Because we are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding creatures, for most of us, there is going to be something in our lives, maybe even a series of things that we develop a somewhat addictive relationship with.
For the sake of simplicity, by addiction here, I’m not necessarily talking about that especially dramatic or tragic addiction narrative that me might associate with the word ADDICTION in capital letters, associations in our minds pointing to Hubert Selby Junior’s Requiem for a Dream, or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – these being the outer limits of that pain-avoiding/pleasure-seeking dynamic we all experience as human beings. What I’m primarily talking about here are our everyday addictions.
My definition of addiction, caps or small-case, would simply be: that moment in the day when the thing you want, or the the thing you want to do, feels so strong, so compelling, so fused and necessary to your well-being that you would score the following statement very, very high if asked to give it a number out of ten:
“If I don’t get [whatever it is I want at this moment] into my system, I’m not going to feel OK.”
“Only eating/drinking/doing [whatever it is I want at this moment] will satisfy me or make me feel better, or just alright.”
If you’re scoring six to ten on these statements for anything, pleasurable or painful, it would be fair to say (in my book) that you’re somewhat addicted to that thing. I have never felt this way about cabbage, or watching Question Time. I suspect some might be addicted to the latter, but not me! Also important here is that a feeling of remorse after doing the activity, a feeling of perhaps having let yourself down (which is to say your Core-Valued Self). Again, I never feel that way after eating cabbage or watching Question Time. But I do after watching a couple of episodes of the latest binge-fest on Netflix for example.
Here are some of the things I have an addictive relationship with (you might want to create your own list as I bet at least some of these come up for you too):
- sugary and refined-carbohydrate foods (ice-cream, biscuits, cake, crisps and other snacks, bread, crackers)
- rich and satisfying foods, also comfort foods: cheese, peanuts, peanut-butter, mashed potatoes, chips
- intoxicants (booze, especially wine; weed; I’d also include sugar, tea and coffee here; music can also be an intoxicant, but I never feel bad about listening to Forever In Blue Jeans on repeat, so I guess at least I’m not addicted to Neil Diamond – whew!)
- mental stimulants: Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Bumble, downloading new books/music/films
- Have-To or Need-To-Do urges: an overwhelming need to reply to a message to someone, or some other form of communication that feels as if it can’t wait, or to send a message or an email (the content of the message could be positive or barbed)
- and probably a whole bunch of other behaviours that I haven’t thought about whilst writing this post
Our remorse when following through with our addictive behaviours, like all emotions can give us a really valuable clue as to what the addiction is trying to say to us. And also perhaps one way in which we might be able to start working with the addictive parts of us. Here’s one idea of how to do that.
MEETING CRAVINGS WITH KINDNESS
The next time you are assailed by an addictive thought, or urge (“If I don’t go and get a glass of wine in me as soon as I finish work today, I’m done for!”) here’s something you might like to try.
Imagine that Addicted Part of your mind is one of your more reckless, but also gregarious and fun friends who has just sent you a text saying: “Hey Steve, fancy doing […] this evening! I know you want to! 😉 PLUS you deserve it – you’ve worked hard today! Give yourself a treat mate. All work and no play makes Steve a pretty dull therapist etc.”
OK, time to ask “Pat” to just give you 15 minutes and you’ll get back to him with your response.
I call my Craving Mind Patrick, by the way, after someone I knew at University who was pretty much 24/7 on the lash. If you were wanting to go out for a piss-up, or any other intoxicating or pleasure-seeking pursuit, Pat was not only ready and willing, but deeply committed to the two of you having as much fun as possible. Yes, the evening would invariably end with him puking or shitting himself, or needing to be carried home, but when you’re young with a full of head of hair, there is a kind of romantic splendour to these sorts of shenanigans. (You might want to help yourself defuse a little from your craving mind by giving it a name too. Even if you don’t try anything I’ve written below, just recognising when your craving mind is sending you an “invitation” as Patrick/Cruella/Milly doing so, can be a really helpful and defusing start.)
OK, you’ve now got 15 minutes to reconnect with your core caring self and your core value system.
If you were a parent, this self would come to the fore if your son or daughter told you they were going out with Pat to get hammered on whatever was available, or he might score from the local drug dealer when out. Equally, you might feel sad if you saw a close friend or family member pursuing a substance or activity (food, work, drink, whatever) that you could see was only intermittently providing them with pleasure, but than anything else: a good dose of suffering.
So what are you going to do in the next 15 minutes? You’re going to listen to this guided meditation which leads you through a kind of heart-and-soul boogie, designed primarily to top-up your levels of self-care and kindness, but also to send some of the overflow out to other people: https://www.dropbox.com/s/xndq9j00b8zpoqa/Kindness%20Practice.mp3?dl=0
That’s not my voice you’ll hear, but the mellifluous tones of Russ Harris, and the practice can be found on his ActCompanion app, which is also worth a gander.
