Why it can be so hard to quit drinking (or doing other stuff we know we shouldn’t)

monkey eats

True story:

A few years ago, when I was already really stressed out at work, one of the account managers that I worked with walked in my office and told me we’d just gotten a new project. She said I’d be leading it, and she said the deadline was in three days. I told her that neither I nor the rest of the team could deliver that with our current workload. After a bunch of arguing that pretended to be polite discussion, she basically told me too bad. We’d just have to get it done.

DON’T LOSE IT, texted a colleague who’d overheard.

He knew me well, because as he predicted, I was seriously about to lose it, hardcore.

Taking his advice, I got up out of my chair and walked to my car.

I drove to Pistachia Vera, a beautiful french bakery down the street.

I parked, walked in, then ordered some macarons (probably a coconut, a vanilla bean, and a pistachio) and a few chewy sweet almond cookies.

This place isn’t cheap, so it probably cost me at least $15 for all those cookies.

I then went directly to my car, opened up the waxed white paper bag, and mashed every one of those cookies into my mouth.

I ate those cookies with a great deal of righteous anger, as a giant F YOU to every boss, coworker, and client who was making unrealistic demands on my time.

(I really showed THEM, didn’t I?)

Then I brushed the crumbs off my lap and went back to work and did all those projects plus probably three more that came in and everything was fine.

And that’s why we have unhealthy coping strategies. Because everything really was fine after that. Those cookies worked.

To a point.

Because we all know that eating 6+ cookies at once isn’t good for my health. (I’m probably still burning those calories off in Zumba class.)

Now, that’s an extreme example of a time I can pinpoint exactly when and why and how I used an unhealthy coping strategy (binge eating) to deal with a specific emotion (anger).

It’s not always simple to diagnose a cause/effect/result like that.

Most of the time, our lives are really muddy with a bunch of little things building up and lots of different emotions swirling around and those unhealthy coping behaviors becoming things we do even when we’re not coping.

Know what I think?

I think that a lot of the behaviors we’d like to do away with in our lives are rooted in coping mechanisms, disguised as bad habits.

You see this in the extreme with alcohol. It’s an excellent coping mechanism for a while. And then it becomes the problem. It becomes a problem so big that when someone finally decides to quit (no matter what stage of addiction he or she is in) they believe it will solve all their problems.

And eliminating it does solve a lot of problems. But then the original problems alcohol was helping them cope with show back up.

And now they really have to deal with those original problems.

And they wonder why they even quit drinking in the first place, because are things really better?

Problem avoidance shows up in smaller ways, also. In laying on the couch and just watching TV. In looking at Facebook every 10 minutes. In eating a bunch of cookies at once (in your car…).

We can try to cut out those actions, but then emotions show up and we turn back to those reliable coping mechanisms.

Listen, we can and should treat the symptoms (the action of unhealthy coping mechanisms like drinking, eating, etc).

We also need to find the underlying cause (what are we coping with and how we can cope with it in a healthier way) if we ever want to really change things.

To go one step further, most everything can be traced back to one of these three emotions:

  • Shame

  • Fear

  • Anger

These emotions (and their myriad cousins like judgement, frustration, disappointment, etc) are a normal part of living and you’re going to have them.

But you have to know how to face them down, i.e. COPE with them, to make lasting positive change in your life.

To start, watch yourself (meditation helps with this) and notice how you react when you get a strong emotion. Just see what’s going on. Because once you can identify a problem, you’ll be better able to address it.

[Side note: Brene Brown wrote a whole book about identifying and working through emotional triggers like these called Rising Strong. It’s great and I’d recommend giving it a read.]


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