There are lots of reasons addiction continues, even when we're trying to stop.
One big contributor is the knee-jerk way we handle urges and cravings.
Let's talk first about how we usually handle them (which too often fails miserably) and then we'll talk about a more helpful way (which can help us stay on the path of recovery).
Once a craving is triggered, we find ourselves in an ambivalent state. This is the very nature of addiction. Part of my brain starts pressing on the gas pedal, another part the brake.
Here's where we start to go wrong: Since we've failed at times to resist our urges, we think we need to resist more intently in order to successfully avoid relapse. We assume that fighting harder will be the key. We throw all our weight into pressing on the brake.
- We think, "Oh, no!"
- We get single-minded about avoiding a lapse
- We think we have no choice but to fight, resist, restrain
- We hold our breath, put our head down, and try to weather this hard time
This approach can initiate an all-out arms race between our urges and our restraint. Once it gets going, we may be battling for hours--or even days!
Our craving may have put us into reactive mode, but the way we're handling it has only intensified that reactivity. We're getting more intense and tunnel-visioned.
Reactive mode is a very different state of mind (and body) from mastery mode, which is how we operate when we're at our best.
In mastery mode:
- Problems are viewed as something to handle, not to panic about
- We remain broad-minded enough to notice what's actually going on
- We remain open-minded enough to remember that we have options and calmly look for ones we hadn't noticed before
- We keep breathing, learning, adapting--and then we get back to (and on with) our regularly scheduled life with as little fanfare and drama as possible
In reactive mode, we're like a resident of a burning building in a full panic. We're more likely to do things that don't serve us well.
In mastery mode, we're more like a trained firefighter. We know what we need to do and we go about doing it in spite of the heat.
To foster mastery, we can deliberately cultivate its characteristics:
- Accept the urge as a part of life (oh, yeah, that--yawn) instead of as this hugely significant problem or invitation and opportunity
- Breathe (nice, full breaths) to keep the brain oxygenated
- Notice (specific sights, sounds, touch) to keep oriented to what's real now instead of looping into panic or fantasy
- Choose how to respond. Experiment by trying out a different response instead of by doing what we've always done, which has so often failed
Steven had successfully avoided pornography for months. Nonetheless, despite his best efforts, he could not manage to completely abstain from masturbation. This may not sound like a big deal to most people, but Steven was twenty years old, devout in his LDS faith, and otherwise ready to serve a mission.
His masturbation habit was fouling up the most spiritually meaningful quest of his life! He told me that he felt the way Frodo Baggins might if he were forever stuck in the shire!
Since this goal was so important to him, it was completely novel idea to view sexual temptations as (yawn) "Oh, yeah, that... that's just part of life, and a mundane part at that."
But he liked the idea. He laughed and shrugged when I described it to him, which let me know that he was already more relaxed and breathing easier.
I encouraged Steven to take acceptance to an even higher level. "This week when you're tempted, say to yourself: "Good! A chance to practice mastery!" He assured me that, if the week was typical, he would have plenty of chances to practice. I coached him to then breathe and notice what he can see, hear or feel... and then finally to deliberately choose to respond in a way he wasn't accustomed to.
It's convenient that these repeatable features of mastery mode follow the first letters of the alphabet:
- Breathe & Notice
After his first week of practice, Steven came back a bit confused. "I finally felt prepared, so why weren't there as many opportunities to practice as I was expecting?"
"Exactly!" I said. "As soon as your brain knows that you have a way of handling urges and cravings, they're no longer viewed as these all-important things to be vigilant about. They become merely one type of feature among so many on the landscape. The little emotional sentinel in your brain is no longer on high alert and on the lookout for sexual triggers as potent threats, which the pleasure center of your brain then morphs into potent opportunities."
It's all about potency. When sexual content is less potent, triggers and opportunities start to blend into the endless parade of other stuff that goes on in your day. As they should! Sex is a part of life, but it's not the biggest part! It doesn't deserve all of the energy we've been giving it!
Several weeks later, Steven told me about an experience from a few days earlier. He'd arrived home after dark from playing basketball with some buddies. Everyone else in the house was asleep. As he walked to the top of the stairs to go down and shower and hit the sack, it hit him that he was at risk. In a moment, he was in high alert: "I've gone over two months now without masturbating. I'm closer now to leaving on my mission than I've ever been! But I've lapsed before in the shower, and with everyone asleep I'm more at risk!"
Steven felt an intense desire to stay on track, and knew that it might be followed soon by an equally strong--or perhaps even more overwhelming!--desire for sexual pleasure and release. It had been weeks now and he was a healthy young man with a strong sex drive! Should he hit the sack without showering? Even if he did and he made it through this night, could he ever truly hope to make it an entire three months, the goal he was working toward?!
Then, at the top of the stairs, it occurred to him: "I'm doing this to myself. I'm working myself up. But I don't have to! This is a great chance to practice mastery!"
He took a nice, full breath and really looked at the textured pattern in the ceiling above the stairs as he descended. Another breath as he listened to the sound of the furnace in the next room. With the next breath he felt the cool metal of the doorknob to the bathroom door in his hand. Right then it popped into his mind: one way that he could choose to behave differently. He could leave the bathroom door unlocked while he showered. That would certainly be an experiment he'd never tried before. On the one hand, he knew that everyone was probably asleep, but on the other hand he just couldn't imagine masturbating in the shower with an unlocked bathroom door.
Although I kept listening as Steven finished the story of that night, once he got to this point I knew all I needed to know. Before hearing about the outcome of his efforts that evening, I was already confident in the outcome of his entire treatment. Whether he had successfully avoided masturbating that night or not (as it turned out, he didn't lapse), he would succeed in overcoming the habit. He was developing the ability to shift out of reactivity and back to a state of mastery.
Instead of remaining the burning building's panicky resident, we can like Steven become a firefighter. Over time we will get better and better at it until we can handle what once might have been the most threatening situation with calmness and grace.