Wanting to Stop

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, gaming/attention to “devices”, 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.

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Petar Sardelich MFT/PT/MAC
    May 24, 2010 @ 05:56:45

    Great stuff LadyRay. Appreciate it because it's such a good way to learn how to live with stuff that is difficult, survive letting go of something, among other things. Thanks for coming back and following up.


  2. LadyRayCello
    May 23, 2010 @ 16:39:26

    metta. Lovingkindness meditation. It's pretty simple, but it's really important to send lovingkindness to oneself.So…. it goes like this. You can either sit, stand, walk, or lie down. But you gotta be present. Then say to yourself, "May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be free from harm, may I seek peace." At first it may just sound like some sort of affirmation or determination to "make it okay," but I think the use of "may I" is what it makes it seem not so contrived. It's more of an invitation to be happy/healthy/free/peaceful. It also doesn't assume that everything is okay and perfect but that it's possible to turn things around. I took a great metta workshop with a wonderful teacher in Boston and I found it to be helpful. Used it a lot when I was dealing with family stuff too (sending them metta, etc). Hope that helps.


  3. Petar Sardelich MFT/PT/MAC
    May 22, 2010 @ 02:06:33

    Thanks Anon. Really kind of you to say so. Am on a mission to put myself out of a job by making sure people get taken care of, and have some principles that they can use and not need me any more. So as I go along, will do my best to share about interesting stuff that comes up.


  4. Anonymous
    May 21, 2010 @ 19:42:36

    Hello Doc,Just finished reading your May blogs.One word, "Invaluable."The words you shared with me during first session with you (Wed pm) make a world more sense. Thanks.


  5. Petar Sardelich MFT/PT/MAC
    May 18, 2010 @ 23:00:23

    Thanks LadyRay. Love the idea of meditation in this context. Much maligned, and thus overlooked tool, because of how difficult it can be. I think it reveals a lot about what we're struggling with underneath behaviors we're trying to let go of, and can teach us a lot about grace with our own experience.Mind saying what you've been doing, and/or what has been helpful in that way? (sort of "cheating" here, because I already know you have a lot of good things to say on the matter)


  6. LadyRayCello
    May 17, 2010 @ 14:35:51

    meditation…. metta….


  7. Petar Sardelich MFT/PT/MAC
    May 16, 2010 @ 01:08:31

    Appreciate it. As much as I hope it helpful, also a reminder to me that the practical stuff is really important, and can be overlooked. While I really enjoy doing "depth" related work, I have to remind myself that sometimes the practical measures are the most important at the time.Have any ideas I missed?


  8. BOC
    May 15, 2010 @ 23:22:43

    What excellent guidance. Spot on..Thanks..


  9. BOC
    May 15, 2010 @ 18:08:45

    What a great post. Such practical and effective ways of supporting unwanted behaviors. Thanks for sharing.


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