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Addictive Patterns

One of the most challenging behaviors or patterns to change is an addictive pattern. It is sometimes difficult to understand what motivates us to repeatedly engage in an activity that causes us pain. We know it doesn’t serve us. We know it hurts us, as well as others. We know it would benefit us to stop, but we do it anyway.

“Where’s the payoff here? It’s killing me, yet I keep doing it. I must be crazy.”

Possibly. In some of the twelve-step programs, they describe “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. In some spiritual organizations, they define “karma” as the inability to stop doing what you are doing even though you know it is causing you pain and suffering. We can break or end our insanity and karma through wisdom. Wisdom comes from the experience of working through our issues consciously.

Let’s explore some aspects of the personality and how it is formed to gain some understanding how the addictive pattern process works.

Our personality comes from our exterior senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Our senses can be corrupted by becoming habituated or addicted to certain behaviors or stimuli. This process of habituation is a primal survival technique that is genetically coded so that we do not have to do original learning all the time.

For example, I’m in the jungle, and I look at this berry. I recognize it. I ate this kind of berry last week. It was sweet. I liked it. I felt good after eating it. I didn’t get a bellyache or anything. I’ll eat it again. Oh, there’s another berry. It’s the same type of berry. Good. I’ll eat it again. Oh, another berry. I like these berries. (Okay, I have now habituated myself into eating these berries. I have an addiction.) I love these berries. Every time I see them, I have to eat them. Unfortunately, I have now found a large patch of berries and I eat them all day long. Now I have a bellyache. I feel sick.

Once the senses are addicted or habituated, our personality will want to repeat the experience because it likes it, it feels good. We are then tempted to repeat the behavior over and over again – even if it causes us pain.

Let’s say a couple of days later, I’m feeling better and I see that berry again. It looks good to me. Is it? What should I do? Should I eat it? I feel confused.

Every time temptation comes in, we split ourselves and our energy. One part says, “I want to do it now!” Another part says, “No, I’m not sure I should do it now.”

If we give into our temptations, we are in a roundabout way saying, “I love myself.” The eating of that berry was good for me. It felt good. I nourished myself by eating the berry. When I ate that berry, I was good to myself.

Before I explore ways of breaking additive patterns, I want to explain the concept of regular and irregular reward systems and how they affect the way we change our behaviors.

A regular reward system is one that is predictable. I have a lever. Every time I push the lever I get a reward. The reward is pleasurable. Remember, we move toward pleasure, so we push the lever and we get a reward. It is very predictable. It always works. Every time I push the lever, I get a reward. Wonderful.

An irregular reward system is just that—irregular. In other words, sometimes I push the lever and I get a reward, while other times I push the lever and nothing happens. Nothing happening is painful. As I suggested earlier, we want to avoid pain so we would normally move away from this, but we are not totally sure what will happen when we push the lever one more time. We liked the reward we got when we pushed the lever, so we push the lever again in hopes of getting the reward. If we get the reward again, we are very intrigued and an addiction is being formed. In some ways this is very exciting.

We are now in the “survival domain” aspect of the change curve. We feel alive. The feeling of aliveness is a secondary reward. We often create all kinds of wonderful rituals or superstitions in the irregular reward system. I might put my tongue on the right side of my mouth, push the lever, and get a reward. Wow! I push the lever again with my tongue on the right side of my mouth, and I get a reward again. I tell myself, “This works!” From this point forward, I will always make sure my tongue is on the right side of my mouth before I push the lever, and when it works enough times, this secondary behavior is now attached to the lever pushing and the reward. I now have a dual addiction. These dual addictions or rituals can become very embedded and complicated aspects of our personality. At some point, we find ourselves doing strange things that are now just a part of who we think we are, and we have no conscious idea of where they came from or how they serve us. They are just there.

Now, let’s say we want to change this behavior of pushing the lever. Under the regular reward system, all we have to do is stop getting the reward, and in a very short period of time, we will stop the behavior. Not receiving the reward is experienced as a painful experience, so we move away from it. We realize the lever is broken, and we move on to another behavior through which we can receive a reward. We seek another pleasurable experience.

If we want to change the behavior of pushing the lever when it has been learned under the irregular reward system, we have a totally different response. We push the lever. We get no reward. We push it again, no reward. Let’s see, maybe I forgot to put my tongue on the right side of my mouth. I put my tongue where it belongs and push the lever, no reward. Hmm. Maybe it’s not the right side, maybe it’s the left side. I put my tongue on the left side and push the lever, and still I get no reward. Maybe it is on the roof of my mouth. We will continue pushing the lever until we fall over totally exhausted, thinking maybe it will happen with the next push. It worked in the past.

