Quitting Addictions: The One Big Mindset Shift
Addictions can take numerous forms: from injecting illegal drugs to smoking, from alcoholism to habitual eating (and habitual sugar consumption in particular), and from depending on coffee to wake up to binge-watching television at night. Caught in a cycle of brief highs between feelings of desire, disappointment, and jealousy, even some “romantic relationships” can feel more like addictions than genuine intimacy.
The problem isn’t necessarily that we find it hard to quit, physically. Rather, our addiction is often something that we use to help us cope, emotionally, with the sense that something is wrong with, or missing in, our life. Here, we look at the one big mindset shift that needs to happen if you’re not only going to quit an addiction but are going to become the very best you can be.
Tests on rats during the late twentieth century had shown that, provided various narcotics in a water bottle — including cocaine — that they would simply consume them until they died as a result. During the 1970s, Bruce Alexander, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, was looking into addiction and finding his assumptions challenged by what he was seeing. Alexander had assumed that the withdrawal from heroin was so severe that most addicts simply couldn’t kick the habit. But the worst symptoms of withdrawal turned out to be something like the flu.
Then Alexander looked at the rat tests and noticed something significant: all of the rats had been kept isolated, in totally unnatural conditions, with nothing to do. He decided to do his own test and built two homes for his laboratory rats. In the first, the rats were kept in isolation, just like the original experiments. The second home, for a second group of rats, was called “rat park.” There, the rats could play together, have sex, and could amuse themselves with various colorful balls and other rodent toys.
Each rat home had two water bottles, one filled only with water and one filled with morphine. At the end of the day, the bottles were examined to see how much the rats had consumed. The isolated rats consumed up to 25 milligrams a day. But those who lived carefree in rat park consumed less than five milligrams a day. Morphine wasn’t that appealing to the rats who were able to play and socialize.
Since it is part of our emotional coping mechanism, and integrated into our lifestyle, an addiction becomes part of our identity. Very often, for example, we will hear someone smiling and talking about needing their coffee first thing in the morning as if it were something to be proud of. We think of ourselves as the coffee addict, the person with the “sweet tooth,” or the person who just has to have “one or two” beers or glasses of wine to “unwind” during the evening. We feel that our indulgence represents our personality.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a physical component to addiction. From the mind-altering effects of alcohol and narcotics to the simple sugar rush, and crash, there almost always is a physical component. But the emotional aspect, and our self-image, is often just as strong, if not stronger.
With the exception of illegal drugs, addictions are often condoned by society and encouraged by friends or coworkers. Candy or cookies are readily available in many offices — often at the front desk — and coffee runs are frequent. Alcohol also often flows freely at office parties and can be a very large part of an individual’s social life.
Consequently, quitting even seemingly minor addictions, such as consuming sugary food, can feel extremely challenging. Very often, we will bargain with ourselves: I will only have one glass of wine tonight or I will only eat cookies once I have finished my work. But, almost equally as often, bargaining with ourselves doesn’t work. Once we’ve had one glass of wine we will “just have one more” and will tell ourselves that we won’t drink tomorrow. But then, tomorrow, we have a stressful day, or we’re invited out — or there’s some other excuse to drink. Or we eat a few cookies but are hungry, and because we are busy we just eat a few more — and maybe a few more after that.
Sometimes, for a short period of time, an addict might be able to cut down or cut out their addiction. But “willpower” is rarely enough because the addict feels that they have lost something and gained nothing. Worse, they feel that they have lost the one thing that they could rely on for pleasure, whether they want to celebrate or are depressed or bored. And the thing that they have cut out is part of their self-identity. So who are they now?
Of course, most addicts know that their addiction is unhealthy. But they will often justify it by pointing out — to themselves and to others — that they could have a far worse addiction. If they are addicted to sugar, they could be addicted to alcohol, they will say. If they are addicted to alcohol, they could be addicted to illegal drugs. If they are snorting cocaine, they could be injecting heroin. If they are injecting it in the arm, their veins could have collapsed and they could be injecting it in the eyeball. And so on.
In relation to the addiction, their self-image is dependent on the belief that they are not as bad as some specific thing that is worse. And, of course, no matter how destructive the addiction, there is always something worse.
Notably, people often quit their addiction when they have a wake-up call. No matter how much they have struggled in the past, the person with the “sweet tooth” might quit sugary foods, cold turkey, once they are told by a doctor that they have insulin resistance or that they are pre-diabetic or diabetic. The lifelong smoker might quit overnight after losing a close friend and fellow smoker to lung cancer. The alcoholic might suddenly quit on hearing that they are nearing liver failure.
Then, the addiction no longer appears to be about that momentary pleasure, real or illusory. Instead of imagining themselves smiling while eating a slice of cake, smoking, or drinking, the addict sees medication and hospital equipment — and the hospital bill. The person’s self identity has changed. They are no longer the person with the “sweet tooth,” or the social smoker or drinker. They are someone who values their health and their life.
We don’t need to let an addiction reach that point, however.
To break an addiction we need to turn our attention from what is worse to what is better. More specifically, we need to turn our thoughts from what we don’t want to be like (i.e., the person with a worse addiction) to what we do want to be like (e.g., a person we admire and want to be like, a role model). But we also have to start to work towards becoming the kind of person that we want to be and that inspires us.
Perhaps you’d like to lose weight or have a more muscular body. You can use this inspiration to quit sugary food. But giving something up isn’t enough. You have to begin to replace your addiction with a lifestyle that is better. Begin to take an interest in nutrition, eat a healthy diet, walk more often, practice Yoga, or take up weight training. And find people that inspire you and are an example of the kind of person you want to be.
You will still experience cravings, of course. When you do, say to yourself, simply, I am not the kind of person who… [fill in the blank] because I am the kind of person who… [fill in the blank]. I am not the kind of person who eats cookies because I am the kind of person who is working to get fit, for example. And visualize how you are going to look six months or a year from now when you will have lost weight, gained muscle, or got fitter. Think about how you will feel and think about how the improvements you are working towards will affect your life positively.
When we formulate who we are in this way, we stop associating ourselves with the group that gives into addiction and mentally associate ourselves with the group of people we admire and are working to be more like.
Lastly, we should recognize that, when quitting an addiction, we often find a very similar substitute. We might find cookies made with sweetener instead of sugar, or drink decaffeinated coffee, or go to a bar where we can drink non-alcoholic wine or beer. This might work for some people. For others, it will just be a reminder that they have had to give up what they want and struggle to do without. Their self-image remains tied to the addiction.
Instead, try to find a substitute that is tied to your aspiration and to the effort you are putting into improving yourself. If you’re a caffeine addict, for example, instead of drinking decaffeinated coffee, try to find a drink that is enjoyable, healthy, and that aids your goal. This could be something as simple as mineral water. Or it might be drinking a glass of juiced wheatgrass once a day. Enjoy the fact that this is part of your regime to get healthy or to improve yourself in some way. Let it be a reminder of your aim.
When you see others drinking coffee or alcohol or consuming sugary food, enjoy the fact that you have a goal, a routine, and that your health, vitality, and appearance are more important than a momentary emotional high. Enjoy the fact that you are on a journey of self-improvement and that you are becoming ever more like those you admire. If you’re working to lose weight or gain muscle, enjoy the fact that you are looking and feeling better than you did and that you will probably continue to look and feel better. Take emotional pleasure in your goal, your determination, and the fact that you are actively working towards your goal. And take pleasure in the improvements you see. This will soon begin to overshadow the fleeting pleasure of an unhealthy addiction.
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Results may vary from person to person.