You’ll notice when doing the meditation that you use some of the following phrases when sending kindness to yourself and others:
- May you be peaceful.
- May you be healthy.
- May you be content.
- May you experience love.
- May you experience kindness.
- May your life be rich, full and meaningful.
I think these phrases can also be used as a kind of compass for us to decide whether we really want or need to join “Patrick” on whatever he’s dreamt up for us that day or evening. Big or small. Last night, I used the exercise below to decide whether I wanted to send a WhatsApp message to an ex-girlfriend, as well as whether I would have a glass of wine or two rather than a mocktail with my pistachio nuts whilst cooking. You can use these for anything you have an addictive relationship with.
EXERCISE: A FEW KIND WAYS OF GETTING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR CORE VALUES
Think for a moment about the thing you’re feeling compelled to do. Now really get in touch with the urge. Feel it in your body and as an almost insistent command. You will also be able to get in touch with this a kind of “craving” frequency in your mind. You might even want to put your hands into the “shape” of that craving. Altogether now, Strike a Pose!
Now work through the following six reflections:
- MAY YOU BE PEACEFUL: Will this thing you want to do at this very moment lead to greater peace of mind? If it will, will that peace of mind extend to how you’ll feel tomorrow when thinking back about your behaviour? If not, what is it you could do right now that would fit the above criteria and help you to feel more peaceful?
- MAY YOU BE HEALTHY: Bring to mind an image of yourself at your healthiest – emotionally and physically. Will the thing you’re craving to do at this moment promote and add to that healthy-you? If not, is there something else you could do right now, that would also perhaps be pleasurable, or stress-reducing, even if not as pleasurable as the thing your Craving Mind wants you to do. But instead will certainly contribute to acting, and thus feeling more healthy?
- MAY YOU BE CONTENT: Notice, the word is not “happy” or ROTFLMFAO. That last phrase is very “Pat”, btw. The origins of the word “content” are more to do with feeling satisfied and “contained” in some way. Like we feel when we’re doing a meditation such as the one I provided above. Would doing this activity help you to feel genuinely “content”? Would you feel content tomorrow, or later on, knowing you’d done it? If so, go for it! If not, what could you do right now that might help you to feel content in a “satisfied” and “contained” way?
- MAY YOU EXPERIENCE LOVE? Does your “Patrick” love you? Mine doesn’t. He’s just the part of my pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding brain that wants to do the activity he’s been “programmed” to do by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years of evolution: head for the yummy stuff (booze, sex, dancing, whatever), and avoid the yucky stuff (essays, reading, meditation). What would a loving friend suggest the two of you do/eat/experience? Maybe you can be that friend to yourself at this moment?
- MAY YOU EXPERIENCE KINDNESS: Again, is this the kindest thing you can do for yourself at this moment. Is Patrick motivated by kindness? If the word kindness doesn’t sit well with you, perhaps has some kind of religious or religiose overtones to your critical-judging mind, try a word like “helpful”? If doing the thing Patrick wants you to do is the most helpful thing you can do for yourself at this moment, go for it! If not, maybe you might want to send a text to him saying “thanks, but-no-thanks, Pat!”, and do something kind for yourself right now.
- MAY YOUR LIFE BE RICH, FULL, AND MEANINGFUL: Again, you might want to spend a moment thinking about what a rich, full, and meaningful life for yourself might look like in the here and now, without changing your job, or your flat, or anything else for that matter (though change might be part of this process too). If the thing you want to do is aligned to that vision you have of yourself, go for it! If not, is there an activity you can do right here and now that will add to the richness, fullness and meaning of the next ten minutes of your life, the next hour of this finite timespan we all have allotted to us.
You don’t have to go through all of these steps to benefit from this defusion technique. Even just getting into the habit of imagining that every craving you have (to go on Twitter or Instagram, to check your phone for a text message, to eat another biscuit, whatever) is a text from your Craving Mind, and then just very quickly ask yourself if following-through with the urge would be kind or helpful? This is a great first step. And may be the only step you need to take in order to unhook yourself from your craving thoughts and urges.
You might want to follow this by a second step of simply saying aloud, maybe two or three times, something like: “Thanks Pat, I’d really love to [and meaning it, because you really would love to do this], but I can’t today/tonight.” And then getting on with something else that is meaningful to you.
Even if we did this one out of ten times that our craving minds hooked us into their desires (not actually your desires, your value-driven desires, but our pleasure-seeking/pain-avoidant brain’s desires), we’d be 10% freer than we are at present.
And that would feel good, wouldn’t it?