Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Overcoming our Soft Addictions

We all seek pleasure. The question is what type, lower or higher pleasures?

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, in his classic article, “Five Levels of Pleasure,” describes how to shift focus from low level pleasures to higher ones. When we stay stuck in low level pleasures, we can become addicted to them. For example, we can become addicted to: Working, shopping, eating, texting, video games, the internet (including Facebook), gambling, alcohol, smoking, pornography, or drugs.

As you can see from the above list, addictive behavior is quite common and nothing to be ashamed of. Once we acknowledge we have an issue, we can take steps to free ourselves from the clutches of addictive behavior.

Addiction is a wakeup call: We are living an unbalanced life and have to take stock of where we are headed. By answering this wakeup call, an addiction can become the catalyst to a more meaningful life.

It is helpful to distinguish between soft and hard addictions. Author Judith Wright coined the term “soft addiction” to describe behaviors which are excessive but do not impair one’s functioning. While difficult to rein in, a person can still exert control over them. With a hard addiction, the behavior has crossed the line; it impacts one’s life and he or she has lost control.

Let’s use the example of a shopping addiction to illustrate the difference between the two types of addiction:

A soft shopping addiction: A person spends excessive time and money buying things. But he has the time and money to spend and his excessive shopping does not intrude on other areas of his life. Although unpleasant and difficult, for short periods of time he is able to minimize his spending.

A hard shopping addiction: A person’s spending is out of control, eating away at his savings or creating debt. During the day, he often thinks about his next purchase. He cannot restrain himself and his addiction has intruded on other areas of his life: His work and relationships have begun to suffer.

Most of us do not have hard addictions, although many of us have soft ones: We may eat too much, spend too much, use the internet too much or have become slaves to our jobs or smartphones. Even though soft addictions are not disabling, they still should be addressed, for two reasons. First, soft addictions often come with hidden costs, e.g., reduced productivity at school or work, strained or neglected relationships at home, or not taking care of one’s health. Second, at a minimum, soft addictions take you away from meaningful and fulfilling activities. Time is one of our Creator’s greatest gifts. If you are preoccupied with addictive behavior, when will you start living the life you were meant to live?

Everyone’s journey out of the pit of addictive behavior is different. Look over the four steps below to create your own action plan.

Four steps to overcome soft addictions:

1. Set firm, but doable guidelines. Choose one behavior you are motivated to address, and make a contract with yourself; commit in writing to fixed limits on the behavior and sign your name at the bottom. Depending on the situation, you may want to specify a time frame for these limits, e.g., 30 days, after which you will reassess.

Review this contract at the beginning of each day, until following these guidelines becomes automatic. For addictive behavior that is not essential for daily living, consider committing to stop it completely (either indefinitely or for a fixed period); depending on the situation, either stop “cold turkey” or use a “scheduled gradual reduction.”

To strengthen your commitment:

Utilize your support network. If possible, discuss your commitment with family members, friends and mentors. Speak to them regularly to get the encouragement you need to stay the course, especially if your resolve wavers.

Stay away from temptation. Figure out which people, behavior, and situations frequently trigger the addictive urge. Stay away from them as much as you can. When possible, set up safeguards to keep you away from temptation. Make this an ongoing habit to help prevent relapse.

For example, to prevent problematic use of the internet, both in terms of time spent and content accessed, use a filter. One option is the free program http://www.k9webprotection.com. For more details, see “4 Ways to Safeguard Your Moral Purity.”

Some triggers of addictive behavior are not intrinsically harmful. For example, your trigger could be finishing a long day of work, after which you have a craving to overeat, overspend etc. In which case, be aware of the trigger and find satisfying healthy alternatives.

Keep a journal. Write down how you are doing in keeping your commitment: The successes, difficulties and setbacks. Praise yourself each time you did not give in to an addictive urge and encourage yourself after each lapse. When you lapse, record the date, what the lapse was, if you were able to minimize the extent of it, and if there were any triggers. Then write down what you learned from the lapse and what you will do differently in the future.

If possible, set up a weekly or periodic check-in with someone you respect; celebrate your successes and discuss any lapses. Or, you can commit to immediately email him or her if you lapse. Imagining the shame you will feel when you describe a lapse, will often be enough to strengthen your resolve.

In addition to a journal, or instead of one, use a checklist to track your progress (for an example, see the Daily Checklist). Hold on to at least a months’ worth of weekly checklists, so you see where you are headed.

Reward yourself. In the beginning, pick mini rewards for each day/week you stick to your commitment and a larger reward for each month. Pick a reward that gives you something to look forward to. Possible rewards include sweets, music albums/tracks or books. Soon, you will not need external rewards to motivate yourself, self-praise and the high of keeping your commitment and retaking control of your life will be enough.

Overcoming addictions is challenging. Smokers attempt to quit, on average, eight to ten times before they are successful. For your own addiction, be prepared to fail, and be prepared to recommit and try harder each time.

Since God gave you this challenge, it is within your ability to triumph. He gave you this difficulty not because you are too weak to control yourself, but because you are strong enough to overcome and will be better off after doing so.

2. Find healthy alternatives. People engage in addictive behavior because there is a payoff – a reward. For example, it temporarily numbs emotional pain, serves as an outlet for pent up energies or gives a short burst of pleasure. The next time you have a craving for an unhealthy behavior, see if you can find a healthier substitute to satisfy or at least lesson the craving.

