How many addictions do you currently have? Are you addicted to smoking, caffeine, sugar, alcohol, any other drugs, the Internet, porn, masturbation, sex, orgasm, gambling, shopping, work, TV, movies, social media, video games, food, or anything else? What behaviors do you perform compulsively, even though they don’t really serve you in the long run?
The insidious thing about addictions is that all addictions weaken the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of your brain associated with self-discipline and willpower. The more addictions you have, the weaker your self-regulation abilities become, which increases your susceptibility to further addictions. One addiction tends to invite others, and pretty soon you find yourself with a half-dozen addictions, although you may only be consciously aware of one or two of them.
Addictions get conditioned when certain behaviors trigger a dopamine response. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to solidify desired behaviors, such as eating and sex. Initially we experience a reward (a feeling of pleasure) to reinforce a new behavior, and as the pattern gets conditioned, the reward is gradually reduced. The behavior becomes automatic, even if the reward is stopped. If we want to feel the same level of pleasure we did when we first started, we have to keep increasing the dosage.
Unfortunately for us, our dopamine reward circuitry evolved during a much simpler time, when the triggers for addiction-prone behaviors were scarce. In a world of overabundant triggers, we see an overabundance of addictions. Our brains over-reward us, thereby over-conditioning short-term pleasures that often work against our long-term happiness and fulfillment. What’s even worse is that many companies deliberately target these neurological shortcomings to sell more products and services. Walk into a grocery store, and notice all the items on the shelves with added sugar, oil, or salt. One of the main reasons these items are added is because they make food more addictive than it would otherwise be.
These addictions have consequences for us. For instance, the latest Gallup polls report that 28.3% of adult Americans are now obese, an increase of 2.8 percentage points since 2008. That translates into more cancer, more heart attacks, more strokes, more diabetes, and a lot more money spent on healthcare (which is really sickcare).
The Addiction-Free Standard
Overcoming even one addiction is hard work. Facing several addictions can seem monumentally difficult.
But what’s the truth? The truth is that all addictions weaken us. Addictions lower our ability to discipline ourselves. They derail our best plans to one degree or another. They cause us to live more compulsively and less consciously. And as so many people report after overcoming a major addiction, life is better on the other side. It can take a lot of patience and resolve to get there though.
Even if it takes years, if we truly want to live consciously, then becoming addiction-free must be our gold standard in this area. Even if we never reach it, it’s wise to hold this standard as our goalpost. The closer we get to it, the better off we’ll be.
Imagine what your life would be like with no addictions. You’d be more disciplined than ever. You’d have the ability to make conscious choices in each moment. You wouldn’t have repetitive compulsions wasting your time or renting space in your mind. Your thinking would be more rational. You’d enjoy more freedom. You’d have more energy and better focus. You’d probably save money, and you’d surely save time.
Would you like to be addiction-free? If so, then a good place to start is to paint a picture of what your life could be like with no addictions.
Usually when people do this, they underestimate how good life will be on the other side, and they overestimate how deprived they’ll feel without their favorite addictions. The real cost of addiction is often hidden to us.
Did you know that addictive behaviors neurologically suppress thoughts and reasoning that might counteract the addictive behavior? Just thinking about overcoming an addiction can feel like pushing through a thick mental fog. Your own brain will often derail such thought processes in defense of the addictive patterns.
And yet there’s still hope. People have successfully overcome decades-long addictions. Failure is rampant but success is possible.
Noticing Addiction’s Irrational Logic
Part of the irrationality of addiction involves overweighing the downside of quitting. Thinking about leaving an addiction behind for good can feel like losing the love of your life. Of course that’s nonsense, but it can feel perfectly rational.
Try convincing a daily coffee drinker to give up coffee forever, and watch them rise up to defend and rationalize the habit as if you’ve asked them to sacrifice their beloved family pet. Notice how irrational this response really is. Can we live a happy and fulfilled life caffeine-free for all of our remaining years? Of course we can. Lots of people do. But when we’re in the grips of the addiction, our rational thinking gets hijacked, making us compute that dropping this substance (which is actually a poison) and replacing it with healthier alternatives will somehow rob us of life’s inherent goodness.
What if you never had another orgasm for the rest of your life? What if you never consumed refined sugar again? What if you never used social media again? When we ask such questions, our mind immediately objects. No orgasms… that’s ridiculous! No sugar… tell me it isn’t true! No social media… I’ll have no friends! Of course we could live happy and fulfilling lives without these short-term pleasures. When we think otherwise, we’re confusing pleasure with happiness. It’s the nature of addiction to treat pleasure and happiness as one. The less of an addict you become, the more you’ll realize how separate and distinct these are, and the more weight you’ll place on long-term happiness.
Often behind these objections is a bigger challenge we aren’t facing. How would you live if you couldn’t use social media? You’d probably have to develop a whole new set of skills, which could be an amazing personal growth challenge, one you might actually find deeply fulfilling if you tackled it. What if you never consumed salt, oil, or sugar again? Within about 30 days, your taste buds would adapt and become more sensitive, and food would taste just as good as it did before, except that it would be less addictive, so you’d probably eat less of it. You’d also be less likely to develop heart disease.
