Note: This is part two in a two-part series on addiction, the myths behind it, and how you can deal with your compulsions. Part one is right here and, although part two stands well on its own, the added context really helps.
When Your Addiction Isn't Really an Addiction
This can't be overstated.
As acclaimed psychiatrist Lance Dodes' notes in The Heart of Addiction, it helps to view addictions as a compromise between doing what you truly want to do – if only you could – and doing nothing at all.
Then addictions don't seem like a form of pleasure-seeking (a commonly held belief). These self-imposed compromises are anything but.
Many factors lead to unhealthy actions like doing drugs, drinking until you pass out, or playing video games until your arm almost falls off.
But not every action that could be addictive is an addiction.
The 5 Factors That Make Your “Addiction” Something Else
It's all about the context.
In fact, I wrote a whole chapter about the relative nature of life in Experience Curating. Addiction is no different.
So here are five contextual factors that might make an “addiction” something else entirely:
- Habits: Having a cigarette with your coffee may be just a bad habit. Avoiding an old pattern by, say, switching to tea, could result in untangling caffeine with the urge to smoke.
- Relationship pressure. Eating fast food every afternoon might happen because that's what the crowd you hang with does. Playing World of Warcraft late into the night could be due to your demanding boyfriend or girlfriend not wanting to do their addiction alone. I've found that leaving unhealthy relationships or shedding toxic pressure can be the quickest way to stop unhealthy actions. How about you?
- Fear. Can't kick your vice because you fear a painful withdrawal period? A safe detox with the right tools and the right people could be enough to overcome your compulsion.
- Stress. Feeling stressed can lead to feeling helpless, but they are not the same thing. For instance, people manage stress by watching TV, but that doesn't make them addicted to TV. Find ways to make your life less stressful, such as reading Zen Habits, and you're less likely to be self-destructive.
- Ignorance. Millions of people still don't know that smoking is unhealthy (ignorance and disbelief are powerful forces). But these same people often can go cold turkey on cigarettes once they understand the true health risks. Awareness and respect for their bodies are all they need.
Individually and collectively, these five factors create negative behavior in people without true addictions. Change the context and the negative behavior can self-correct.
But Dodes notes that determining non-addiction bases for unhealthy behavior is essential because:
It undercuts unfair moralizing toward people who really do suffer with a true addiction. If you suffer with an addiction, you may have heard something like this: ‘Well, Joe stopped with no problem. Why can't you?' Of course, Joe may not have had an addiction at all.
Spotting addictions from the inside out helps in one more major way: how to answer the “single drink” question.
If internal factors are crucial in detecting addiction, then any single action could be an addictive move even if it causes no harm (physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise). Even a single drink may silently scream, “I'm feeling helpless!” or “I really want to punch you in the face, but I'm drinking instead.”
Dodes explains the implication:
Left unaddressed, this turmoil [from a single drink] is likely to produce a more pronounced relapse, in which an addiction cycle can occur: an initial underlying helplessness produces the addictive behavior as a restorative response, but in turn the addictive behavior leads to more helplessness … Many people are told that they cannot ever safely have just one drink simply because they have a disease called ‘alcoholism.' The effort here is to convince people that alcoholism or any addiction is like an infection – let the bug in once and it will eat you alive. You will inevitably lose control, you are told, because that is the nature of the ‘disease.' But if you understand the psychology of addiction, you may find that abstinence makes more sense to you.
Abstinence makes a ton of sense to me. Especially since I view sugar as the porn you eat.
(I'm also the guy who can't take it when someone says, “everything in moderation.”)
What's Really Going on Here?
I make my impact by creating valuable things on glowing screens and for glowing screens.
Laptops, smartphones, tablets … I use them all. I need you to use them too or my message goes nowhere fast.
But these same glowing screens are a huge problem.
