Addiction and Compulsions
Any addiction can be detrimental to your personal and spiritual development, your sense of clarity, your time, your health and energy levels, your stress levels, your emotional freedom, your happiness and your wallet. Whilst a large number of pages in this Psychology Section relate to addiction and how to break free from it, a few are particularly pertinent. In particular, the Focus page, the Belief page, the Physiology page, the References page and the Fundamental Human Needs page. A conditioned pattern of behaviour, for example, an addiction or stressed psychological state, can offer certain choice points, which if you ignore and do not leave your comfort zone to take up, result in following the roller coaster ride of that addition. You may find it beneficial to return to this Addiction section once you have read through the other pages in the Psychology section, as the points below are pertinent to the experience of working through those choice points and indeed avoiding the psychological pitfalls that may await you. This Addiction section shall confine itself to examining certain aspects of psychological addiction, and the path to recovery, and the mechanisms of the human mind that pull us back to our addictions again, and continue to fool us, hence making the process potentially very difficult if one does not use the right tools.
As discussed on the Belief and Motivation pages, if you associate enough pain with a habit or pattern of behaviour, and enough pleasure with quitting that pattern and adopting a new and more empowering pattern, then quitting becomes essentially relatively effortless, rather than a struggle with one's will power of how long you can hold out for, which is usually an unsuccessful and exhausting strategy. We can use the same principle to attach enough negative emotion with failed results of quitting, once you have actually quit but are resisting any urges or thoughts that are tempting you back again, to reduce the amount of distraction and temptation back to the old, disempowering habit.
The first step in eliminating your compulsions and addictions is becoming aware of them. Not just the overall nature of the compulsion or urge, but the actual choice points you go through and the nature of the psychological processes that you go through when you successfully resist the temptation, and also what is going on in your brain when you give in to the urge at that choice point. Some of these processes are described below. You may only become aware of certain urges or addictions in fleetin moments, or unless someone else informs you of them. Try to be aware of the nature of the addiction and your role and part in fuelling it. It is a bad piece of programming but it doesn't just happen to you and come 'out of nowhere'. It is something you have allowed to become consciously conditioned and allowed the hooks and anchors to be placed in you over time. Don't put them out of your mind or deny these addictive patterns of thoughts of behaviours exist, but write it down and perhaps even the conditions when the urge crops up. Try to think about how you are reinforcing these negative patterns and what you need to do to proactively release their hold over you. And the exact moments when the urges come. If you are so used to giving into them, e.g. stress, then you may not even be aware of what is going on until you are very deeply into the behaviour. Still, it is not too late to try to stop yourself, interrupt the flow of the negative pattern of behaviour, and start affresh. Depending on the addiction, of course this may not be physically possible. But often it is a series of ever decreasing choice points. It is helpful to develop that self-consciousness where you can analyse your own behaviour, as then you are in a position to fine tune it to be congruent to how you actually want to be.
As a psychological exercise, you may find it useful to resist your everyday compulsions as and when they crop up. If you are unable to do so, then essentially you are a slave to your compulsions, many of which are detrimental to your wellbeing or health. A compulsion is just an urge. Once a compulsion pops into our head, instead of staying outside the comfort zone and not giving it any time and forgetting about it, and feeling the pull of that compulsion slip away, if we entertain it and chew it over, we are in effect making things ten times worse. We are allowing that compulsion to put additional hooks or anchors into us, so it is much harder to shake off. If we are serious about finally resisting the compulsion, then what we are essentially doing is torturing ourselves and using up a large amount of energy in the process, all for nothing. If you suffer from a variety of different compulsions on a daily basis, some softer compulsions and some harder compulsions, and routinely give in to nearly all of them, then why not try to pick one, a soft compulsion (an easier one) and try to at least resist that one compulsion. Set yourself that one goal and put all thought of resisting other compulsions out of your mind. Don't worry about them now. If it makes you feel better, tell yourself you will allow yourself all these other compulsions today. But this one you must NOT give in to. You can always 'change your mind' later and tackle another compulsion if you are up for it. But the main thing is to succeed with one, rather than stretching yourself too thin and failing at all. In that way, once your brain is used to how it feels like to break a compulsion, breaking a compulsion in another area will be slightly easier. You will also be training your mind to know that you can actually do it if you want to, that you can succeed. If you do manage to resist that compulsion, then congratulate yourself and feel good about it, and if it returns it, which it may, it will be slightly weaker. Keep focussing on resisting that same compulsion, and be consistent. Consistency creates leverage and power, and also confidence. If you are finding it very wierd and uncomfortable when you are resisting it, stick with it, as you are outside your 'auto-pilot' or routine and you are creating new neurological pathways. This sensation is good!
