A couple years ago I stopped believing in addiction. It’s not that I doubt the strength or existence of chemical and psychological dependencies — the bottom line is that everything is a choice. Addiction is somewhat like peer pressure–it hovers around, urging you to do something, but the decision to take action is yours. When people say that they can’t give up an addiction, it usually means that deep down they don’t want to or don’t believe that it’s possible.
The Good Parts of Bad Habits
The reason people stick with bad habits is that bad habits aren’t all bad. Even the worst ones provide short periods of intense pleasure. Others help people escape from the boredom of everyday life. Many bad habits remind us of happy times in the past, or relationships we’ve formed with friends and family over the years. Over time, we get used to enjoying these pleasant qualities.The majority of “bad habits” aren’t harmful until they cross a certain threshold. Alcohol, for instance, can be an excellent social lubricant when used in moderation, and I doubt the world would be a better place if chocolate cake and fatty foods didn’t exist. The point where most bad habits become destructive is when, instead of using them to enjoy life, we use them to escape from it.
The Cycle of Escapism
Everyone feels the desire to escape. No matter how good you have it, there are times when, instead of dealing with problems, you’d rather pretend they don’t exist. We turn to bad habits because they allow us to forget. They give us a pleasurable sensation that pushes problems out of mind. The downfall of this solution is that it’s only temporary. The feeling wears off and the problems remain, often made worse by our indulgence. Once again faced with our problems, the natural reaction is to escape again.This is the cycle of escapism. We feel pain each time we face reality, so we use a bad habit to escape, which only increases our pain, making us more desperate to escape. Each time around it takes more sensation to escape, increasing our dependency on a bad habit. When you get caught in the whirlpool of escapism, it can feel impossible to get out.
Developing Positive Beliefs
The only way to permanently break the cycle of escapism is to develop a positive perception of reality. If you associate reality with pain, you will constantly desire to escape. It’s essential to find happiness in reality that outweighs the suffering caused by its problems. Find the things in life give you true joy rather than temporary pleasure. These are the actions that will build up your belief in a positive reality.Changing your attitude towards reality is easier said than done. When you’re accustomed to the cycle of pain and escape, reality feels hopeless. The truth is that reality is neither bad or good, but an equal mix of the two. Your attitude is a reflection of the parts that you choose to focus on. By fixing your attention on sources of hope and joy, you can create positive beliefs and reduce the desire to escape.
Breaking Free of the Past
Perhaps the two most powerful factors influencing behavior are our actions in the past and the expectations of the people around us. This creates resistance to change. Our friends and family members can only judge us by our actions in the past, and frequently they have a stake in our bad habits as well. Maybe they share the habit and act as mutual enablers. Maybe they’re afraid of losing you–that you’ll start to consider yourself superior and decide to abandon them.Relationships can make dropping a bad habit more difficult because we need love and acceptance from the people around us. If you’re trying to break out an old pattern and the people around you aren’t, it’s likely that you’ll eventually give up and return to your old ways because of the need for love. The best way to permanently change habits is to surround yourself with people you’d like to emulate who will naturally pull you up to their level.That’s not to say you should ditch your old friends in search of new opportunities. The truth is that change involve difficult choices. You can’t remain bound by the past and change for the better at the same time. You certainly can’t force other people to change with you. Ultimately, you need to decide which is greater, the fear of loss and the unknown, or the fear of stagnation and perpetual mediocrity.
Creating the Future in the Present
Another mistake people make is waiting for the future. Do you have a picture of the “ideal life” you’d like to live? Is there an “ideal you” you want to become? Most people live based on the past, waiting for a revelation to make them who they want to be. It doesn’t work this way. Your actions in the present determine the future. The only way to create the future you want is to start living it right now.Once you start living according to the future you want to create, it’s easy to spot the behaviors that detract from it. When you realize that giving up bad habits is a necessary and inevitable part of creating the life you desire, addiction begins to lose it’s power over you. Temporary pleasure and escape doesn’t have them same appeal.The more progress you make towards your ideal future, the weaker the desire to escape from reality. Just like the cycle of escapism, the pattern is self-reinforcing. Over time, you are able to delight in habits that are congruent with your vision — that strengthen a positive reality instead of numbing pain. Eventually there is no need or desire to rely on addictions for relief and pleasure can be enjoyed for its own sake.Image: Pisco Bandito