Understanding Addiction as a Habit, Not a Disease

There are many forms of addiction.  Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more benign.  They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics.  Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

 

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends.  The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

 

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them.  In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease.  Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring.  It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

 

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides.  This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own.  I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering.  If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

 

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

 

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today.  But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew.  And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too.  Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer.  After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

 

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson.  In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way.  Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

 

  • Addictions are habits.

 

  • You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

 

  • We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

 

  • Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

 

  • The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

 

  • Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

 

  • Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

 

  • The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

 

  • The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

 

  • When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

 

  • Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

 

  • All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

 

  • When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

 

  • When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

 

  • The higher brain, located in the prefrontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

 

  • We don’t make the lizard brain the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job.  In that way, it is like an alarm clock.  The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

 

  • We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lizard brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

 

  • Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

 

  • When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

 

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth.  And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction  because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction.  For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself.  I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings.  So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

Embrace Your Mistakes

The difference between the wise man and a fool is that a fool’s mistakes never teach him anything.

 

I believe that at the heart of this popular expression is personal responsibility.   The wise man takes personal responsibility for his mistakes; the fool blames others for his own.

 

The most powerful lessons we learn are from our own failures. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced.  It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.  We arrive at a higher level of consciousness when we take personal responsibility for our mistakes.

 

Equally important are the insights into our characters that mistakes can provide.  Mistakes, especially those that cause others pain and suffering, are like mirrors.  They reflect back to us moments when we were too self-absorbed to respond thoughtfully to others.  For example, failing to express gratitude for a friend’s help.

 

How can we change if we are unaware of our weaknesses?  We can’t fix what we can’t see.  Mistakes offer us a chance to discover our weaknesses and an opportunity to change.

 

All of us will experience lapses of awareness that lead to mistakes.  We are all flawed beings and that is a part of our shared human experience.  It is the way that we respond to mistakes that is the difference between the wise and the foolish.  It is the fool who will find a way to blame others to cover for his or her own social unconsciousness.   The wise person avoids excuses and will promptly take responsibility for his or her errors.

 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, we learn that honesty in “all our affairs” is what gets us sober.  When we look at the problems we create for ourselves and others, we see where we were at fault and we promptly admit our mistakes to those we have wronged.

 

As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to change anything about ourselves.  No personal responsibility, unfortunately, means no wisdom, no growth, no emotional maturity.

 

In my life coaching practice, I have found that clients who struggle the most with personal relationships are those who are emotionally immature.   And that immaturity is because of an unwillingness to hold themselves personally accountable for their character flaws and the mistakes in judgement they cause.

 

Psychologist maintain that the average adult is really only about 14-years-old emotionally.  Many of us are really adolescents in adult bodies.  One of the greatest contributors to living in an extended adolescence is a failure to learn and grow emotionally from our mistakes.

 

And this is understandable in our current culture that places so much emphasis on self-esteem.  In her book Self-Compassion, Kristen Neff states, “People who are focused on maintaining high self-esteem will not look at themselves honestly because doing so will lower their self-esteem.  They, therefore, blame others for their own problems rather than taking responsibility for creating them.”

 

Self-esteem is dependent on forces outside ourselves.  It is based on the approval of others.  In the social media world of Facebook, people live and die according to how many “likes” they have received from a post.  Self-esteem then becomes something determined by popular vote.  This pre-occupation with building and maintaining self-esteem is not only the domain of social media but also finds a strong presence in our classrooms, our school-sponsored athletics, and in our families.

 

When we refuse to accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become more skillful and competent people.

 

Instead of self-esteem, Neff recommends self-compassion.   Self-compassion is internalized, and it is not about excuses but acceptance.  It is about treating ourselves as our best friend.  Unlike self-esteem, its pursuit doesn’t shy us away from our own personal responsibility   In practicing it, we hold ourselves accountable while, Neff says, reminding ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience.  We embrace our mistakes rather than looking away from them.

 

Though mistakes feel unpleasant, they offer a powerful catalyst for change, for self-awareness, and for emotional growth.  By having the courage to admit our mistakes, we open the door to learning and emotionally growing from them.  In doing so, we cultivate the capacity to respond more maturely and more skillfully in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about life.  It continually offers us opportunities to move from living as the fool to thriving as the wise.