Marc Lewis Ph.D.

Addicted Brains

How to "Just Say No" to Drugs with Self-Compassion

The harsh voice of the internal critic makes it especially hard to comply.

Posted May 14, 2018

Since well before the War on Drugs, we've been taught to "just say no." Today we know the pitfalls of pure prohibition and denial. We know the value of "just saying yes" to sobriety instead. Still, we often do have to say No to ourselves. Perhaps many times a day.

What I'm interested in is the tone of voice we use to say it. And how we feel as a result.

I've written and spoken a lot about ego fatigue (ego depletion). It's a well-studied psychological phenomenon: the loss of cognitive control that comes when we continuously try to inhibit an impulse. Many regions of the prefrontal cortex are designed for inhibition. Some forms of inhibition are rapid, automatic and unconscious, some are at the borders of consciousness, and some are completely conscious. Ego fatigue may strike at several of these levels. But let's think now about conscious inhibition: saying to yourself, "No, don't do it!"

So there you are, craving to get high "one more time," and saying to yourself over and over again: No, don't do it! Then ego fatigue creeps up. Some part of your cognitive hardware gives up the battle. The impulse takes over. Each of the five biographical chapters in my last book shows how that plays out in the life of someone addicted to something. But here's the Catch-22: Psychologists have shown that suppression (just saying No) makes ego fatigue worse. Suppressing the impulse gives it more power. The only way to stay on top of ego fatigue is to reinterpret or reframe the situation: "that's no fun, that's not what I want."

Okay, all fine in theory. But in real life, you simply can't reframe the wish to get high every time it pops up in your brain, especially during the weeks or months that follow quitting. You have to say No to yourself some of the time, maybe even most of the time.

But what's the tone of that internal message? What's the tone of the "No, don't"? The tone of the internal prohibition is often one of parental criticism. It's often a tone that's warning, disapproving, judgmental, perhaps accusing, or menacing. "You'd better not!" it seems to say. Very often with an expletive or two on board.

So how do we feel when we receive this harsh prohibition time and time again? We feel frustrated, obstructed, denied the thing we want. And what's worse, we feel put down and misunderstood. Don't I deserve some relief, today of all days? No, you don't! Shut up!

This internal dialogue may be playing out in your head, just on the fringes of consciousness. Or maybe you are quite conscious of the sense of being suffocated or denigrated. I know this was frequently the case for me when I ran around stealing drugs. I felt that oppressive edict like a dark, overhanging cloud.

So what I would often do is rebel. I'd finally say, F__ you, I will if I want to! And there was a palpable sense of relief, a sense of lightness, the straps of a harness being peeled off. And then I would get high for a few days. And then I would suffer the after effects.

This scenario is surely a case of ego fatigue. But it's more than that. It's also a voice that makes you feel frustrated, alone, put down, anxious, and probably angry. An ideal circumstance for going back to drugs or drink.

When we realize this, I think we acquire the power to shift the dialogue, to make it more friendly, less hostile.

The tone of voice with which we say No to ourselves makes all the difference. It's very possible to link the No with a Yes. To make it a message of support and hope, not just denial and obstruction. We can take on the voice of a critical parent. Or we can take on the voice of a friend, ally, loving parent, big brother or sister... Instead of saying "You'd better not," we can say, "Let's not do this; let's do that instead. This isn't what we want." Even just by making the voice say "we" instead of "you" we shift the dialogue. We make it supportive rather than punitive.

Try it!

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