All or Nothing
One mindset for overcoming addictions is all or nothing, which in this case has nothing to do with the Arizona Cardinals. This approach rules out any kind of ongoing relationship with the addiction. The triggers and patterns must be squashed into submission. So if alcohol is your addiction, this means no going to bars, no having any alcohol in your house, and creating substitute behaviors when other triggers get activated (such as having a craving).
If you relapse with this approach, which is totally normal, you get back up and try again, each time with the realization that there is no middle ground. You can’t have a relationship with the addiction. There is no moderation for an addict. The standard you aim to reach is being permanently alcohol-free.
I used this strategy with overcoming an addiction to shoplifting when I was 19. For 18 months prior, whenever I went out, there was a good chance I’d steal something. Seeing an opportunity was one trigger. Feeling some edginess was another. Even boredom could be a trigger. Once I felt that surge of excitement, I couldn’t help myself. Lots of rationalization stemmed from there. Somehow my brain always had a way to explain the behavior as a good idea at the time.
Eventually I realized I had to stop this behavior for good. After several arrests I was facing the threat of serious jail time if I didn’t straighten out. Even with that motivation, it wasn’t easy. I successfully stopped, largely by moving to another city and nuking many of the triggers, but I didn’t feel like myself for several months afterwards. It felt like there was an empty hole in my personality. I missed who I was when I had the excitement of stealing in my life. I felt like a hollow shell of a person, like my soul was missing. It took a long time to feel normal again.
When I shoplifted, I probably got away with it cleanly about 97% of the time. Another 2% were near misses, where I almost got caught or did get caught and somehow talked my way out of trouble. It was only that remaining 1% where the punishment happened. Everything else triggered a dopamine reward-reinforcement mechanism. Even after I got arrested, I’d take a break for a week or so, and then I’d go out again, and I’d be right back into reward mode.
Even a decade after I stopped, I still had some of those shoplifting-related behaviors. I couldn’t help it. When I walked into certain stores, I’d automatically notice the security cameras and their blind spots. Or I’d imagine how easy it would be to get something for free if I wanted to. I didn’t do the actual stealing anymore, but the other parts of those mental pathways were still present and active. Eventually those other patterns faded too, which took much longer than I expected. Now that it’s been around 26 years, those patterns no longer activate automatically. I was only actively shoplifting for about 18 months. Imagine how long addictive behaviors may linger after quitting a decades-long addiction.
An intermediate strategy that works for some addictions is to regulate the addiction. This works best in the early stages of an addiction before it’s grown too strong. It’s also a reasonable choice when some aspect of the behavior must be maintained in order to access certain benefits, such as using the Internet.
Relying on your willpower and discipline to self-regulate is usually a losing proposition since an addiction will weaken your self-regulation abilities. So it’s wise to acknowledge that you won’t always be as strong as you are when you’re at your best. Eventually you’ll be weak enough, tired enough, or foggy enough to succumb. And the more you succumb, the more you’ll reinforce the addictive pattern, and the more insidious the pattern will be at circumventing further attempts to regulate it.
This is where relying on some kind of outside help or tool is useful. For instance, if you suffer from Internet addiction, you can install the Freedom app, which lets you restrict your access to certain websites or to the whole Internet. It’s very customizable. I use this app liberally when I want to get some real work done, often scheduling the block times in advance. If I get triggered and try to check email when I should be working on some deeper task, I get a blocking page telling me that I’m free of that distraction. Going email-free doesn’t seem like a realistic option for my business – tempting though it is – but regulating this habit by restricting access works pretty well. I found this app so useful that I bought a lifetime subscription to it.
I’ve also completely blocked access to certain websites like Google News and MacRumors, which used to be distractions for me. If any other site becomes a problem, I can easily add a rule to limit my access or to block it permanently.
Because I used to access Google News and MacRumors so often (multiple times per day), I could just type the letters n or m in Chrome, and it would automatically fill out those URLs. As odd as it may sound, even many months after blocking those sites, I still sometimes catch myself unconsciously trying to visit those sites by typing in the letters and hitting enter, often after I finish checking email or when I’m between tasks. The behavior has been blocked for a long time, but the triggers still get activated. The pattern is fading, but it’s fading very slowly. If I didn’t use software to block access, my conditioned behaviors would see me accessing them automatically.
As ironic as it seems, the key to regulating an addiction is not to trust your own brain. When it comes to managing an addiction, your brain will often lie to you. It will tell you it can manage just fine if you want to self-regulate and tone down an addiction, giving you the false impression that you can trust it. And then when you aren’t paying attention, it will trigger the behavior, and you’ll be well into it before you consciously realized what happened. Or you’ll watch it happening and won’t be able to stop yourself. If you question the behavior, your brain will give you a convenient rationalization for why it’s okay just this once. And you’ll waste several hours each week, enough that you could have take an extra vacation or completed a significant work project with the wasted time.
Don’t trust your sneaky, addicted brain. Know that it will try to betray you, and take steps to thwart it in advance. Remove the triggers if you can, or put a roadblock between the trigger and the behavior. I know this sounds a bit schizo, but it works.
