Empowering Yourself to Conquer an Addiction

 “Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.” ~R.D. Laing

Millions of people turn to addiction for escape only to find it a prison. One of the reasons an addiction is such an effective trap is that it’s constructed on contradiction. The lows chase the highs, the rises lead to the falls. The same destructive thought process that that lures us toward it, punishes us when we do it. It’s an awful irony that the very thing we use to escape our pain can become such a violent source of it.

The cyclical force of addiction presents a challenge to recovery. The person turns to the addiction to relieve core distress, and the addiction, in turn, generates more distress. In therapy, we often try to help people get to the root of their problem and understand the thoughts and feelings that drive their behavior. With addiction, it’s much harder to get to core issues when the person is still actively using the addictive substance or activity to cut off or escape. The person may come to a therapist, hoping to address the underlying feelings or solve the resulting problems, but in order to create a clear path to healing; they have to stop taking the addictive action. As author Jenni Schaefer put it, “Real hope combined with real action has always pulled me through difficult times. Real hope combined with doing nothing has never pulled me through.”

Of course, it would be reductive to say that overcoming addiction means simply stopping the behavior. Recovery from any form of addiction has its own treatment standards and set of challenges; some even require the help of a medical professional. Many emotions are likely to arise, and the person should have the support and tools to deal with these effects. However, whatever steps need to be taken to stop the actual act of using lay the groundwork from which real recovery can begin.

One way to help claim power over our actions is to get to know the thoughts that drive the behavior. Every one of us possesses a “critical inner voice” that attacks us and incites self-limiting and self-destructive behavior. This duplicitous thought process plays two sides of the coin when it comes to addictions.

The self-soothing side of the voice can lure us into using.

  • “You can have one glass of wine. You have this under control.”
  • “You need this pill to relax. It’s okay, it’s a prescription.”
  • “Take a piece of cake. You deserve a reward.”
  • “You can’t handle all this. You need to make it go away.”

The self-punishing side of the voice can tear into us after we’ve used.

  • “You’re a drunk. I told you that you couldn’t do this.”
  • “You’re so weak. You failed again.”
  • “You’re such a fat loser.”
  • “You’ve messed up everything. You’re worthless!”

In general, the critical inner voice is the language of our anti-self, an internal enemy that works against us at every turn. That voice is constructed out of negative or painful experiences and attitudes that we’ve internalized. Our addictive behavior can be a response to this voice telling us we’re worthless or weak and that we deserve the punishment our addiction puts us through. In fact, often part of what we’re addicted to is staying connected to and even reinforcing an old, negative image of ourselves.

“It is important to our healing that we sort out the belief systems we adopt; belief systems that were taught to us and because they are so full of lies, they lead to all kinds of depressions, addictions and other struggles while we try to cope with the manifestations of the problems instead of the roots of the problems,” wrote author Darlene Ouimet. Taking action against our addiction means getting to know and challenge old belief systems and acting directly against our critical inner voice that supports them. As we do this, there are certain practices we can embrace that help us along the way:

  1. Identify the thoughts that occur right before you take actions toward your addictive behavior. Your critical inner voice may seem friendly or soothing. Get to know the sound of this voice and the triggers that awaken it. Think of it as an external enemy speaking to you in the second person, rather than your own, first-person point of view.
  2. Write down your thoughts or voices, always in the second person, as an active alternative to engaging in destructive behavior.
  3. Reflect on where the voices come from. Do they bring up a certain memory? Did someone say these things to you or direct this attitude toward you? Do they remind you of someone or something from your past?
  4. Make a plan of what to do at the times you feel triggered. Think of actions you can take that have worked to keep you from engaging in addictive behavior in the past. Seek out certain people in your life who will make you less likely to act out, someone who acts as a buffer between you and the pull of your critical inner voice.
  5. Practice-self compassion. Don’t allow your critical inner voice to attack you for any mistakes or relapses. Remember that the urge to self-punish is a strong part of what draws a person to addiction, and the distressing feelings that result from a barrage of self-attacks often contribute to an increase in addictive actions to try and alleviate those painful feelings.
  6. Feel the feelings that arise. When you break an addiction, emotions may surface that the addiction was helping you avoid or defend against. Initially, acting against your critical inner voice, in this case resisting it’s seduction to indulge in your addiction, will also raise your anxiety. Learning healthy copying strategies for being in touch with those feelings and sweating through the anxiety are important aspects of addiction treatment. Allowing yourself to feel the rise and fall of your primary emotions can actually offer relief and make you stronger and more resilient. Often, anticipating feeling painful emotions is more overwhelming than actually experiencing them. Ultimately, being with the feelings rather that running from them can reduce your desire to engage in addictions.
  7. Expect your critical inner voice to retaliate.When we first resist the addiction and the actions dictated by our critical inner voice, we should expect the voices to get louder. A starved monster tends to kick and scream. Yet, it’s when we persevere, the monster will weaken and eventually fade into the background. The feelings that arise may seem frightening, but they offer us an opportunity to build our resilience. They also unfold a pathway on which we can explore the root causes of our pain.

When we deal with our core emotions, we no longer need to waste our energy seeking escape. Part of how we do this involves making sense of and feeling the pain of our story, which helps us to peel away the negative overlays of our past and separate from the identity prescribed to us that further fuels addictive behaviors. We can practice self-compassion and refuse to side with our critical inner voice. Each of these tasks helps strengthen our real self, the side of us that is on our own team and believes we are worthy. This process helps us to be more self-possessed in choosing our actions and guiding our lives.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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