When you're trying to let go of a compulsive behavior* that isn't working for you, it's a given that the more accustomed you are to the way things are, the harder it will be to change.
Sometimes people work the problem from one direction, thinking that by changing enough of the circumstances of their life, the behavior won't fit anymore, and the urges to do it will subside.
Other times, people feel that keeping their lives as stable as possible while trying to modify their behavior is the way to go. Well, yes and no, to both.
As with most aspects of human behavior, the truth is in the middle.
Change is dangerous . . .
There is a strong relationship between relapse and emotionality for people who turn to substance use or other behaviors as a means of comforting themselves, or dulling the experience of difficult emotions: the return of the negative emotions while they're abstinent puts them at risk of relapse.
But what may surprise you is that studies suggest that the risk of relapse is elevated in the presence of either positive or negative emotions. It’s the inability to cope with changes in emotion—essentially, change itself—that can derail you.
Positive life changes can be riskier than negative ones because you're more naturally inclined to brace yourself for hard times, while you may let your guard down during good times. I see this quite a bit in my work with people with substance addictions. Not infrequently, clients who have managed to stay sober have things fall apart just when they’ve reached a milestone in their recovery or achieved some long-sought after goal.
But whether you're facing a positive or negative change, and turn to substances, overeating, shopping, or some other addiction, you're finding a way to cope. Those things can serve as a way to distract you, take the edge off anxiety, find a familiar, comfortable mental state, or reconnect with others.
Your trusty addiction can be a convenient safety net in moments of fear or instability. Of course, nets are more hole than net.
Here are some alternatives you can try to stay balanced when change is heading your way:
- Go on the offense and pile up more solid ground beneath you. Social support is important, so it's helpful to spend time with any good, supportive people you have in your life, or can find. People that you respect.
Bonus points for people who are a little farther down the path that you’re following, so you can benefit from their experience and proof that the change you’re seeking is possible.
- Find something to read, watch, or listen to that reconnects you to the core part of yourself that wanted to change in the first place. Then get some paper and let that part of you write a letter to yourself, or a mission statement. It's a manifesto that can be your anchor to your core self as the landscape changes around you.
- Generally, try to build momentum toward well-being in the other areas of your life. Start eating better, exercising (anything, from going for a walk to going to the gym), doing hobbies, or any other life-affirming activity. Aside from alleviating some stress, you’ll feel healthier, and healthy people don’t do unhealthy things as much.
. . . but familiarity keeps you stuck.
People in 12-step recovery programs know well that familiar people, places, and things can be triggers for old behaviors, and your responses to triggers can be so habituated that they occur automatically.
In my own life I’ve confronted this situation in many ways, and even in my television viewing habits. Sometimes I arrive home, reach for the remote, click the television on before even taking my shoes off, and then leave the room. I return later to select a program. There isn't much thought involved until then.
So, when I turn it on, what's happening? Is the chattering television a familiar distraction from unpleasant thoughts and anxiety? Are the voices a surrogate when I would otherwise benefit from human company?
It seems to happen more after an especially trying day. Whatever is going on, I clearly I have an itch to soothe myself when I'm anxious or missing something, and I scratch it unthinkingly.
This is a problem for me, because turning on the television often leads to spending hours on the couch, mostly disengaged from life instead of doing the research and writing that I need to do, and would really rather be doing.
Don’t get me wrong: I like, and need, time to decompress just like anyone else, especially after a long day of work. But the reality is, most of the time the good feeling I get from doing things that are meaningful to me is much deeper and more satisfying than the good feeling of lying on the couch.
Also, fulfilling activities have the potential to produce more deep, satisfying good feelings down the road, whereas lying on the couch is more likely to spawn more couch-centric activities and a general malaise.
In practical terms, what is helpful when breaking habits is to find some way to disrupt the chain of behaviors that you have conditioned over time. Be creative. I have gone so far as to put an “out of order” sign on the television, which makes me pause just long enough to remember my intention, and act wisely.
Now, everyone is different, and I realize that not everyone gets their jollies by researching and writing. So, what's your thing? Do you have a hobby or social activity that provides you with a sense of meaning? Emphasis on activity.
If you’re convinced that relaxing, watching television, or being pampered is where it’s at for you, that’s OK. Just consider that it’s when you’re engaged in the world—putting a part of yourself into the world and receiving some feedback, even if it’s just a sense of satisfaction in something you’ve done—that you’re flexing your “thriving muscle.”
Only passively receiving without also extending part of yourself is like trying to keep your blood properly oxygenated by only inhaling. Usually the easiest thing you can do is the worst thing if your goal is to have an engaged, meaningful life.
Unstuck in the Middle
If both changing and familiar environments set you up for trouble when you're trying to modify a compulsive behavior, then where does that leave you? Stuck in the middle, with no hope? Of course not.
It’s true that you have an innate drive to change—to grow and thrive—on one hand, opposed by an equally natural fear of uncertainty and difficulty on the other. But here’s the thing: you're deciding between them all the time, either by taking or not taking actions.
Positive change is just a matter of inclining toward the direction you want to go, making different decisions, and taking action in the direction of your long-term happiness and fulfillment. That may feel harder and less pleasant at first, but it will produce the results you're really after.
Have you come up with any creative ways to work with the situations that threaten to throw you off track? Or the automatic thoughts and urges that come with them? Please share in the comments section!
* Technically, there is a fine line between compulsive and addictive behavior. For instance, a diagnosis of substance dependence requires the existence of symptoms such as increasing tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms, which may not characterize every compulsive behavior. However, the two share more in common: the underlying drive to relieve anxiety and the seeming inability to stop, even though you want to, or know you should. So, it's this broader concept of addictive and compulsive behavior patterns, behavior modification, and relapse that I'm referring to.