Taking Your Addictions Down a Notch. ~ Jim Hjort

Via Jim Hjort
on Aug 10, 2013
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Are you giving your addictions more power than they deserve?

Despite your best intentions and efforts, an attempt to let go of an addiction or change another compulsive behavior pattern* often includes a relapse.

It isn’t just a problem within the context of substance addiction; many of the same challenges exist in any type of long-term behavior modification effort. An attempt to cut back on using the internet or eating unhealthy foods are also subject to relapse.

Changing the way you conceptualize and approach your behavior can help you boost your odds of success.

Your behavior is not a Behavior

People have the tendency to identify their addictions as entities outside of themselves. You might say that “smoking has a real grip on me,” “I’m fighting my addiction to food” or “that’s my addiction talking.”

These statements can be a convenient way to language the problem, but by personifying a behavior pattern as a thing that grips, fights and talks, you can subtly bestow upon it a substance that it lacks. When smoking (the act) becomes Smoking (the thing), you’ve become engaged in a battle with a shadowy . . . something . . . outside of yourself which, for all you know, may have superhuman strength and mysterious powers over you.

On the other hand, smoking (the act) is a human-scale behavior. There is just a craving to smoke (or overeat, drink or watch television) that arises within you, and your reaction to it. Both the urge and the reaction emerge in a particular way from complex relationships between biology, environment and conditioning, and may seem so powerful as to be invincible.

However, there is no Smoking that you need to battle. An urge or craving to smoke arises, along with some physical sensations, and then rationalizations. You will or won’t smoke. The craving, physical sensations and thoughts will ultimately pass either way. That’s all.

Leaning into it

Let’s say you’re a sober person and find yourself in a bar, not wanting to drink alcohol but feeling uncomfortable with a club soda in your hand and having the urge to drink. Or you’re trying to stop overindulging in sweets, but everyone at the (weekly?!) office birthday party is eating cake and your mouth is watering . . . and they’re handing you a slice. You could ball your fists up and square off with Drinking or Overeating through sheer willpower, or you could turn and flee the discomfort.

But what about a third option? What would happen if you turned toward the difficulty and explored it with curiosity, as if you had to describe what you’re feeling to someone?

I’m not talking about doing anything that jeopardizes your program of change, especially if you’re trying to recover from a substance addiction. Depending on your particular situation, leaving the situation may absolutely be the best thing to do. But it’s important to know that you have the ability to tolerate more discomfort than you may realize, if you’re willing to turn toward it and really get to know it.

Urges and emotions are often visceral, physical phenomena first, before the mind gets involved. Where in your body do you feel the urge to have that drink? In other words, ask how you know that you’re having the urge, and go exploring for the physical sensations in your body.

Before the rationalizations come (the “voice” of your addiction), there is the craving, and the craving is just a set of sensations, so try to see it for what it is.

Even if you stay to explore the discomfort for just a minute before leaving, that’s a good place to start.

Whether you leave immediately when the craving hits, white-knuckle it through to the other side, or stay awhile to explore it, you will be practicing your desired behavior of not eating a piece of cake. However, only one of these options will help you to get at the root of the problem, while the others will reinforce the idea that your craving is a monolithic adversary. By approaching your discomfort with curiosity—friendliness, even—you will also open yourself fully to whatever underlies it.

In the bar, maybe you feel your heart beating faster and heat rising in your face—the signs of insecurity and social anxiety, perhaps. At the office party, you may feel the same thing, along with your watering mouth and the pangs of your growling stomach.

That’s all they are: sensations. Any additional significance is something unnecessary that you’re adding. As you get more comfortable exploring them, you’ll see that they may be attention-grabbing and very uncomfortable, but they don’t have the power to kill you.

They also point to a deeper truth: that the urge to drink or overeat stems from underlying emotional distress, which is where the real work needs to be done. The craving is a manifestation of wanting to feel better in some way, so it’s not an adversary. It’s just clueless. So, if you really must personify your addiction, then at least see it as the well-intentioned, bumbling fool that it is.

Deconstructing your urges and cravings allows you to see their emergence, the moment-to-moment changing of their sensations and their ultimate disappearance, happening without any effort from you.

If you run from them without even looking at them, it’s like fearing the monster under your bed instead of kneeling down with a flashlight and finding that it’s just your dimwitted friend wearing a mask.


*From a mental health standpoint, there is a distinction between compulsive and addictive behavior. Addiction (i.e. dependence) includes symptoms like increasing tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, which may not happen with every compulsive behavior. Here, I’m using the terms interchangeably because they share an underlying drive to relieve anxiety of some kind, and your seeming inability to stop the behavior, even though you want to, or know you should.


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About Jim Hjort

Jim Hjort, MSW is the founder of the Right Life Project (RLP), whose mission is to help people achieve the richest, most fulfilling lives possible by integrating wellbeing in the psychological, physical, social, vocational, and ethical dimensions of life. RLP also promotes working with one’s life narrative, and cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and other intangible qualities that are supportive of whole-life wellbeing. Jim also works for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, providing psychotherapy and psychosocial rehabilitation services to adults with mental illness who have suffered greatly, and now seek to rebuild their lives. He has 16 years of personal meditation experience and holds the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. He is available for instruction, speaking, and consultation with individuals, businesses, and other groups seeking to maximize their potential and develop wiser and healthier ways of relating to others, the world, and themselves. You can learn more about Jim’s private practice here.


2 Responses to “Taking Your Addictions Down a Notch. ~ Jim Hjort”

  1. Lucy says:

    I feel like you are missing the point slightly with the personifying addictive behaviour bit. The point of this practice is not to create something to 'fight' but simply to recognise it. Many people spend so much of their time in active addiction blindly acting upon impulses believing that if you feel a craving then you must act on it. Whilst urge surfing is an essential practice, learning to recognise 'addictive thinking' is major part of recovery and really needs to be tackled effectively before facing urges full on.

  2. Jim Hjort says:

    Hi Lucy – Actually, I think we are mostly on the same page. I'm certainly not advocating creating something to "fight;" quite to the contrary. What I'm hoping to convey is that by breaking down the addictive urges into their constituent parts (thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), we can more effectively see them for what they are, which is not a larger entity to fight. Cultivating that observational "distance" can help us to choose how to respond to the thoughts and feelings, rather than reacting to them blindly. I think that the more elements we can recognize, the better, and not necessarily that recognizing the thoughts needs to come before recognizing the somatic sensations from which they are inseparable. That being said, different approaches work better for different people, and I'm a big advocate of doing what works best for you. Thank you for your comment!