Have had several people in the last week ask me specific questions about wanting to stop (sometimes called “abstaining” or “cessation”) doing some “behavior”. Drinking, smoking, gambling, over/undereating (or not at all), self-harm behaviors (cutting, burning oneself etc), “codependent” behaviors, controlling behaviors, manipulating, even saying or thinking certain things and more. While some of these require more intense interventions (stopping alcohol or drug use for instance would require medical intervention), some other behaviors can be stopped or minimized by other means.
Though we (therapists) are oft charged with the responsibility of helping clients stop these behaviors, we’re not always direct about how to help someone do so. There are real-world, practical means of helping us stop these kinds of behaviors. It should be noted though: in many cases, these are caused by unresolved emotions. It’s really important to note this, because no intervention we might suggest will work if there is a sufficient mental/emotional/”spiritual” and/or physical prompt to do so. Or more simply and by way of example, if someone is suffering enough emotionally (or otherwise), no intervention will stop the behavior. The feelings (even if physical) have to be transformed/diminished enough for the intervention to work.
These things in mind, here’s some ideas. Some of them are direct, some of them will take hold over time:
1. Pay attention to how we feel.
2. Ask ourselves, “Am I mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt right now? What ‘possible reality’ does this indicate?”
3. Putting off the behavior. For example, “I’ll _________ (smoke, drink, gamble, eat, etc…) an hour/day/week/month from now.”
4. Context. This isn’t just a principle. It can be practical. Asking, “What am I supposed to be, or supposed to be intending to do right here, right now?”
5. Service. Finding a way to be of help to another person.
6. 12 step program attendance/participation.
7. Saying the “Serenity Prayer“. Even if not “prayerful” people, this can be a form of self-talk (the word “God” can also be removed). For things we’re “powerless” over, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things, I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” makes us mindful of principles and behaviors that can also help with abstinence.
8. Speaking of praying (or doing self-talk)- praying for the obsession to have __________ (smoking, drinking, gambling, eating etc) be removed, helps. “Please remove from me the obsession to stop _________.”
9. If that is hard, praying/self-talking for the willingness to stop __________.
10. Calling someone. This, to me, is one of the most powerful tools. Having someone who knows what we are working on that we can call when considering the behavior to: pull our covers (so to speak), have them talk us out of it, and/or “be” with us as we struggle with the feelings of letting go of the behavior can be pretty powerful.
11. A different item from the above- calling that someone as a pre-emptive strike. Meaning, calling them when we might be in a situation this will come up, before we go do the thing we have to do.
12. Make a list of the times these things (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc) occur most frequently. Take that list, and either apply the things above (and below) to those circumstances if you HAVE to be there for these instances, and or use the list to avoid those times entirely.
13. Write a list of the negative consequences of the acting out behavior.
14. Maybe most important, is simply identifying the issues (even by making a list, which we will also do in a formalized way) that have prompted us to operate this way, and have an organized means of getting through these (which therapists are charged with the responsibility of).
15. Based on that list of things/people/circumstances that get us in trouble, have a list of replacement behaviors. For example, I know I shouldn’t be __________ (smoking, drinking, gambling, eating etc), so, I’m going to go to church/support group/call my friend/read this book/exercise/take a walk/write about it and more etc.
16. Speaking of writing: when “tempted” to do the behavior, write about it. That’s pretty common information from most therapists. However, I think it doesn’t go far enough, unless you read this to your therapist and/or a loving friend and/or a sponsor (if one attends a 12-step program), priest, pastor, and etc. Maybe more than one of these people.
17. Putting a rubber band around our wrist, and giving it a gentle snap when considering doing the behavior.
18. Making a “fund” for the behavior- putting a pre-determined amount of money in a jar when we do the behavior (or consider it maybe), and donating it to a charity or some related idea.
19. “Play the record through.” All the way through. Consider every step of what will happen, what it leads to, and its consequences.
Again, I want to reiterate that no amount of ideas to “stop” a behavior (that we do in our heads or outside of them, so to speak) will be sufficient without working through the attendant (and/or consequential) emotions that come with them. Those are really strong reasons pointing to the idea of having a therapist that can help use these kinds of tools (and more), and walk through the related issues. It’s important too that many types of concerns will require medical attention by a physician with experience with the specific problem. Good luck with any of these efforts…
Post Script: It should be noted that the soul of such things is what Carl Jung would have called “illegitimate suffering”- meaning, we do these things as an alternative to simply feeling whatever we feel when we don’t do the behavior. One of the things we do these over is feeling “bad” (about ourselves), broken, less than, “not enough” and the other variations on that theme. Often, if we do the behavior we’re trying to stop, we feel those very things (“bad”, broken, etc). As we often do the behavior to diminish or eradicate feeling those things, then we feel those very things for doing the behavior. Simplifying: I feel “broken”, less-than, etc, I do a behavior to not feel that way, then feel “broken” (less-than, etc) for doing the behavior. It sets up a vicious cycle, a repetitive cycle.
Where I’m going with this is, if you happen to do the thing you’ve been trying to stop, “beating yourself up” for doing the behavior may be the very thing that prompts you to do it again.