Addictive behaviors to me have often meant drug abuse or violence. However the more I investigated it I realized it covers a wide range of behaviors that can be regarded as addictive. It can relate to the person who keeps winding up in the same unhappy sort of relationships. Or the person who keeps reacting in the same unproductive ways when confronted with similar situations. So it doesn’t need to be that ‘heavy stuff’ but more behaviors, that when you analyze them, keep occurring.
Humans are creatures of habits and we like things to be largely predictable, even if it’s simple everyday things. I’d hate to wake in the morning and know that the kitchen was going to be in a different place each day! Or that my place of work had moved and nobody told me! Or that when I got home the house wasn’t there anymore! Crazy stuff but it does demonstrate we like a certain amount of predictability in our lives.
It would seem that way with relationships also. If in my role of therapist someone came to me and told me their life story (with a little probing from me) and it seemed that there were regular patterns being set up in the events they were talking about, I would pick up on these. Often the person telling the story is not aware of the similarities in their stories. It could be something like this from ‘Sally’ (a fictitious character):
“I never have enough time for myself. The kids need lots of attention, they have just started riding lessons that take up a few days of the week. My husband has just started a new job. It’s great because he’s earning so much more money but he’s also working longer hours, poor thing. My own work is so demanding. I’ve just been asked to take on more responsibility at work which is great because it means I’m finally being recognized but there aren’t enough hours in the day. We’ve also just bought another property for investment purposes and we’re renovating that madly. My husband expects me to do all the household chores which is fair enough because he is very busy at work and works long hours. My father has recently become ill and my other two sisters can’t care for him because they live in the country so that’s taxing on me ……. . ”
Get the drift? Here is someone who never has time for herself and it’s totally justified despite the fact that she is always tired and has started to become very anxious and snappy. That’s the ‘cognitive dissonance’ part of the equation where we justify what is happening to us so that it seems in perspective (see Chapter 2 for further discussion on this). She knows something is not quite right but can’t seem to connect the pieces of the story together because it seems quite normal – the kids; the husband; her father; not enough time; life is busy……
I would help her start to see the links in her story that paint a picture of someone who needs to be busy; needs to be caring for others; needs to feel anxious and can’t have quality time for herself. Now telling someone this is not easy because we can get quite defensive – it clashes with that cognitive dissonance. It can leave us vulnerable, asking such questions as “where would I go from here?”
Looking into people’s past is often a good indication of where these behaviors have been learnt. With Sally her behaviors were ‘needs to be busy; needs to be caring for others; needs to feel anxious and can’t have quality time for herself’. If I probed Sally and asked her about the relationships in her family when she was growing up there may well be some links there. She might say something like:
“Well mum was often quite anxious. I remember once she had to have some time in hospital because she was so run down. But life was normal. I don’t really think it was that stressful. Mum and dad split up when I was 12 and they argued a fair bit. I really felt sorry for mum and tried to help her out as much as possible. I was the oldest of 4 sisters so I used to be responsible for making sure they were ready for school and all that sort of thing. ”
Again Sally is telling us a perfectly normal story that happens to many of us in our daily lives. The thing for Sally though is that it has become a problem. She has become anxious (a predisposition she has inherited from her mother) and she has set up a lifestyle that for most of her life she has been quite used to. There was a period in her life when she was single where life was cruisy. She seemed to have more fun and more time to enjoy herself. However now she was in a family environment with her own husband and children she has borrowed from her memories and behaviors as a child. This has led to her largely replicating a lot of things that happened to her growing up – living in a household that really was quite stressful and frantic, even though she didn’t see it that way at the time or in fact did not see it that way up until recently.
We could describe Sally’s addictive behaviors in a diagram. It may look something like this”
Once this conscious awareness has occurred then there is room for change. One can’t force change on another. If this process seems foreign to someone then it will not work. But, if like Sally and no doubt you, because you are ready for change and ready to do something then the awareness is easier to view and comprehend. It must be stressed though that our minds, because of that cognitive dissonance, will be resistant to change. It will come up with a hundred and one ways why it can’t change. “I can’t do it this week because my husband is off interstate on a business trip so I’m going to be far busier than usual”. Sounds reasonable enough but you can bet your bottom dollar that in two months time if this person really isn’t ready to change yet there will be other equally valid reasons (or excuses?!) as to why change cannot occur now.
I have also had people in similar situations to Sally, pat themselves on the back and said they have been able to free up time and they’ve done that by cutting down on their counseling appointments and not going to the gym anymore – two things that were actually benefiting them! Where’s that whip and let’s beat each other one more time! We humans are complex beings.
Where do we go from here? I'm putting in place the notion that depression just might be a reward that we have dysfunctionally learnt. Reward sounds a funny term but ultimately we are setting ourselves up for a dysfunctional reward that is predictable and keeps us in our – you guessed it – COMFORT zone!
