NUMBING + COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR VOL. 2
What’s your “drug” of choice? Maybe it’s actually a drug, or maybe it’s pinot noir, or mac-and-cheese, or reruns of The Office, or swiping on Tinder. (To be clear, I’m not talking about alcoholism or drug addiction here; if you have a chemical dependency or compulsion that is interfering with your life, you should consult a medical professional).
Whatever it is you do to soothe or distract yourself, I want you to imagine life without it.
Does that thought make you extremely uncomfortable? If so, it’s a sign you’re using that substance or behavior to numb out.
Last week, we talked about noticing your numbing habits, getting curious about them, and being compassionate toward yourself all the while. If you haven’t listened to last week’s podcast, do so here: https://unfuckyourbrain.com/numbing-compulsive-behavior-vol-1/. It’s the foundation of today’s work, which will focus on changing your behavior. Don’t skip it: You won’t be able to understand or implement today’s lesson without last week’s work. Keep in mind that when I talk about “compulsion” in this context, I don’t mean it in a clinically diagnosed sense – I mean the way it feels when you have a habit or behavior you want to stop, and yet you find that you are doing it almost despite yourself.
Ok, ready to go?
Today I’m going to teach you two tools that will change your life:
- Planning, and
I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, and maybe even contradictory. But stay with me.
This may surprise you, but one of the most effective ways to get control over your numbing is to make a plan to do it. Your numbing habits happen automatically, without you paying attention or even making conscious decisions a lot of the time. When you create a plan, you are taking the behavior from automatic to purposeful, from unconscious to conscious.
So if you are stuck in a cycle of binging to deal with your emotions? Then plan your next “binge” 24 hours ahead of time. Be as specific as possible: decide what you’re going to eat, where you’ll be, and how much you’ll eat.
Or do you compulsively bite your nails?
Make a plan for when you’re going to do it next, for how long, and where you’ll be.
Just thinking about this probably already removes some of the appeal of your numbing habit, doesn’t it?
Here’s why: When you numb out, you usually do it in times of emotional distress. It’s a coping mechanism you use when you’re feeling at your worst. The appeal and power of it comes from using it as an escape when you’re upset.
The behavior itself is a whole lot less fun when you plan it out ahead of time, isn’t it?
Still not convinced?
Be honest with yourself: Trying to stop cold-turkey using “willpower” hasn’t worked before, has it?
You know this game:
You decide to go from numbing out all the time to not doing it at all.
It may work for a short time, but your willpower fades and ultimately you rebel against the restriction. You “give in” to your urge and chase that dopamine hit. Ultimately, you reinforce the cycle of denying yourself and then numbing out.
When you use your pre-frontal cortex to decide ahead of time what you will eat/drink/do, for how long, how much of it, where you will be, and what you will be doing, it lessens the impulsive fun of it.
It also short-circuits some well-worn arguments that your brain uses against you, that it’s too hard to completely stop and that if you do it at all then you’ve “fallen off the wagon” and you might as well just give in to doing it forever. Because you’re not vowing to stop it forever. You’re just committing to turning it into a conscious choice – and that is going to remove a lot of the appeal right off the bat.
Of course, even if you make a plan, your brain will want to go off-plan.
A negative emotion will come up, or a habitual urge will arise, and you’ll want to numb out.
Here’s where my second tool comes in: allowing urges.
An urge is just a feeling in your body.
It’s a desire to take a certain action: to eat or drink, to bite your nails, to jump on zara.com and start clicking “add to cart.”
It all boils down to a desire for a hit of dopamine.
So how do we allow an urge without acting on it?
The same way we allow any emotion without acting on it.
We allow it to be present in our body without resistance.
We don’t try to white-knuckle through it or fight it off or ignore it.
We don’t answer it.
We just allow it.
We get curious.
We ask ourselves:
- How does this urge feel?
- Where is it in my body?
- How long will it last if I don’t answer it?
Urges feel…well, urgent! They feel as though they need to be acted on.
But they don’t.
You can just allow an urge to be there without acting on it or resisting it.
When you practice allowing urges, you’ll find they start to pass.
They feel intense for a few moments, but most of them won’t last more than 10 minutes.
Sure, they may recur – but they will fade in between occurrences. And their intensity, duration, and frequency will lessen over time.
And most importantly, you’ll find that urges aren’t actually urgent, dangerous, or fatal. They aren’t even irresistible.
They’re just physical sensations in your body, and it will get easier to allow them the more you practice.
To practice allowing your urges, I recommend keeping a list and counting up to 100 urges for each numbing behavior you’re working on.
Write down what the urge feels like and what thought created the urge.
I recommend working on one behavior at a time, especially at first, so you don’t overload your brain or “confuse” yourself with what to prioritize. But you insist on working on more than one kind of urge at once, make a separate list for each urge, because the habituated cycle is different for each one.
It’s important to note that the goal is NOT to count 100 urges in a row or get a “streak” of unanswered urges. If you act on or answer an urge, that’s fine. You don’t go back to zero or start over or anything. You just practice allowing the next urge that comes up, and add it to the list.
The goal isn’t to be perfect. The goal is to DO it.
Not to dip your toes in, or create a plan and then ignore it. Not to practice once every five days (if it’s a behavior you do every hour).
If it’s a behavior you do every 24 hours, you should be making a plan every 24 hours.
If they’re urges you feel every hour, you should track your urges every hour.
You won’t have to do this work forever, but it takes effort in the beginning to break a habituated pattern.
And it’s important to write this all down – don’t just do it in your head, because your brain is what created this mess!
You can love your brain, love your mess, love yourself, AND practice creating change with compassion and awareness instead of shame and avoidance. You’ll be amazed how much more effective it will be.