Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Breaking Free from Addiction

How to overcome the "critical inner voice" that drives addiction

I must admit, I was curious as to why my sister was sitting me down to show me a recording of a dance she’d seen on a popular TV show.I watched, a bit skeptically, as the choreographer explained how she wanted the contemporary dance to symbolize a person’s struggle with addiction. The upbeat intro showed the young male and female dancer, she as the addict, and he, as the addiction itself. They stepped onto the dark stage, and the dance began. Instantly, I was captivated. The expressiveness of each movement conveyed the allure and devastation of addiction. The girl would cling helplessly to her partner, rising and falling with his every move, one minute escaping, and the next throwing herself at his side. All the while, her face showed the torment of falling victim to her captor. The performance was powerful and successful in capturing the self-destructive nature of addiction.

A couple months ago I wrote the blog “Are You an Addict?” to illustrate what draws people to addiction and how they can tell when they are engaging in addictive behavior. All addictive behaviors have at least these two things in common:  (1) they help people cut off painful feelings and (2) they are strongly influenced or controlled by a destructive thought process that both seduces the person into the behavior and punishes them for indulging. Like a dance, an addiction finds a pattern by which to step seamlessly into a person’s life, luring and condemning, comforting and destroying.

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People who engage in drug or alcohol abuse, who have an eating disorder, or who struggle with any addiction are acting according to the prescriptions of a destructive thought process known as the critical inner voice. For example, if you struggle with an alcohol dependency, this internal enemy will try to tempt you with a seductive, seeming friendly thought (or “voice”) saying, “You’ve had a rough week. Have a drink. You really need to relax.” If you’re overcoming a food addiction, it might lure you with rewards, “Have a piece of cake. You did well on your diet all week.”

After indulging, this deceptively soothing inner voice transforms into a cruel enemy, tearing you apart. The voice maliciously punishes you for indulging in the very behavior it had encouraged. “You weak-willed jerk. You said you weren’t going to drink anymore!” “You’ve ruined everything. You’ll always be a fat cow.”

Like the male dancer in the performance I watched, the critical inner voice always plays two roles in an addiction: seducer and punisher. Addictive behaviors represent a direct assault against a person’s physical health and emotional well-being, and they limit one's ability to pursue meaningful personal goals in life. Therefore, it is important that a therapist help a client to identify the critical inner voices that govern these habit patterns and to challenge their dictates by learning more constructive ways of dealing with emotional pain.

In Voice Therapy, a therapeutic approach developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, therapists help clients pinpoint environmental triggers that precipitate the painful emotions and negative thought patterns, which, in turn, influence them to engage in addictive behaviors. By further encouraging the pursuit of genuine wants, desires, and goals, therapists strengthen clients’ real selves, a process that enables them to achieve freedom from addictive, self-destructive behaviors. In addition, individuals can use the following techniques to help them overcome addiction:

Identify – It is vital to identify the thoughts that get you into trouble and lure you into destructive behavior. Even though these thoughts may seem friendly or calming, they should be recognized as an enemy. I often advise clients to look for patterns in their behavior. What occurs or goes through your mind right before you take a self-destructive action? What situations tempt you? What scenarios do you feel are dangerous? By identifying the internal and external triggers, people can become more conscious and self-aware. They can pause to reflect and resist acting on thoughts that go against their own self-interest.

Journal – Once you recognize your thoughts, you can record them as a means to get to know yourself better and familiarize yourself with your negative habits. Taking the action of writing down whatever comes into your head is a good alternative to engaging in destructive behavior. It also provides you with something to look back on to help you find patterns in yourself and discover what drives you toward addiction.

Reflect – Once you know what the thoughts are and when they come up, you can start asking why.  Where do the “voices” come from? Do they sound familiar? Do they remind you of someone or something from your past? Did anyone from your past influence you by engaging in similar behavior?  Did your parents or other influential figures use any destructive means to deal with their feelings or to soothe themselves?

Plan – Knowing what triggers you orients you toward action. You can then define a plan of what to do in moments when you feel compelled to use or indulge in your drug of choice. You can visualize yourself saying no. You can think of actions you can take that have worked in the past to distract or help you. You can seek out a certain person to talk to, a certain friend to hang out with, or a certain activity to engage in during moments of stress.

Have compassion – We all face struggles and make mistakes. To deal with an addiction is a sign of strength, not weakness, and you must not allow your critical inner voice to beat you up for any mistakes or relapses. Remember that the urge to self-punish is a strong part of what draws a person to addiction. Listening to that inner voice will only work against you, even when you slip up or experience a setback.

Feel – Addiction numbs a person from joy as well as pain. Its purpose is to bury emotions that you are resistant to feeling or don’t believe you can tolerate. Naturally, when you break an addiction, emotions will arise that the addiction was helping you to avoid. Feeling these emotions and getting through them will make you stronger. It will also reduce your perceived “need” for the substance or behavior that was driving your addiction. Initially, the critical inner voices will get louder, as you stop listening to their instructions. However, when you persevere in your actions, they lessen and eventually fade. Throughout this process, you must be resilient, open, and compassionate. Talking to someone is important, and therapy is a healthy and intelligent option.

When you combat an addiction by challenging your destructive inner voices, you strengthen your true self. You achieve a better balance that leaves you stronger in the face of destructive temptations and hurtful behaviors. Most importantly, you break free from any internal chains that hold you back from experiencing who you are at your fullest potential and actively pursuing what you aim to accomplish in your life.

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone, visit PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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