There are several ways to resist a compulsion. One is to distract yourself. Basically a compulsion acts on the idle or empty mind. If you are busy in some other activity, you might not give it a second thought. You are at your most vulnerable when the compulsion can push all other thoughts out of your mind (if any are present!) Another is the pattern interrupt. This could be in the form of telling yourself 'STOP! STOP! STOP!' and stepping back from the situation for a moment, deep breathing, then communicating with your future self to motivate you in your postive choice and to tell you what happens if you give in, and then going back to that choice point and choose the positive and empowering choice with the minimum of fuss or effort. Distracting yourself after that can be extremely useful too, as often if you feel you've accomplished what you set out to do, the mind can immediately go back to the compulsion again. A compulsion or addictive urge for a negative pattern of behaviour is essentially a loss of mental clarity and control. What you want is to return to clarity and mental calm, and make your choices through emotional honesty and intelligent thought and consideration. A compulsion is neither of these things. It is far from honest and is an example of short term satiation which usually has negative consequences that we do not desire. As mentioned previously, the importance of brainstorming one's negative beliefs and replacing them with positive beliefs cannot be stated enough.
If you resist it a couple of times and then give in to it after that, repeating the cycle perhaps endlessly, then it is of course unsuccessful; but more than that, you may only be resisting it on one occasion as you know you are going to give into it the next time. For some people, they may like small steps, but knowing you are going to give into it later is not very clever as a strategy. If you are inconsistent and repeatedly backslide, then you are essentially making things worse. Everytime you give in to a complusion you are basically reinforcing it. The more you reinforce a compulsion and pattern of behaviour of giving in to it, the more ingrained the 'auto-pilot negative behaviour choice' becomes and the harder it will be scrub that neurological association in your mind and to create a new neurological pathway. Essentially the choice point becomes less and less easy to grasp.
If you fail to resist the chosen mild urge, then you are likely to fail at resisting any and all others. Simply use the disappointment as leverage, create real pain associated with failure, and try again next time with more conviction. Now is the moment after which you will never succumb to that compulsion or urge again. Feel good about that. Draw a line under the past.
Each time you feel a compulsion to give in to a certain behaviour, you are essentially entering a choice point. If you entertain the behaviour long enough, you are actually leaving that choice point and walking down the path towards that addictive behaviour. To drag yourself back to the choice point and then walk down the path of ignoring the compulsion will be that much harder work if you succeed at all.
Be aware that the mind likes congruency. If you have made a decision or a choice, then be aware that you can stop and change track at any time. However, the mind doesn't normally like to do this, and once a choice has been made, the ego prefers to stick to it and often defends it to the death, even if we know deep down it probably wasn't such a clever choice. Of course, the further down the road we are of having given in to that negative pattern, the harder it is to stop that desire for congruency and that rollercoaster ride. The choice points become harder and harder to grasp, but they are still there.
The mind also likes to prove it can do something, that it has the power of self-actualisation. In the case of compulsions, these are in a sense a demonstration by the mind that it can go with a choice because it is there. The mind chooses it because it can. It is a form of lowest level self-actualisation, the most negative and self-destructive choice being the easiest to follow, in the absence of more positive choices for the mind to present itself with or to make the effort to really see. The mind is programmed to focus on the negative rather than positive by default, probably an ancient survival mechanism to avoid danger or trouble.
So start small, and build up your confidence at resisting compulsions. A compulsion will eventually go away once it has been resisted enough times and you may walk past the chocolate isle at the supermarket, or whatever your compulsion is, and not give it a second thought. If you do catch yourself reminding yourself, then try to clear your mind and carry on, as if you don't, as mentioned above, you are just causing yourself unnecessary aggravation.
Mild compulsions may present themselves as being 'innocuous', despite you having trodden that path many times and you knowing full well what it entails. However, the nature of compulsions is that major or strong compulsions are communicated to your conscious mind as being options or free choices (that you happen to always give into) and also being mild compulsions, when deep down you know full well they are not. Your mind turns into a slick sales person, tempting you with 'carrots' and a feel good factor about giving in to that compulsion, but suppressing those memories of pain you have that are associated with the aftermath of having given in to that compulsion. Be it 'pigging out uncontrollably' on chocolate until you have eaten the entire packet or bar, or supply, and feeling rather ill or having stomach pains all night; or getting totally wasted on alcohol or drugs and the upset afterwards about having been so weak psychologically or physical discomfort for days afterwards. It is only often when you have given in to the compulsion and followed whatever rollercoaster ride it led to that you suddenly and vividly realise the downside of that compulsion/behaviour/addiction and what you hate it so much. Try to remember this next time you feel that urge.
Try to exercise particular restraint when in a stressed or pannicked state of mind. In such mind states, the mind may seek comfort behaviours or behaviours it is used to, to distract it, so one may unconsciously feel more of an urge to indulge in some of one's addictive behaviour patterns. If you are in such a frame of mind - STOP! Try to avoid eating in such frames of mind as you may feel the urge for comfort eating and may eat and eat, not really noticing what is going on in the body or the taste, until one feels totally bloated, for example. Get a grip and try to reassert control over your mind and the situation.