Take these, “Oh my goodness! We gotta do something here!” stats for example:
- Smartphone users check their phones up to 150 times a day and can't leave them alone for more than six minutes. – The Daily Mail
- 67% of cellphone owners check their phone for messages, alerts, or calls … even when they don't notice their phone ringing or vibrating. – Pew Research
- 35% of some university students send text messages in their sleep. One woman even sleeps with mittens on to protect herself from her phone. Mittens! – Business Insider
Those stats have to mean something, right?
Yes, they do.
They paint a picture of modern technology deeply embedded into our habits and culture. I mean, how can you watch social commentary like “I Forgot My Phone” and not condemn those damn addictive growing screens?!
But let me create my own headline-worthy stats and you tell me if they are more or less believable:
- Smartphone users check their phones every thirty seconds when they're attending a mandatory work meeting.
- 93% of cellphone owners check their phones for messages, alerts, or calls when they're stuck at a party with no socially acceptable way to leave.
- 12% of university students subconsciously text during lectures because they feel intense pressure to put in face time with their professor.
These made-up stats are plausible. But they don't explain that, before we had smartphones, some people used to doodle obsessively during forced meetings to regain a feeling of control.
They don't reveal that, instead of checking a cellphone, some people take a sip of something with alcohol every time they want to leave a party and can't because their ride isn't there yet or social norms prevent dashing when they want.
They don't expose the internal rage a student feels at having to waste his or her time in a classroom for the sake of appearances.
With this context, let's reconsider what's really going on in the New Yorker cartoon below.
Are the couple and their wedding party suffering from Internet addiction?
Instead, maybe the married couple is attempting to relieve helplessness about the marriage they both feel forced into. Perhaps the best man is pissed off about having spent so much time and money on a wedding day that he doesn't want to be a part of.
Sound reasonable? Maybe even probable?
What to Do about Your Habits, Bad Relationships, and Stress
Now that you know most addictions are a myth, you can stop feeling powerless against “the Internet.”
Powerlessness is what drives you to the glowing screens that provide the endless distractions of social media, video games, porn, or gambling. The glowing screens don't cause you to be powerless.
If the Internet disappeared and you hadn't resolved the core issues behind your helplessness, you'd find another attractive object to obsess over.
We all want to end bad habits, though. So here are some of my favorite resources to help you do just that:
- Zen Habits articles like The Pause Upon Which All Else Relies and I Tried to Quit & It's Too Hard!
- Ten minutes flipping through Charles Duhigg's hugely popular The Power of Habit.
- Learning how to say “No!” to toxic relationships – with people, food, money, and more – with articles like With Friends Like These or How Simplifying Your Life Can Help You Refocus on What's Important.
- Check out 7 Important Reasons to Unplug and Find Space or remind yourself that “the boat is always empty if fear and stress weigh you down.
Those Last Few Myths We Need to Bust
Read the The Heart of Addiction. Even if you don't feel like you have an addiction or know anybody who claims to have one.
You'll learn so much about how to prevent self-destruction. How to increase mindfulness. How to properly deal with the helplessness that we all inevitably feel.
Heck, just reading the first ten pages may transform you.
Before you move on to the next thing, take one small action that will help us break four of the biggest addiction myths like a martial artist blowing up a stack of boards:
- The attractiveness of the object of your addiction is not the same as addictiveness. Even strong physical cravings can't create an addiction if you don't have the psychology for it.
- You don't have to hit bottom before you can overcome an addiction. Your “bottom” is wherever you were when you stopped an addictive behavior. It can only be seen in hindsight.
- People with addictions don'thave an “addictive personality.” They have every kind of personality, just like people without addictions, but use their addiction to manage certain feelings. Addicts aren't fundamentally different from anyone else.
- Asking someone to admit that they're an “addict” is asking them to confirm they're powerless to control their own behavior. But we all have the power to control our thoughts and actions. We just need the right strategies and support to be positive instead of destructive.
Please: help us shatter these myths by sharing this article right now.
For the comments: What other myths about addiction do you want people to know? Have you struggled with a compulsion that doesn't seem like a true addiction anymore?