We are chasing the reward, the pleasure, the “high,” or the love of the past. We are locked into an addictive pattern and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. We are now behaving in a way that looks crazy because we are now hurting ourselves and those around us and we cannot stop. People who care about us tell us what we are doing isn’t working, but we are incapable of stopping. We know that pushing this lever works for us. We just know it from the core of our being. And, yet, everyone wants us to change.

The first step to change is awareness.

OK, I am aware this lever no longer gives me the reward I used to get, but I do get some pleasure in pushing it. It is familiar, and that is comforting. So how do I break this addiction or habituated response?

In order to break the habituated response of the senses, we need to move beyond the personality. We need to move into what I call the “High self.” The High self is a neutral character who asks, “If I choose to do this, how will it affect me and how will it affect others around me?”

By asking and answering these questions, we can bypass the addictive personality and begin to make a responsible choice.

By asking and answering these questions, we can also begin to bring in compassion, loving, and caring for ourselves rather than anger and disgust.

When we repeat an addictive behavior pattern that we are in the process of correcting and react with anger and disgust, our energy drops and we disempower ourselves. We often go to fear, which once again calls the addiction forward. Remember that the addictive pattern gives us comfort by being familiar. We often use the addictive pattern as a way to avoid what we are doing, feeling, or seeing. The addictive pattern puts us into a bubble where we are not aware of what is going on. When we are in the bubble, we only think about fulfilling our addiction. The pattern of beating up on ourselves locks us into a pattern of numbing ourselves with an addiction that falsely nurtures us. The punishment we have given ourselves to create change is not effective. Thus, the addictive behavior is repeated and reinforced again and again, and the addictive loop continues with no success in sight.

This is where the five steps to change come into play. Hopefully, you are beginning to see how they are effective in creating change, even when dealing with an addictive pattern.

Our temptations, or our negative addictive patterns, can be used as a tool to strengthen ourselves. They can be used as signals or signs that say, “Where did the ‘need’ to do this originate?” “How will this serve me?” “What made me start this in the first place?” “Is there another way for me to get what I want rather than doing what I have done in the past?” “What is my intention?” “What other methods could I try to fulfill my intention?” By asking these types of questions, we can begin to take the power away from the addicted senses and create positive conscious change.

After asking and answering these questions, we can bring compassion and forgiveness in by saying to ourselves, “I am sorry for what I did. I was not aware of all of the consequences involved when I began doing this. I forgive myself for my actions and for any judgments I might be holding against myself and others.”

I will explore the forgiveness process at another time. For now, know it is a way we can release any judgments that we might be holding against ourselves for selling out to our exterior senses. If we truly had known better, we would have done better.

It is important to note that not all addictions are bad. As I suggested earlier, the addiction pattern is an aspect of primal survival. Once we are aware that we as humans are addictive creatures, we can use that information for our upliftment, advancement, and growth. All we have to do is get addicted to those things that serve us. Become addicted to healing yourself. Become addicted to forgiving yourself and having compassion for yourself. Become addicted to having joyful, loving people around who support you and encourage you to grow. Become addicted to blessing the people you see, the food you eat, and the people you touch. Become addicted to things that give health, things that set you free and that are for your highest good.

When temptation shows up again or when your addictive pattern knocks on your door, which it will, know this is an opportunity to challenge your addicted senses and to empower your High Self. The process of temptation is called the law of reversibility.

In this discussion of addiction, I would be remiss if I did not talk about the many twelve-step programs that are available today. The first twelve-step program that came into being is AA, or Alcoholics Anonymous. Many other related programs have sprung from this original program. For many, these programs have been a major blessing and a springboard for recovery and freedom. Even though some people have trouble with some of the concepts presented in the programs (mainly a strong direction to total abstinence and a belief in a Higher Power), I have personally witnessed many people achieve and maintain recovery through the twelve steps the various programs teach. Some addictions can be life threatening, and we often need support as we go through our process. It is nice to know that we are not alone in our process and others have walked before us. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel. One thing that has always touched me in the programs is the statement: “Focus on the similarities, not the differences.” We are all individuals, with our own very personal issues, and we are all here on Planet Earth struggling to do our best with the information we have been given. In this we all share similar obstacles in our process to freedom and recovery.

If you want support in your recovery process, you can call your local telephone operator or access the Internet and get the telephone number for AA. From there you will be able to access all of the other programs.

I often say, “The advantage to being clean and sober is that we get to feel.” With feelings we can make accurate decisions about our life; we can discern what is effective and what is not.

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