Here are some possibilities:

Ways to soothe emotional pain: Talk out loud to God and express your pain to Him, recite Psalms with understanding, read inspirational stories, write in a journal, sing or listen to soothing music, talk to a confidante or practice mindfulness meditation. A popular book on this topic is The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: A Guide to Coping with the Grief, Stress and Anger that Trigger Addictive Behaviors by Rebecca E. Williams and Julie S. Kraft.

If you use addictions to distract yourself from an issue you need to address, seek guidance on how to deal with the underlying issue. Also see, “How to Stop Hating and Start Loving Yourself,” and “6 Tools to Enhance Your Mood.”

Outlets for pent up energies or to unwind: Set a goal and work toward completing it, engage in creative activities, declutter, or exercise (aerobic or strength training). To help unwind, go for a walk, read a book, write in a journal, call a friend or listen to some relaxing music.

Higher pleasures: Spend time with family and friends, volunteer or do other acts of kindness, go to lectures, and engage in fervent prayer and Torah study, preferably with a learning partner. You will then discover that higher pleasures are far deeper and longer lasting than lower ones.

The idea of finding healthier alternatives is elaborated on in Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. On his website, he has a number of free resources and guides on how to apply his method.

One of his suggestions is to write out a plan. Include in your plan the following three components: (1) The trigger of the addictive behavior and what will soon be the trigger of a healthier alternative, for example, finishing a long day of work (he calls this the cue). (2) The new alternative behavior you will do instead (he calls this the routine). (3) The reward of the addictive behavior which you will now receive (or something similar) when you do the new healthier routine.

He uses the following template for us to fill in: “When____(cue), I will____(routine) because it provides me with____(reward).” (See a flowchart on this method here.)

To illustrate, let’s say you want to rein in your internet use. You figured out that you waste the most time on it right after work or school, and that you use it then to help you unwind. After brainstorming different options, you fill out the following plan: “When I get home from work/school (cue), I will write in my journal or read a book (routine) because it provides me with the ability to unwind (reward).”

3. Learn the art of abstinence. This practice, which our Sages praise, means refraining from overindulgence in physical pleasure. To begin, distinguish between needs and wants. “Needs,” are things you require for daily functioning. “Wants” are optional. Fulfill the wants which give you lasting benefit, but minimize indulgent wants, saving those for special occasions.

A key principle of abstinence is to enjoy pleasure when it is part of a worthwhile activity, but not to actively seek physical pleasure for its own sake; enjoy the physical as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The type of pleasure that is most likely to become addictive is the type pursued just for the temporary high. To differentiate between the two types of pleasure, ask yourself, “How will this activity benefit me?” If it has a constructive purpose – great. But if the answer is only that it will give you pleasure, better to abstain and find a healthy alternative.

Aim to live a balanced life, not a life of deprivation or overindulgence.

To learn more about abstinence, see relevant sections in the classics, The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachya.

4. Address your feeling of lack. Underlying many addictions is the feeling we lack something. We try to fill this void with addictive behavior. Usually we feel better for a short time and then the feeling of emptiness returns, often even more intensely than before.

Next time you feel this lack, and your ego urges you, “I want___, I need it,” remind yourself that it is pointless to try to fill a hole that does not exist. Tell yourself, “This feeling that I need something I don’t have, is an illusion. Right now, God is giving me whatever I need for this moment. If I don’t have something, by definition, right now, I don’t need it. In this moment, I have enough and I am enough.”

Try repeating a phrase to remind yourself that this feeling of deficiency does not reflect reality; it is a mirage. Possible phrases: I have what I need, I have enough, or, I am enough. After saying your phrase out loud, tune into the feeling which goes with the phrase, to neutralize the feeling of deficiency. Do this by asking yourself one of the following questions: How would it feel to have what I need? How would it feel to have enough? How would it feel to be enough? Pause, while you sense your body’s answer. Then, ask yourself, “Right now, what’s the best use of my time?” And turn your attention to something worthwhile and fulfilling.

In short, there are two steps to dealing with the faulty thoughts of the ego when it urges you, “I want___, I need it,” The first is to recognize them as dysfunctional thoughts to be ignored. The second is to shift gears to healthier thoughts and activities. Overtime, as erroneous thoughts are not acted upon or given credence, they will lesson in their frequency and intensity.

Helpful in dismissing the thoughts of the ego is the technique discussed in, “Surrendering to God: 3 steps to transcend your ego.” First, you identify your ego’s will, which in this case is that you need to engage in the addictive behavior. Then you identify God’s will, which is that you have enough and you are enough. In the final step, you surrender to God’s will, letting go of the ego’s will.

You do not have to follow all of the above points to rein in or stop an addictive behavior. Look over the suggestions and select those which you think will be most helpful to you. Preferably get outside input when designing your action plan. Write out your plan and implement it at the earliest opportunity.

Temporary setbacks are to be expected, but if after a month you have not made significant progress in overcoming your soft addiction, up the ante: Attend a 12-step group and/or see a recommended therapist who specializes in addictions.

In addition to taking material steps to address your addiction, call out to your Creator. Tell Him you realize you cannot do it alone, that you need His help to overcome this issue and that you will not stop asking for it, until His help arrives.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Daily Checklist

Dear Friends,

Here is the Daily Checklist mentioned in my articles. You can also make your own if you prefer. 

To download or print a document: First click on the link to open it, then move the cursor to the top of the page, and either click on the print icon or the download icon.

Take care,