Living a Fuller Life by Overcoming Addictions
Habits are not bad. Some habits can be adaptive. We default to certain behaviors under similar circumstances. Habits can be cute personality traits or destructive life forces. Whether we encounter a small behavioral tick that holds us back or a life destroying addiction, we have routes for escape. We can overcome the addiction and move forward with a better life.
Living on Auto-Pilot
We get sick of our lives, experiencing failures and stuck in ruts. However, we continue to do the same darn things over and over, hoping somehow life will change. “I just have terrible luck,” we might muse. Insanity, right? We keep responding with our engrained patterns of action; we live on auto pilot.
Are we condemned to live in disappointing desperation or can we break free? We have cognitive powers that assist in change, but also hinder. Sometimes thoughts get in the way, creating excuses, justifying errors, and pointing to others as an excuse. Psychologist Jeremy Dean, founder and author of PsyBlog, wrote “when we perform an action repeatedly, its familiarity seems to bleed back into our judgments about that behavior. We end up feeling we have more control over precisely the behaviors that, in reality, we have the least control over” (2013).
A primary quality of a habit is we perform it unconsciously. If the habit conflicts with our personal constructs of who we are and how the world works, we perform cognitive heuristics to soften the conflict.
See Excuses for more on this topic
Changing patterns is a heroic effort. Behavioral patterns are complex. The building blocks motivating action often are obscure. The behavior, often the first salient portion of a long chain of internal events, becomes our focus. Yet the actual behavior is not the beginning nor the end. Changing destructive trajectories, overcoming the painful addictions, demands mindful intervention of a cycle that is programmed to repeat.
Learning from Experience
We march through experiences, soaking up information through multiple senses. We place the information in order by creating graspable definitions. In the chaos of experience, the mind sorts the present into recognizable chunks to speed effective responses to new events; the brain is a fine-tuned machine. Sometimes.
Our biological system responds to triggers, exciting emotions that motivate action. An experience isn’t an isolated event. The repeated neuron firing during events creates connections between mutually firing neurons. The simultaneous firing of neurons, or neurons firing on close proximity of each other creates a connection. We refer to this as the law of contiguity in psychology. The new connections from neurons firing together prepare the brain for smoother interaction with the world. We see, we feel, and we react. The experience is the beginnings of a pattern.
“Cells that fire together, wire together”~Donald Hebb
Habits Don’t Change at Will
There are physical structures established, reactive to experience. Only through awareness can we recognize their existence, noticing habitual impulses. Strong emotions to outside (or sometimes inside) triggers set a cycle in motion, leading to our addictive response.
Although we bring a pattern to awareness, the same strong urges continue to arouse to the same triggering events. A wave of arousal sets in motion behaviors (angry outbursts, ingesting toxic substances, emotional blunting and distancing). Our response is almost as if we have an instruction manual advising, “when this happens, do that.”
States of mind are automatic reactions to associated triggers—that anger stimulates the firing of neurons, inciting protective behaviors that destroy intimacy, dull logic, and disregard futures.
Fortunately, brain networks aren’t permanent. Neuronal connections are biological—a function of learning. Our brains have plasticity, new connections can be forged, and old connections frayed. With proper attention, hard wired systems change. We can catch the chain of reactions early in the process before emotions gain steam, leading us down the same dreary dead-end street.
Most changes are slow, frustrating our impatient demands. A few concerted efforts don’t magically rewire established networks. The human brain needs some consistency of function. Basking in the self-confidence of a few successfully navigated mind fields, we may abandon purposeful effort, believing we achieved the goal and are healed. This isn’t so.
Habits have yet to form. Before the habit forms, behaviors must be focused and forced many times; only with patience does desired change occur. The drunk too quickly returns to the bar, believing he conquered his demons, only to find himself intoxicated, discouraged, and helpless. We can change. We can create a life we desire.
See Neuroplasticity for more on this topic
“Before the habit forms, behaviors must be focused and forced many times; only with patience does desired change occur.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Change is Slow
The journey is slow, requiring patience, self-discipline and skill. Many find the new change painful, a discomforting adventure demanding constant effort, vastly different from the ease of habitual reactions. Soon efforts tire, exhausted from constant work and we give in to the urges to return, abandoning new beginnings, reverting to a past that welcoming rejoices in our return. But the return isn’t always as gratifying. The addiction is laced with guilt and discouragement of the failed recovery.
Once enlightened, the past is never the same. Awareness creates conflicts, dulling the painful dissonance demands stronger personal deceptions. We want to stay relevant, in control, but must contend with the notable failure.
To comfortably return, we must justify the failure. Defense mechanism charge to the rescue, dodging responsibility and further straining mental systems, depleting energy that could be directed to the tasks of living.
See Cognitive Dissonance for more on this topic
Sometimes when well-meaning attempts fail, and the failure creates greater vulnerability. The floundering attempt to eat more vegetables may initiate a binge, scarfing down a donut and chugging coffee.
The temporary improvement, once failed, invites the “Hell-With-It” response. But even momentary improvements can benefit our lives, even if we fail to achieve the original goal. Instead of back sliding into “Hell-With-It” we can congratulate the partial success—even if only temporarily—and then make new plans, considering the obstacles that interfered with completion during the botched attempt. But really, was it botched if it led to a new improved approach?
Limits to Self-Discipline
We must face the deficits in self-discipline. Any weaknesses in strength is shamelessly exposed in behavioral relapse. We have limited strength. We can’t achieve everything we want head-on with willpower alone. Consequently, we often need improved strategy and supportive help from others to ease the path of change.
See Ego Depletion for more on this topic
In truth habit is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She establishes in us, little by little, stealthily, the foothold of her authority; but having by this mild and humble beginning settled and planted it with the help of time, she soon uncovers to us a furious and tyrannical face against which we no longer have the liberty of even raising our eyes.~MONTAIGNE
Courage to change isn’t fearlessness but moving forward in spite of fear. Security, then, isn’t found within the boundaries of predictableness but through self-confidence to manage unpredictableness. True security emerges when we trust we can transcend failure. The neuronal firing pattern doesn’t disappear with momentary motivations. If we have habitually blamed others for failures and skirted responsibility, we will continue to blame and deny; if we habitually begin and quit, these patterns will continue to haunt. We must approach change from a different angle.
See Frustration Tolerance for more on this topic
There is hope. Millions of people have experienced life changes that endured. They have overcome the most strangling addictions and discovered a better life. They did it. You can do it. I can do it.
“Recovery begins from the darkest moment.”~John Major
Although we have done the same darn things over and over, we can change. But most likely change will require a new creative approach, abandoning failed methods employed in the past. Through familiarity of our emotional patterns and unhealthy choices, we can expose deceptions, scrap past responses and explore new responses that intervene, breaking the cycle.
Eventually, with patience and persistence, we can establish new habits, build new muscles and gain greater wisdom; new neuronal connections replace the disheartening connections of the past. We then move towards the person we desire to become.
Dean Jeremy (2013). Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick. Da Capo Lifelong Books; Illustrated edition.