Stopping smoking, eating 'better', exercising more... the mainstream of so called resolutions that we all love to announce from time to time. And this time we really really mean it, we think. The true motivator behind wanting change to happen on a physical level is to feel better, and have more satisfying emotions. There is truth to this process, according to the principles of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected and when we change one, the others will change, too. Why is it so difficult, then, to change a behaviour? How can we bring about a truly lasting change that's not depriving us of every pleasure in life imaginable, and doesn't involve eating dust for the rest of our life to maintain it?
We must start with awareness, it is the key to change, being aware of our own behaviour. As soon as we start paying attention to our own behaviour we claim back control, we bring the unconscious into consciousness. I find that in many cases we confuse with true awareness with self-criticism, which is mainly fuelled by comparing self to others or reacting to something someone else said. In this case, from the beginning, our desire for change is motivated by the need to please others. We can compare that to building a house on a foundation made of straw - the whole dwelling will collapse at a promise of a slightly stronger breeze.
True self awareness comes from within. It sounds very corny but it's true. How to access that awareness from within? Well, start by asking yourself these questions (close your eyes and really think about the answers): How is the behaviour affecting your life, your health, your finances? Do you like how it's influencing your life? What are you willing to give up and what will you gain from it? What are the benefits of changing? How will life be like after you've changed? Who is there to support you? Why is it important to you to work on it right now? What benefit will a delay bring? You can't fix something until you admit it's broken. No real awareness, no lasting change.
Why did we start?
The simple answer is - to feel better. Safer. The exact same reason we're now trying to change that same behaviour. The point of a coping mechanism is to protect us from harm: overeating to deal with complicated and stressful emotions; smoking to separate ourselves from a situation or to belong to a social group; holding on to anger to avoid closeness, and so on. We've grown out of it now and want to let go but letting go causes fear and anxiety and - boom!- we're back in the circle. Although the self-defeating behaviour is draining us of life energy, we are trapped in it. It's easy to see no way out.
Self-defeating behaviours are not just smoking, over/under eating or substance abuse even though these are the most widely advertised (read: monetised). Any behaviour that is a knee-jerk reaction, an automatic conditioned response to a feeling you wish to avoid, it inhibits your ability to adjust to a situation. Self-defeating behaviour is designed to make you fail but you do it anyway. A conditioned response. Some other examples of such behaviour may be familiar to you from social interactions with your loved ones: staying angry, focusing on what others are doing wrong, taking things personally, staying in an abusive relationship, trying to change others, trying to take care of everyone else, and so on.
It is hard to change because it hits us on a very deep emotional level, we learnt these behaviours because they made us feel safe and now we need to let go. Our inner child is crying for the comfort of that blankie and sending us unconscious messages of the horror and misery we will most definitely face when we stop our beloved behaviour. We need to recognise these messages and counter them with full conscious awareness of adult reality. Adulting takes getting used to, but if we persevere the rewards are great. As adults we can learn the benefit of responsibility for our own actions and behaviours. That's the true freedom. We'll blame others less and recognise that others can't make us do anything we don't want to do... We're not children anymore, we're adults. We make life happen and we have the power to tell our inner child that everything will be ok, we are in control, safe and better off with new behaviours.
1. Create more awareness around your self-defeating behaviour. Meditate or just simply close your eyes and think about why, what and how. Use handy tools like Headspace that are available as an app on your mobile (they even have a free trial!)
2. Find support. People who you're closest to must be supportive of your decisions otherwise there is a danger of you being bullied out of your desire to change. They can't help it, it's their own self-defeating behaviour to keep you down so that they could feel better about themselves. If that happens, observe it like that.
I think it's quite safe to say that everyone either has or knows someone who has tried to stop smoking. Smoking is such a standard behaviour which people have learned to relate with fun times and belonging but also as a quick fix stress relief. The truth is that nobody actually enjoys smoking, even if they claim otherwise. Allen Carr in his book Stop Smoking Now likens it to enjoying the sensation of suffocation and he is not wrong. Inhaling the cigarette smoke means breathing in about 7000 chemicals, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen cyanides and ammonia. 69 of those chemicals are known to cause cancer, this information is freely available on various websites including Ash.org.uk, Quit.org.uk and NHS Choices. Lack of information on how bad smoking is for health is not the problem, it's the motivation.
Letting go of a 'thing' that has supported you through thick and thin is obviously not easy. Think of a toddler who is being weened off a pacifier. It can take numerous tantrums and screams of bloody murder but the change will happen. This metaphor is actually quite interesting... from sucking on a pacifier to dragging on a cigarette, one form of oral gratification for another.
Kids learn by proxy, they don't need to actually do something to imagine it working. If a child grows up with smoking parents who smoke under stress they will learn that a cigarette is a safe way to deal with stress. When they get older and encounter a stressful situation in school or wherever their brain will search for the best perceived way to reduce that stress and bang! a good trusty method used by the parents will pop to mind. It works the same with overeating, and it's easy t o see why. Cigarette lit, homeostasis achieved, if only for a moment. The vicious circle is born as from that moment on the cravings fro nicotine will continue recreating that stress, complete with shaking of hands. Smoking is the cause and the effect.
So how do you stop? Well, it takes practice. On average it takes about 7-8 tries to change a behaviour for the change to be final. The truth is, you will get really good at quitting - you will know what symptoms to expect: anger, sadness, hunger, even rage and resentment towards everyone, especially towards other smokers. You'll have heightened awareness of every smoking cigarette out there. Cravings for sugar (another stimulant). And you will know these feelings will pass. You will have figured out the best coping mechanisms for stress: music, relaxation, reading, physical activity and so on. Moving from the victim mindset ("Stuff is happening to me and i have no control over it!") to an adult mindset ("I'm making things happen in my life.") is vital for the lasting change to take place.
Change takes effort and time. There is no magic pill or a potion or therapy style that will make you stop smoking, although some governing bodies suggest prescription medication (FDA.gov). I believe that in general drugs are not necessary to stop smoking. The part that wants to believe that magic solutions exist is the victim in us refusing to take responsibility. Meditation will help you increase awareness of that part of yourself that is holding on to fear. Through contemplation and self reflection you will learn that it 's safe to let go of old useless self-defeating behaviours.
Another reason why a lot of people fail is because they feel that they have to go at it alone. Asking for help might be the best thing you've done for yourself.
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