Overcoming Our Soft Addictions

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25 Jun 2013

overcomingWe all seek pleasure. The question is what type, lower or higher pleasures?

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, in his classic article, Five Levels of Pleasure, describes how to shift focus from low level pleasures to higher ones. When we stay stuck in low level pleasures, we can become addicted to them. For example, we can become addicted to: Shopping, eating, texting, video games, the internet, gambling, alcohol, smoking, pornography, or drugs.

Addiction is a wakeup call: We are living an unbalanced life and have to take stock of where we are headed. By answering this wakeup call, an addiction can become the catalyst to a more meaningful life.

It is helpful to distinguish between soft and hard addictions. Author Judith Wright coined the term “soft addiction” to describe behaviors which are excessive but do not impair one’s functioning. While difficult to rein them in, a person can still exert control over them. With a hard addiction, the behavior has crossed the line; it impacts one’s life and he or she has lost control.

Let’s use the example of a shopping addiction to illustrate the difference between the two types of addiction:

A soft shopping addiction: A person spends excessive time and money buying things. But he has the time and money to spend and his excessive shopping does not intrude on other areas of his life. Although unpleasant and difficult, for short periods of time he is able to minimize his spending.

A hard shopping addiction: A person’s out-of-control purchasing results in spending beyond his means, eating away at savings and possibly even creating debt. During the day, he often thinks about his next purchase. He cannot control himself and his addiction has intruded on other areas of his life: His work and relationships have begun to suffer.

Most of us do not have hard addictions, although we might have soft ones: We may eat too much, spend too much or use the internet too much (e.g., Facebook). Even though soft addictions are not disabling, they still should be addressed, for two reasons. First, if left unchecked, they can turn into hard addictions. Second, at a minimum, they take you away from meaningful and fulfilling activities. Time is one of our Creator’s greatest gifts. If you are preoccupied with addictive behavior, when will you live your life?

Three steps to overcome soft addictions:

1) Set firm, but doable guidelines. Make a contract with yourself; commit in writing to fixed limits on the behavior and sign your name at the bottom. Depending on the situation, you may want to specify a time frame for these limits, e.g., 30 days, after which you will reassess. Review this contract at the beginning of each day, until following these limits becomes automatic. For addictive behavior that is not essential for daily living, consider stopping it completely; depending on the situation, either stop “cold turkey” or use a “scheduled gradual reduction.

To strengthen your commitment:

Utilize your support network. If possible, share your commitment with family members, friends and mentors, as an added incentive to keep your word. Speak to them regularly to get the encouragement you need to stay the course, especially if your resolve wavers.

Stay away from temptation. Figure out which people, behavior, and situations frequently trigger the addictive urge. Stay away from them as much as you can. When possible, set up safeguards which keep you away from temptation. For example, for an internet related addiction, use software to moderate use (one option is the free program http://www.k9webprotection.com, see also http://www.guardyoureyes.org). Make staying away from temptation an ongoing habit to help prevent relapse.

Keep a journal, recording if you lapse. Include the date, what the lapse was, if you were able to minimize it, and if there were any triggers. Preferably, set up a weekly check-in with someone you respect to go over your journal; celebrate your successes and discuss any lapses. Or, you can commit to immediately email him or her if you lapse. Imagine the shame you will feel when you describe a lapse; that thought will often be enough to strengthen your resolve.

Reward yourself. In the beginning, pick small rewards to give yourself for each week you stick to your commitment and a larger reward for each month.

Overcoming addictions is challenging. Smokers attempt to quit, on average, eight to ten times before they are successful. For your own addiction, be prepared to fail, and be prepared to recommit and try harder each time.

Since G-d gave you this challenge, it is within your ability to triumph. He gave you this difficulty not because you are too weak to control yourself, rather, because you are strong enough to overcome and will be better off after doing so.

2) Find healthy alternatives. People engage in addictive behavior because there is a payoff: It temporarily numbs emotional pain, serves as an outlet for addictive energies and gives a short burst of pleasure. The next time you have a craving for an unhealthy behavior, recognize that this craving is the body’s maladaptive way of seeking a payoff and is to be ignored. The more you ignore the craving, overtime, the weaker it will become. Shift your focus to something else or choose from the list below of healthy substitutes.

Ways to soothe emotional pain: Talk out loud to G-d and express your pain to Him, recite Psalms with understanding, read inspirational stories, write in a journal, listen to soothing music, talk to a confidante or practice mindfulness meditation. A popular book on this topic is The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction: A Guide to Coping with the Grief, Stress and Anger that Trigger Addictive Behaviors by Rebecca E. Williams and Julie S. Kraft.

If you use addictions to distract yourself from an issue you need to address, seek guidance on how to deal with the underlying issue.

Outlets for addictive energies: Set a goal and work towards completing it, engage in creative activities, declutter or exercise.

Higher pleasures: Spend time with family and friends, volunteer, go to lectures, engage in fervent prayer and Torah study, preferably with a learning partner. You will then discover that higher pleasures are far deeper and longer lasting than lower ones.

3) Address your feeling of lack. Underlying most addictions is the feeling we lack something. We try to fill this void with addictive behavior. Usually we feel better for a short time and then the feeling of emptiness returns.

Next time you feel this lack, and your ego urges you, “I want___, I need it,” remind yourself that it is pointless to try to fill a hole that does not exist. Tell yourself, “This feeling that I need something I don’t have, is an illusion. G-d is giving me whatever I need for this moment. If I don’t have something, by definition, right now, I don’t need it. In this moment, I have enough.” Then, ask yourself, “Right now, what’s the best use of my time?” And turn your attention to something worthwhile and fulfilling.

There are two steps to dealing with the faulty thoughts of the ego. The first is to recognize them as dysfunctional thoughts to be ignored. The second is to shift gears to healthier thoughts and activities. Overtime, as erroneous thoughts are not acted upon or given credence, they will lesson in their frequency and intensity.

Temporary setbacks in overcoming a soft addiction are to be expected, but if after a month you have not made significant progress, then up the ante: Attend a 12-step group and preferably see a recommended therapist who specializes in addictions. Medications can also be helpful for addictive and compulsive behavior; you can discuss this with a psychiatrist.

In addition to material steps to address your addiction, call out to your Creator. Tell Him you realize you cannot do it alone. That you need His help to overcome this issue and that you will not stop asking, until His help arrives.

This article has been abridged. For the full version, see Yaakov’s new free e-book, Living with God: 30 Days to a Fulfilling Life.


Yaakov Weiland has an MSW from Fordham School of Social Service and lives in New York City. He has been published in The Jewish PressArutz-7and Aish.com. To read his other articles, please visit yaakovweiland.blogspot.com.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.