We have all heard the “One day at a time” AA slogan. Its purpose is to keep people from feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of never drinking again. It may be useful when folks are teetering on the brink of having a drink: “Tough it out, you just have to get through today.” But aside from those moments, it is terrible advice.
In fact, it is exactly backwards. If people hope to break an addiction, the best thing they can do is think ahead to the next time they’re likely to want to drink (or gamble or overeat). Compulsions, or addictions, aren’t isolated events that must be managed only when they arise. Like every other emotional symptom, they are just a way we repeatedly deal with the central concerns within each of us. So, when people understand how addictions work psychologically in themselves, addictive urges become highly predictable. Instead of having to live with addictions one day at a time, they can master them forever.
Readers of this blog or my books know that addictions are neither more nor less than psychological compulsions that arise in circumstances when people feel overwhelmingly helpless. This feeling emerges because something in the situation touches on an area deeply important to them. Addictive actions are a way to reassert power against this helplessness; the addictive act is a “displacement,” or substitute, for taking a more direct action to reverse helplessness. Ways to break an addiction, therefore, range from working out the underlying issues that make people feel helpless, to just understanding how, why, and when these feelings arise, even without fully working out their causes. Fully resolving important emotional issues usually requires psychotherapy. But learning how to manage an addiction, and even turning addictive urges into useful tools for understanding one’s own emotional life, can be done on your own. I described how to do this in the book Breaking Addiction. One critical part of mastering addictive behavior is learning how to predict it far in advance. That means thinking ahead.