Distraction can be useful to focus the mind on other things, but equally, distraction in the wrong context or too much distraction can mean one uses distraction as a means to avoid tackling or thinking about one's addictive patterns or negative behaviours that need addressing. Use distraction in a positive way, to implement a change, then distract the mind so it is not obsessing with the change; rather than using distraction to hide from oneself, stop oneself stopping/relaxing/contemplating objectively/acknowledging one's addictive patterns or the effects of one's addictive patterns etc. Distraction can thus be used to create a 'safe' zone away from the awareness of one's addictions. The mind believes often that by ignoring something, it will mysteriously vanish! That is often why people have negative behaviours for decades that they fail to address. One may be used to distracting oneself around the clock as one is unable to relax or gain control over one's frame of mind, or perhaps because one is stuck in a fight or flight frame of mind. Reflection is a necessary tool for personal growth, with self-honesty, rather than negative self-reflection, i.e. beating oneself up about things or missing the point of a situation, or applying negative meanings to a situation or event. Contemplation in the negative sense can also be an addictive negative behaviour in itself when one cannot stop thinking about a particular thing or meaning, causing round the clock stress.
When tackling an addiction, and we have quit, often the mind as with the above will try to do a sales pitch on giving in to that urge, positioning it as an intelligent and educated choice, that we can resist if we want, but that our minds have conveniently overlooked how we actually never have managed to do so before. It is sold to us as an innocuous idea, a small indulgence, even a treat. Our mind tells us that yes we know that we've quit this behaviour or activity, and we feel very good and proud of that, but now that we've quit, the activity now has slightly less hold over us psychologically, and has now been mysteriously downgraded from an addiction/problem into something controllable. This is of course not true, but we try to convince ourselves of this. The dopamine pathway of the brain that is associated with pleasure reinforces the brain memory of pleasure with 'itching that scratch'. However, itching a scratch is only pleasurable for a short fleeting moment and after that we wish we hadn't 'scratched it' as it's too late. So save yourself the bother and don't go down that path! As stated above, the next time we get the urge, if we gave into the previous time, it will be much stronger and reinforced now.
One may have gone to a large amount of trouble and effort to get as far as one has in breaking an addiction, so it is a big waste to blow all work and essentially throw it away by going with the thought of just engaging in that activity one last time, as one has to essentially start from scratch again after that.
Alcoholics are frequently heard to say 'I'll just have the one drink' or drug addicts (whether psychologically addicted to marijuana or physically addicted to heroin or methyl-amphetamine) want to get high just one more time. This temptation to indulge in that old harmful behaviour, whilst often presented to us as just a 'treat', and no longer an addiction, is as you know rationally not a 'treat' at all, that you can enjoy without all the problems of the past, nor is it a 'small treat' and you'll only have one. Dont' kid yourself. It is still that painful, ugly and all consuming habit that drags you around like it's slave or 'bitch'.
Stop looking for excuses to give in. Stop purposely seeking out situations where you are exposed to that temptation with the intention of indulging in that addiction (whilst innocently pretenting to yourself that it was under control or 'an accident'). You know what happens when you give in to it. Make a positive choice and observe the tricks the mind tries to play with you. Use whatever techniques you find empowering and useful. You can do it. It's just a logical, methodical and consistent sequence that you have to go through. All the effort put in is temporary and all the enjoyment and freedom is just around the corner!
Try to avoid using your addictions as a way of replacing the pursuit for your true vocation in life. Addictive behaviours such as shopaholicism often point to deep rooted desires to own, buy or hold on to everything you've ever done, seen, listened to, worn or experienced. Life is full of experiences and to try to collect or hold on to them, rather than merely enjoying an experience at the time or appreciating something without having to feel like you need it to be complete is more healthy. Life is ever changing and one must be able to let go, move on and trust oneself rather than living in the past or for the shopping high of the moment. Some people collect books, but rarely actually read them, or if they do, they only read them once, then they go on the shelf. If they never actually read them again, there is clearly no real benefit in owning them. The idea is probably to enjoy the possibility that you could read it if you wanted to, or fool yourself into thinking that you will read it again soon, but that time never comes. To fool oneself is never really useful. If you can't remember something, keeping piles of books and articles on the subject you never look at again will not help! This web site is in major need of streamlining and rewriting, and one could argue that it reflects the author's desire to record and 'hold on to' every opinion or piece of information I come across or think about. Unless you can remember it, it is not really very useful! Unless other's are benefitting from it in some way.
Other techniques to help with overcoming compulsions can be found in this Psychology section. Of particular importance are the pages on Human Needs, to figure out what psychological needs are driving these destructive behaviours and compulsions and finding other ways of truly satisfying these needs that your current compulsions aren't really doing, but is why they are there; and also the Movitation page, to understand how pain and pleasure are the core drivers of most of our behaviours.
Resisting compulsions is the start of your personal growth, of regaining your own mind and psyche back (which is there for your benefit and not for the benefit of your conditioning, programming and addictions which are not part of who you are), your freedom, your independence, your fully developed adult personality. The ability to make moment to moment decisions free from the pull of compulsions is what constitutes your freedom of thought and clarity of mind. It is YOU. If you are not doing this, you are not really YOU!