Self-Knowledge • Behaviours
How to Weaken the Hold of Addiction
Many of us are prey to addictive behaviours which we know run contrary to our deeper interests but which we find ourselves entirely unable to desist from at key moments.
Let’s pick three of these:
— Porn addiction
We well appreciate, as soon as we come out of the tunnel of addiction, that we have neglected our interests and harmed ourselves. And yet we are at a loss as to what we might do. What, if anything, could help?
One kind of answer is this: we should try to notice when the desire to regurgitate food or watch porn or drink strikes us.
Though this might sound strange, those in the grip of addictions seldom do notice. They don’t pay much attention to what has immediately happened before their desires strike; it doesn’t occur to them that anything has.
And yet if they did look into themselves, and studied the answers very carefully, they would have an important weapon with which to escape the downward spiral. And that’s because, to make another generalisation: before there is ever an addictive behaviour, there is always a moment of feeling bad, very very bad, about something.
The triggers can be varied;
— A partner is not as warm as they might be
— Someone at work seems disapproving and mean
— One has been left out, perhaps not for the first time, of a social occasion
In other words, the triggers for addictive self-harming behaviours are rooted in such emotions as loneliness, shame, a sense of unacceptability, a feeling of rejection or a belief one is not good enough.
The addictive pattern is only a response, a part b) to a part a) that we are not used to exploring. Addiction has nothing to do with loving what one is addicted to, it’s to do with finding relief from a prior pain which has not been understood or addressed. For a time, the addictive behaviour offers a kind of soothing and escape from an intolerable discomfort: vomiting after a meal brings a sense of lightness, porn leads one into a series of physical highs, a state of drunkenness stills critical voices.
The way to start to break the pattern of addiction is simply to realise — before we have rushed to the addictive solution — that we are in trouble. That we have, for whatever reason, grown very sad and hopeless about ourselves and therefore that we are in a danger zone and need help now, rather than in a few hours.
We have to become better historians and observers of our moods and aim to put a gap — in time and in mental activity — between the moment when we are hurt and the moment when we reach for our self-destructive solution.
If we manage to slow down the process, then we should be able to wake ourselves up from our narcotic impulses and say, in a profoundly helpful way: ‘I am upset’. Just the realisation that we are so is half the battle at least. ‘I am feeling deeply upset and therefore I am in danger.’
And from here, we can ask another extremely pertinent set of questions: ‘What am I upset about? How am I upset?’ We may need to close our eyes and just sit still for a moment to let the answer percolate from the unconscious.
Alternatively we might try and complete the following sentence: ‘I am currently feeling upset because…’
It’s one of the quirks of the strange brains we all have that it can take so long to know what we are feeling and to understand what might have caused it.
When we do start to notice our upset, then we can begin the business of self-soothing in more fruitful ways. One side can run an arm around the other and say, in effect, ‘poor you. How awful to be feeling awful again…’
Almost certainly in early life, no one had much sympathy or the remotest bit of interest in our feelings of loss, self-hatred and abandonment (that’s why we find it so hard to get interested in them ourselves). But we can patch up the damage. We can ask: ‘How am I feeling about myself?’ And ‘what’s happened to give me that feeling?’
We can replace addiction with self-compassion and understanding. No one falls prey to addictions by coincidence: the behaviours always have roots in an intense, normally childhood derived sense of being a terrible unworthy person.
In summary: the route to stopping addictive behaviour is to ask oneself how one is feeling; realise one is probably feeling very bad; grow curious about and sympathetic to the causes — and then ask: ‘what would be a better, kinder way of handling this sense of awfulness?’
Knowing that there is room — and love — for the feeling that provokes addiction is the key to weakening the hold of, and one day overcoming, what we are addicted to.