Beneath all those unwanted habits and addictions are the beliefs, thoughts and choices we make, and the feelings those generate inside us.
If we really want to change our unwanted habits or addictions, it's important to remember that our behavours are not the REAL problem. Yes, they seem like it – because these behaviours have visible consequences in our life and the people around us. (It's also what society focuses on.) But the fact is, we do them as a way of coping with or avoiding our thoughts and feelings underneath. It's the inner that drives the outer.
How do we know this? For several reasons.
1) If we suddenly change our behaviour, it doesn't end our problems.
As we already know, many people who try dieting, exercising, not smoking or not drinking tend to revert back to their old behaviour after a period of time. Most new behaviours don't last permanently.
2) When people stop one habit or addiction, they frequently replace it with another.
If someone quits smoking, what do you often see them doing to fill that void with? Food, right? Or being a control freak? This is something I've seen with countless addicts. After we break free from one habit, another one pops up. When we deal with that one, another pops up, and then another. The struggle is one of constantly fighting off one bad habit or addiction over another.
The fact is, unless we alter what's causing or driving our behaviour,we will most likely return to it or adopt some other destructive habit, to avoid dealing with our underlying problems. (“The form may change; but the problem remains.”)
What's Actually Causing the Problem?
At some core level, most human beings have a belief in what I'll call “not enough.” This can take many forms. We may believe that we're not good enough, don't know enough or don't do enough. We might think that we don't deserve to have what we need, or that there's not enough to go around. Or it could be the belief that we are unlovable or unacceptable, or that other people won't love and accept us for who we really are.
When we get to the root of our “bad” habits, compulsions and addictive behaviours, these are the kinds of beliefs that lie underneath them. This is why many of our attempts to break our habits are so ineffective. We try to change the behaviour instead of what's going on inside. The same is true when we want to help others change their habits; we often try to "motivate" them in ways that actually make them feel worse, thereby reinforcing their thoughts and feelings of guilt or “not being enough.”
Paradoxically, even while believing we are 'not enough,' we can also be high achievers. We may hold the highest standards for ourselves, or always try to be the best at whatever we do. And it's this conflict within us that contributes to our gnawing feelings of discomfort, discontent or pain inside.
I recently came across a book that describes this problem perfectly. Called Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind, it's written by Arnold Washton, Ph.D., and Donna Boundy, M.S.W. This is one way they described it:
Part of having an addictive “dis-ease” means that we hold certain contradictory beliefs that set the stage for inner conflict and struggle – such as believing simultaneously that we are not enough and that we should be perfect.”
[Thus] …A faulty belief system lies at the root of addiction. This belief system… embraces the idea that it is possible to be perfect, that the world should be limitless, that our image is more important than who we really are, that we are not enough, and that externals (people, drugs, and other things outside of ourselves) hold the “magic” solutions to life’s problems.
Our behaviours are just the symptom. The real problem is what's going on inside of us.
When we believe we’re not enough or something’s wrong with us, we also begin to compensate by choosing new thoughts to make us feel safe and okay. So we say things to ourselves like: “I didn’t do anything wrong; they did it to me.” Or, “There’s nothing I can do. Other people are the source of my problem.” And that’s where our victim thinking begins. The purpose of these thoughts is to stop us from feeling guilty – by putting responsibility onto others and stopping us from looking inside, because that would be too painful. However, this thinking also stop us from seeing the real source of our bad feelings.
I once heard a church minister state that this blaming mentality started with Adam and Eve. Not that this is the truth or not but I loved the perspective. He said that when God asked him why he ate of the tree of knowledge, Adam blamed both God and Eve, saying something like “it was because of this woman you gave me”. Implying of course that it was god’s fault for giving Adam the woman.
To make ourselves feel better, we may then start seeing ourselves as superior to others. We become the ‘heroes,’ or the ‘innocent’ ones, the ones who are doing our best – while we tell ourselves that others aren’t. “If only other people cared more or tried harder, the world would be a better place,” we think to ourselves. Or we may go the other way. We may start to see ourselves as inferior and feel sorry for ourselves. Thoughts of being hard done by or ‘poor me’ start to grow within us. The purpose of these thoughts is to make us feel okay by having “reasons” for our problems, and to elicit sympathy or caring from others. But in the end, both approaches keep us small, and result in a constant feeling of discomfort which we are driven to escape.
We’ll also try to ‘protect’ ourselves by judging and criticizing others. This makes us feel better by seeing others as the source of our problems. However, eventually this turns into CHRONIC blaming and complaining about people – a key trait of all addicts that I’ve known (including myself). And step by step, we come to see ourselves as victims, not responsible for our life.
Each and every one of these behaviours is a logical response to not feeling good enough. But with each of these ‘choices,’ we are actually burying or forgetting our true self. We use them to make ourselves feel safe, instead of growing. To mask our real thoughts and feelings, instead of being honest. To hide, instead of being seen. And eventually, we start to forget how we really feel and what we really want inside.
When we believe something is wrong with us or that we’re ‘not enough,’ it hurts inside. It provokes feelings of unhappiness, emptiness and lack. Thoughts and beliefs that we’re bad or guilty for some reason, even though we don’t know why. We then begin to doubt ourselves and our value. And believing that we’re not as good as others, we may start to feel separate, alone and unsafe.
Instead of making ourselves feel better by doing the work necessary to restore integrity in our lives - being true to our real selves – accepting our thoughts and feelings, making empowered choices and growing into the magnificent lives that I believe we are destined for – we instead turn to the easier softer way – accepting substitutes outside of ourselves.
Here are some glimpses of what that might look like:
- If we’re feeling empty, we may try to ‘fill ourselves up’ through food, drink, entertainment or activity.
- If we think we’re not good enough, we may try to be ‘enough’ by working harder or trying to be “the best” at whatever we’re doing.
- If we don’t believe we have value, we may try to prove our worth through over-performing or trying to attract the praise of others.
- If we see ourselves as weak or vulnerable, we may try to suppress our feelings and emotions, such as tears, anger, tenderness or love. (As a result, we might become tougher and more aggressive, or shut down and become tight and unemotional.)
- If we’re afraid of being “wrong,” we may do everything we can not to make mistakes, be right or be perfect.
- If we believe we’re not lovable, we may compromise ourselves to do things to get what we think is love, acceptance or esteem from others.
In the short term, all of these seem like perfectly natural solutions to fill the gaps we feel inside. But in the long term, they actually perpetuate our problems – because we haven’t dealt with how we think and feel inside.