Dismantling Powerlessness in Addiction: Empowering Recovery through Rehabilitating Behavioral Learning


addiction, behavior, therapy, recovery


Addiction is characterized by a subjective experience of powerlessness over one's behavior. Those who wrestle with addiction affirm their experience of powerlessness, and therapists trained in 12-Step models validate that experience—making powerlessness a core phenomenological, theoretical, and clinical tenet commonly applied to addiction. In a previous, companion paper (Butler, Call, Meloy, & Zitzman, 2014), we presented a straightforward model of behavioral learning processes capable of producing overpowering habituation and ritualization of behavior, comprising a significant yet often overlooked dimension of powerlessness in addiction. In this article, we apply the learning model to the task of overcoming powerlessness in addiction through rehabilitating learning. A learning model can capture and convey the neurobiological processes underlying addiction and recovery in a way that is readily accessible to clients—both in terms of understanding and intervention. Understanding learning processes not only illuminates mechanisms of powerlessness, but can also empower recovery, showing how behavioral learning can be rehabilitated for recovery. First, we describe the rehabilitation of addictive learning and the dismantling of powerlessness for recovery in academic terms. Then we describe the model as we would to a client—in terms of ordinary, everyday experience and metaphors. The intent is to provide therapists a way to explain and demystify powerlessness for their clients, using a model and language that are accessible, meaningful, and resonant with everyday understanding, thereby empowering clients for self-help intervention for recovery.

Original Publication Citation

Butler, M. H., Meloy, K. C., & Call, M. L. (2015). Dismantling powerlessness in addiction: Empowering recovery through rehabilitating behavioral learning. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 22(1), 26-58.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity




Family, Home, and Social Sciences


Family Life

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor