain of unresolved negative emotions—we are, as mentioned, compelled to go on feeling them. It’s as if we are programmed to feel and to act out whatever is unresolved within us. Figuratively, our inner coding is askew. That inner software needs to be upgraded. Through our intelligence, insight, and knowledge, we can penetrate our psyche to bring us up to speed.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.