You’ve told yourself time and time again that you would never again drink too many mimosas at Sunday brunch, eat half a bag of cookies in one sitting, procrastinate on your taxes until April 14th, or get involved with shady characters. And at the time you really meant it. Yet, you still find yourself repeating the same behaviors, even as you recognize that they aren’t benefiting you.
Moreover, you realize that you spend a lot of time thinking about your dilemma, rather than focusing on possible wiser choices. So, now you have not only a compulsion but an obsession.
Adding insult (literally) to injury, you then berate yourself for not getting your act together.
What is going on? Why do we sometimes cling to problems? Some possible reasons include:
We base other difficulties in life on the problem.
Recovery programs such as 12-Step programs generally suggest that members “identify” by introducing themselves with, “Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m an alcoholic”. Doing so helps people to bond with each other, realize that they are all in the same boat, and acknowledge their need for help.
However, some people can begin to use the label of “alcoholic” to rationalize their behavior, such as, “I flew off the handle with my wife because I’m an alcoholic”, or “I didn’t pay the mortgage on time because I’m an alcoholic”. Or “I’m overly sensitive because I’m an alcoholic”.
This can often be putting the cart in front of the horse, whereas a statement such as, “I drank too much and then flew off the handle with my wife” may be more accurate – although it would require one to take responsibilities for one’s actions and, if seriously working a 12-Step program or another form of recovery, make the appropriate amends. Blaming everything on the “problem” can interfere with motivation to let go of the problem, because if you do, then what can you blame if life is challenging (which is inevitable)?
Maybe you’ll find that you still struggle with depression or anxiety, that you’re still unhappy with your career path, or that your marriage still needs a lot of work or is no longer tenable. Granted, resolving your problem may improve the other situations, but this isn’t guaranteed – and sometimes it can seem easier and more familiar to make the problem the scapegoat.
We base a lot of our identity on the problem.
For instance, if we’ve had trouble with alcohol, we may have gotten to the point where trying to obtain it, being intoxicated, being hungover, or dealing with other undesirable aftermath of drinking takes up a lot of our time and energy.
As a result, we may lose touch with other things that once made life worthwhile. Relationships may have deteriorated, our career path may have gone awry, or we may have developed health problems related to our drinking.
So, moderating our drinking (or quitting it altogether) may necessitate that we not only get the appropriate help (which varies from person to person, and with the severity of the problem) but also learn who we are without it – and we may be very unsure of who that person is.
Who are you when you no longer use alcohol, drugs, food, compulsive shopping, or other excessive behaviors to try and change your feelings?
Part of maturing as a person and creating a meaningful life involves learning who we really are – not who society, our parents, or our friends think or want us to be. This knowledge is not gained without trying on a lot of roles, some of which fit better than others. We all want a sense of identity. And sometimes, when in doubt, any sort of identity will do.
We can develop self-statements that limit us such as:
“I’m a mean person.”
“I’m terrible in social situations.”
What self-limiting statements do you use to describe yourself? Or what beliefs do other people have about you, that you’ve begun to believe? Who would you be without these beliefs? Can you describe how your life would be without them? If you’ve fused to that belief for a long time or with great tenacity, it may be hard to visualize an alternate existence.
Some ideas for moving beyond the problem into solutions:
Learn to detach from your thoughts. Instead of thinking, “I’d become a nervous wreck if I didn’t drink a six-pack a night”, try “I’m having the thought that I’d become a nervous wreck if…” Or, rather than thinking, “I don’t know what decision to make,” substitute, “I’m having the thought that I don’t know…” In such ways, you can learn that you are separate from your thoughts, and they need not dictate your behavior nor your future. Let your thoughts come and go, like leaves floating down a stream (a popular mindfulness exercises), but don’t latch on to them as your absolute truth.
Notice when the problem is not a problem. In what instances have you been able to manage or even thrive? When have you been anxious and wanting to run and hide, yet you held your own in an important conversation? When have you wanted to raid the frig instead of tolerating sadness and loneliness, yet you ate healthfully and reached out to a friend for help? Find examples when you have broken the problem’s perceived stranglehold on you.
Spend time imagining your life without the problem. What would you be able to do that you cannot currently do? How would you be spending your time? What would your friends and family notice that’s different about you? What would be your priorities?
If the answers to these questions don’t come readily, this would be par for the course. The idea is to practice opening your mind to alternate ways of being. You might look to respected friends, colleagues, or members of your community or in the news for inspiration. Start painting that picture, knowing that you can adapt it as you move forward.