This article is about how we can go about breaking an addiction. Even though we’re all addicted to avoiding things that make us uncomfortable, we can teach ourselves to overcome that drive by choosing to bear the pain. And this is the part every person with a bad habit finds the hardest. It’s also the part that people dread because you have to work hard if you want to change. As with any meaningful change in life – losing weight, getting skills, being a good parent, etc. – there’s no secret pill or trick that’s going to do it for you.
And this is another part of the fact that we instinctively want to avoid being uncomfortable. Hard work is, by its very nature, hard! Of course, we don’t want to do it – it’s uncomfortable (if not excruciating). So the method I recommend is that you make it as easy as you can for yourself by not thinking that recovery from addiction has to be a cold-turkey, all-or-nothing event: it’s a process.
So this is the point where we can use our brains to our advantage. Up to now, I’ve been talking about how our minds are basically conspiring against us to make us avoid being uncomfortable and to get us addicted to crappy, short-term relief. Well now we get to the good news: we have the ability to can overcome our instinctive drives with our minds. The problem is that while this is really easy to say, overcoming a primary drive like avoiding being uncomfortable takes a lot of practice. That’s why it’s normal for addicts to relapse – because the drive is so ingrained, plunging into complete abstinence hurts us and our body screams out for relief. So let’s be gentle with ourselves and accept that it has to be a war, not a single battle.
So with the acceptance that this is going to hurt a bit, that it will take some time, and, that losing a battle or two in this war is normal, we can start the process with our heads in the right space. And when I talk about a slow process I mean real slow. I’m not talking one day at a time here, I’m talking about one minute at a time. I’m talking about starting at being able to bear what makes you uncomfortable for just one minute. Really want that drink? Just wait one more minute. And during that minute, reflect on what it is that the drink is going to do for you. Reflect on what you feel. Bored? Tense? Anxious? Worried? Numb? Most importantly, the aim here isn’t to slowly build up these minutes until eventually you stop, the aim is to be uncomfortable and to bear it. Don’t distract yourself from your craving. Crave it and bear it. If only for a minute to start. Spend as much time as possible in the place where you’re most uncomfortable. Take a lesson from Usher: let it burn.
Having this experience of bearing your own “uncomfortableness” does two things. The first is that it builds resilience. Every minute you spend experiencing that tension and not doing anything about it is a minute you can look back on and realise you didn’t need to [use, go on Facebook, watch porn, drink]. In other words, it helps us realise that it’s not the end of the world to feel uncomfortable/tense/anxious for a little while. The more we do this, the greater our future ability to resist.
The second thing it does it that it actually make the uncomfortableness less uncomfortable. Having the experience of bearing tension tells our brains that we can actually handle our pain/tension/uncomfortable – that it’s not something we need to be afraid of or avoid. Essentially, you’re taking away its control over you. The more you bear it, the easier it becomes. It might seem strange, but it’s the same idea that used in exposure therapy for people with phobias: if you can gradually expose yourself to what you’re afraid of, you become less and less afraid of it.
So here is the foundation the process of not becoming dependent on something. When it’s drinking, or porn or praise or sex. Some will be ready to start building on those foundations now, some won’t just yet, and others will never want or need to. Remember, we’re all addicts because we have a drive to avoid being uncomfortable: it’s just a normal reaction to needing to escape what’s underneath. The bottom line? Reflect on what you do automatically, explore the feelings you’re trying to avoid, bear that uncomfortableness, rinse and repeat. For more information about breaking an addiction, check out my article about why we’re all addicted to something here.