If porn (or masturbating to it) is one of your addictions, don’t keep any porn on any of your devices. If you have a collection, nuke the whole thing. Yup, all of it, permanently. If this makes you want to cry, recognize that those thoughts are irrational; the addiction is trying to defend itself. Porn is just a sea of triggers that you don’t need. You can also block access to your favorite porn sites by editing the hosts file on your computer. Google “edit hosts file to block sites” for instructions on how to do so. It only takes a minute, and it works for all browsers.
Some television addicts have found peace by physically getting rid of their TVs. Many years ago I listened to an audio program where the author recommended destroying every TV with an axe. That’s certainly one way to make the behavior more difficult to execute… although these days you might need to destroy anything with a screen to make this approach work.
I’m becoming convinced that addictions are very often a substitute for healthy intimate relationships. When we maintain addictions, they fill the void that’s supposed to be filled with intimacy and connection with other people. We often see that when people overcome addictions, their relationship lives improve dramatically. Real human connection fills the void.
Addictions can also cause us to push people away without even realizing it. Deep down we feel some shame or guilt, or we fear getting found out if it’s a socially unacceptable addiction. This infects our relationship posture, and other people pick up on those negative feelings, making good connections less likely.
If you feel less worthy of social abundance because of any addictions, you may very well be pushing people away. Moreover, your sneaky brain can predict that too much intimacy could shed light on your hidden addictions, making them vulnerable to change, so by sabotaging your social life, it protects the addictions. Your brain is clever, and it will often give you seemingly rational reasons as to why you aren’t ready to socialize yet. One of the most common rationalizations is the (false) belief that you have to get into better physical shape before you’re ready to connect more. You don’t. You can connect with people starting today.
Consequently, a good way to stave off addictions as well as to overcome them is to be more active in pursuing and maintaining healthy relationships. Would you rather connect deeply with a video game world or with some terrific friends face to face? Would you rather connect with a latte and the Internet or with a romantic partner? One side gives you short-term pleasure. The other side can create long-term happiness.
Now you might be thinking… I’ve got you there, Steve. I know I can have both! I play video games with my friends, and I have coffee with my girlfriend. So I’m doing the relating thing too!
Well… aren’t you clever! Sure, that sounds perfectly logical, but it would make Spock vomit. It’s just another phony rationalization from an addicted brain. Can you see why that would be so?
Turning the addiction into a social activity drags us all down. We do include some relating, which is good in general, but if we’re relating on the basis of addiction, then what are we missing? Of course we’re missing relating on the basis of non-addiction.
Those hours spent in addiction-themed socialization can be a lot of fun. They’ll surely trigger our reward circuitry, and we get a double-whammy of a reward. We get rewarded for the addictive behavior, and we feel rewarded for the social aspect. The reason this seems like a good investment of time is because we’re confusing the logic of short-term pleasure with the logic of long-term fulfillment.
Now if you aren’t an addict, then there’s nothing wrong with short-term pleasure. Mixing some pleasure into your social connections is all well and good. But you turn a corner when you mix in an addiction where some aspect of your behavior is compulsive. That’s when you talk endlessly about nothing of substance because the coffee makes you ramble, or you stay up late playing video games, throwing off your sleep schedule, and giving yourself an unproductive day, week, month, or year. In the long run, this sort of behavior will degrade your healthy relationships, especially relationships with non-addicts who may begin losing respect for you. I’ve heard from a lot of men and women who’ve had to leave relationship partners because of addictions, often while their partners were still in denial about it. It’s never easy to let go for this reason because in the back of the initiator’s mind, there’s the dream of what an addiction-free relationship with their partner could be like… if only.
When we remove addiction from the picture, we create the space for deeper and more fulfilling connections with people. We also expose the shallowness of connections that don’t really serve us. What does it say about a connection that isn’t as good without gaming or coffee? What does it say about the quality of a relationship if going orgasm-free for a while leaves you feeling hollow and empty instead of deeply in love and grateful? Addictions so often mask substantial weaknesses that we don’t feel ready to face. It takes a lot of strength to face an addiction. It can take even more strength to face the demons hiding behind that addiction.
I’m not suggesting that addiction combined with relating always kills the relating, but I do think that in many cases, the relating would be more honest, more loving, and more powerful without the addiction in the picture. Addictions skew our thinking. An addiction can make a weak relationship seem strong, like giving you the delusion that pushing buttons and staring at a screen in concert with strangers on the Internet somehow makes you all a band of heroes. An addiction can make a conversation seem fascinating and productive, when all you really did was act out a Seinfeld episode.
Since addictions take us out of alignment with truth, we must do our best to shed them, no matter how difficult the challenge. Keep noticing the insidious logic of addiction. It always has a reason, an excuse, a seemingly good explanation to keep you obedient. It robs you of power, freedom, and connection while making it seem like an intelligent idea to do so. This is the part of yourself you’ll need to keep challenging and questioning – and distrusting – if you’re to have any hope of pursuing the addiction-free ideal in earnest.