Traditional addiction treatment relied on things getting really bad for people before they made lasting changes. Perhaps they had to hit ‘rock bottom’ and their habits had to have caused major problems for them and their loved ones in order for them to activate a challenging plan to change and stick to it. It was widely accepted that change would occur in those moments when people realised they had depleted their resources – both internal and external, and needed to hand themselves over and accept things had become unmanageable. For some people, this is the case. They are able to describe the moment they decided to change for good, and they’ve stuck to a plan or programmeme without ever deviating. They’ve never looked back because the thought of returning to that specific ‘rock bottom’ is enough to keep them on track.
Most of the people I work with in private practice and in my habit-change workshops (especially those with more day-to-day unwanted habits), will tell you that they have had a number of ‘rock bottoms.’ They can remember dozens of times when they’ve realised their habits had become more out of hand than they ever imagined and decided, either on a Sunday morning after a heavy night or a Monday morning standing on the scales and seeing a weight they never imagined they’d reach “THIS IS IT. SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE.” The thing is, each time these moments become easy to normalise and trivialise once they’ve got used to the new status quo. Plus, thinking back to those many mini ‘rock bottoms’ creates an uncomfortable visual they want to quickly push away but not one that is so frightening that just the prospect of returning to it is enough to keep them on track. And so often the habits we don’t want to be engaging in are those that help us push away, avoid and distract from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings like these.
Whether or not rock bottom applies to individual experiences of creating sustained change, most people can agree that it happens when, on balance, it becomes harder to stay the same than to change.
So with the exception of those who had just one defined rock bottom, I’ve observed that focusing on what we don’t want can get us going and provide much needed perspective, but it doesn’t keep us going. For the most part, staying changed isn’t about moving away from things we don’t want, it’s about moving towards what we do want. It’s not about punishing ourselves with reminders of how bad things were or could be again, but exciting ourselves with thoughts of how much better will keep getting. It’s about rewarding, accepting, forgiving and understanding ourselves. It’s about acknowledging there are reasons to stay the same and expecting those reasons to get really difficult to ignore in those moments when we’re finding it hardest to change. If we don’t acknowledge them, how can we prepare realistic and effective plans to overcome them when they inevitably present themselves in our daily lives?
It is also about focusing less on what is wrong with us or ‘wrong’ with our behaviours; or what we have lost in the way of resources and supports. Rather, we can look to our assets and invest in developing them further. We can also stop focusing on what our habits don’t give us, but rather, what they do. This is far more insightful and helps us to diversify our coping mechanisms. If I asked 10 smokers to tell me what’s ‘bad’ about smoking, they would more or less give me the same reasons. But if we instead explore what purpose it serves for people and discuss how it came to be something they depended on, we are in a position to think of other things they can turn to for those comforts and needs. They are able to forgive themselves and understand why they engaged in habits even if now they’re unwanted and stuck on autopilot. They are able to observe themselves with a curious compassion and change the conversation they may be having with themselves about how ‘weak willed’ they are.
Whether we like it or not, the ways we have learned to distract ourselves from our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings have, at some point, been effective and useful — otherwise we wouldn’t have clung to them for so long. On balance, they might not be helpful any more, or perhaps they no longer fit into the lives we want to have. Or maybe we just want better, more effective strategies that don’t replace one discomfort with another. But the habits in themselves are not ‘bad’ – and neither are we. Learning to observe ourselves with compassionate curiosity and speak to ourselves with kindness and understanding doesn’t just make our minds and bodies a happier place to be, it also gets us to where we want to be far more quickly.
In 2017 Shahroo signed a 2-book international deal with Pan Macmillan. Her first book, The Kindness Method was released as their lead title in June 2018. Her second book will be released in 2019. You can buy The Kindness Method here.