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.