So what can be some of these underlying messages that we have gained from a lifetime of being us? See if you can relate to any from the list below:
I’m not worthy. . . . I don’t deserve good things. . . . . It’s better if I think of others. . . . . . I’ve always been told I’m useless. . . . . My self-esteem is too low anyway. . . . . I’m ugly. . . . . . They deserve it more than me. . . . . . I’m ok going without. . . . . .
What underlying prevalent message do you have about yourself? Remember it’s ok to let it out here and good on you for allowing yourself to be so vulnerable. Acknowledging vulnerability and being prepared for change is so incredibly powerful! Write down a short statement below (similar to those above) that you believe may run through a lot of the decisions you make in life.
When I think of the common themes that run through my life these thoughts seem to dominate about myself ………:
If at this stage you are feeling particularly vulnerable and you may even be shedding a tear, take heart that it is all part of the healing process. Do as much as you feel you are able to do. If it’s becoming emotionally too hard, or your head feels heavy from information overload, take a rest. There’s plenty of time, in fact the rest of your life to move forward. The main thing is to always be kind to yourself.
Where do you go from here? If you have been able to identify behaviors that keep you stuck in a particular belief system, well first of all CONGRATULATIONS! That is a tremendous step forward that cannot be underestimated in its ability to move you forward and change your life.
The art now is to focus on your awareness of when these thoughts and behaviors are happening. See if you can ‘catch yourself out’. If you always need to be in hurry, there’s never enough time in the day to finish things and here you are speeding along in your car, impatient at the slow coach in front of you, recall what you wrote down in the section above. Was it the need to always please others so you’ll be letting others down if you don’t get there in record time? Was it that you have to work really hard to get anywhere and that was the message you got when you were a child? Well if you don’t work quite as hard or move as frantically (including speeding) will the ground open up and swallow you? Will you be letting others down? Will you lose your job? If you find yourself resistant in your responses (that is you are tempted to say “yes I will be letting others down!”; “yes I could well lose my job!”) then ask yourself “DO YOU KNOW THIS TO BE ABSOLUTELY TRUE?” If you answer yes ask yourself again! Keep asking yourself until you get your mind to a place where it acknowledges that you don’t know it to be absolutely true. How can you? I don’t have a crystal ball and neither do you. But still if you want to insist that it is true then take a good look at why you have set this up in your life so these outcomes do become reality. This could a tough one. It could mean you may have to be ready to make some MAJOR changes in your life if you want to rid yourself of these addictive behaviors. Either that or your body may well give way. It can only take so much. Then comes the heart problems, digestive problems, some people even attribute cancer or arthritis to the stuckness of not changing negative behaviors and thoughts.
Relationship problems fall into the same category. You can change a bad relationship, not by changing the other person (though we are often so tempted to – after all aren’t they the reason for all this pain?? NO they are not!), you change the relationship by changing yourself. Look again at your list above on those programmed thoughts that have guided your life. Tell yourself you deserve a great relationship; you don’t have to settle for second best; you are deserving of love; you are a beautiful person. You are! You just need to convince yourself. Change those thoughts and your relationship will change. Now I can’t promise that ultimately you will stay with that person if you make the necessary changes to improve your life based on your real needs (but not at the expense or hurt of the other person of course!). But you may just find it is time to move on and discover what you truly deserve. This particularly applies for those people stuck in abusive relationships where the rewards of doing so have outweighed moving on. Abusive relationships are not good for anyone and you may find that if you are willing to change but your partner persists with their share of the abuse it may be better for you to get out.
Summary of this article:
Make a list of your issues like Sally did above. She explained in great detail why she is stressed with so little time – what’s your story? With one or more of your issues try and put it into the “Cycle of Addictive Behaviors” diagram. You can find this diagram at my web site at www.depression-treatment.com. au/CycleOfAddictiveBehaviorsLargerPic.htm Remember you are looking for a reward (the top part of the diagram) such as the need to feel stressed etc. Think of something that is going to happen soon that will repeat this thinking, maybe a really busy day is coming up that will make you flustered and stressed; maybe your partner is returning home from a business trip and you just know he or she is going to be grumpy; maybe a promotion is coming up at work and you know you won’t get it because you are not deserving.
Once you’ve got the story, try and give it a different ending. One that breaks the cycle of thinking that has reinforced your thought patterns. Give it an ending that honors YOU, but not at the hurt or expense of someone else. Here I mean do not deliberately attack the other as though it is their fault. But just focus on you and what is right for you. If they take offense then that is an issue for them to deal with.
Good luck with your journey!
Mark Lockyer is a qualified Social Worker and Teacher with extensive experience in the mental health field. He is also the creator of the web site http://www.depression-treatment.com.au/