What do you want to stop doing?
• Drinking when you shouldn't.
• Drinking more than you want.
• Staying up too late.
• Watching too much porn.
• Not exercising.
• Scrolling scrolling scrolling on FB.
• Being busy without getting important things done.
Why do we do these things, and why is it so hard to stop?
The why is easy - because they feel good in the moment. And we're just humans. We're wired to seek pleasure, avoid discomfort and pain, and conserve energy. And every one of those listed activities satisfies at least one element of that motivational triad.
Stopping these actions requires an understanding of how they fit into a bigger cycle that is driven by emotion. Yes, emotion. And yes this applies to you Mr. Man, no matter how rational or logical you think you are.
Emotion is the fuel for our action and inaction, and when we try to change our actions merely by starting or stopping them, using willpower, we inevitably fail. When you understand how emotion fits into the cycle, and when you develop the willingness and ability to ALLOW your emotions, you can interrupt the cycle.
Check out this flowchart to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
See if you can identify with this narrative of the process.
- LIFE: You have a demanding job that pays 6 figures, a mortgage that eats up a third of that, and a wife who has some opinions.
- THOUGHT: I can't keep spending my life pushing paper at Acme. And Sally should be nicer to me.
- EMOTION: anxiety, despair, irritation, loneliness.
- DISTRACTION: I need to take the edge off.
- URGE: I'll have a drink.
- SUCCUMB: Have a drink, which turns into 4 drinks and you're up until 12:30.
Now your evening of debauchery has become a part of your Life, back at the top of the cycle. So then you have some thoughts about it:
- THOUGHT: I'm such a loser, what's wrong with me, why do I keep doing that to myself.
- EMOTION: guilt, shame, embarrassment
And the cycle continues.
Now it's a sure thing that you've been through this cycle more than once. And so those emotions that come from those thoughts about your life have become recognized by your brain as a cue in a habit cycle. What happens then is that a primitive part of your brain notices the cue (the negative emotional state). You get a shot of a dopamine, even before you've had the drink or done the dumb thing, and it subconsciously energizes you to pursue the habitual reward. This makes the Urge even stronger. And when you then partake of the reward, it reinforces the entire cycle. Detailed explanation of this dopamine fueled cue-desire-reward cycle is a discussion for another post.
And then, you get to a point where you're really tired of the cycle, and you decide that you're not going to drink tonight. So instead of giving in to the urge, you resist it.
- RESISTANCE: Argh – I said I wasn't going to drink tonight. This sucks, I deserve a drink, I can't stand feeling this way, I feel so deprived.
- EMOTION: more negative emotion coming from the resistance to the urge.
And again, you're back in the loop. So how do you break out of the cycle?
THE SOLUTION - Allowing the Emotion
Here's that flowchart again, with the solution added.
Emotions are the leverage points in the cycle, and allowing the emotion/urge is the process that enables you to interrupt it.
Any emotion can actually be experience as a sensory experience in your body. We are generally pretty tuned into those sensations that result from an external stimuli - a sharp object pressing into your skin, or heat or cold. We can develop a similar sensitivity to the sensations that result from the cocktail of neurotransmitters that an emotion causes to be released in your body.
At first glance, allowing looks suspiciously like resisting. However, the difference is subtle, and huge at the same time, and can best be explained by contrasting the two.
When you experience an urge but try to resist it, you think thoughts like this sucks; this isn’t fair; I want a drink but I don’t want to drink. It feels like something is going wrong in your world and it needs to be corrected. You try to push the feeling away. It feels like you’re holding a beach ball under water. The unsatisfied urge itself may not be pleasant, but it's the resistance to it creates real negative emotion - anxiety, self-pity, irritation, deprivation. As you can see in the flowchart, that negative emotion just perpetuates the cycle.
The Allowing Process
Allowing an urge starts with you recognizing and acknowledging that it’s there.
1. Get curious about it. Decide that you’re going to experience it fully, with your full attention. You’re not going to push it away, or label it, or judge yourself for having it.
2. Now pay attention to your body. Do a scan from feet to head and notice any particular sensations - tension, butterflies, warmth or cold, extra salivation, changes in heart rate or breath. Are the sensations in your belly, or neck, or back, or arms?
A common sensation I have when experience a strong negative emotion is a pronounced weakness and emptiness in my biceps and shoulders.
3. Describe the sensations as clearly as you can.
What you’ll find is that when you allow an urge in this way, it eventually dissipates. Your body basically digests it. That’s not to say a new urge won’t crop up again soon, but with each practice rep, it will become easier and more natural.
This process is also key to breaking the cue-desire-reward loop mentioned above, which has the inevitable result that the urges are much reduced.
Most of us have little experience with actually feeling our emotions and are quite disconnected from our bodies. Our experience is that we have a sense that we're uncomfortable. We jump to the conclusion that there is a big problem and we need to do something to make it go away. But when you do this process like I've described, you come to realize that emotions are nothing to be afraid of.
This discussion has focused on allowing the urge in order to have an off-ramp from the cycle that has you drinking or facebooking more than you want. However it's equally applicable to dealing with more weighty emotions. I'll take more about this in other posts, but for now I'll just say that when you become a person who is willing and able to feel any emotion, the world is your oyster.
If you'd like some help with this, especially in the context of changing your relationship with drinking, email me at Greg@GregoryStephenLee.com. Just say 'help a brotha out' or something simple like that and I'll take it from there.