Zen Habits : I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
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You might have uttered the title of this post before — I know I did when I tried to quit smoking. And when I considered giving up meat, cheese, sugar, and more.
Quitting something can seem incredibly hard, so much so that we don’t even want to put ourselves through the suffering.
Have you tried giving up alcohol? Marijuana? Biting your nails? Complaining? Cigarettes? Junk food?
I can confirm that it’s hard to quit an addiction, but there are several things that stand in our way:
- The physical addiction — this is hard but it only lasts a few days. Fortunately, I can tell you that if you really put your mind to it, you can do anything hard for a few days.
- The reliance on it as a coping mechanism — this is a problem because we’re so used to using the addiction as a crutch when we’re stressed or sad or things are difficult or we need to socialize. Fortunately, there are plenty of other healthier ways to cope.
- You don’t believe you can do it. This is the worst one, because if you give in to this obstacle, the other two are not conquerable. Fortunately, this one is entirely self-caused, and so the solution is entirely within our hands.
Because it’s so important, we’re going to focus on the last obstacle first.
You Think You Can’t
You’ve heard of the Little Engine That Could … well, our brains are the opposite. They’re the little engines that think they can’t.
And they are amazing at rationalizing why.
Just try giving up something that you rely on (this is what my Year of Living Without is about). At first, you might start to think, “This isn’t too bad … in fact, I’m kinda excited about it!”
But then, when things get a bit difficult, your mind tends to think things like, “This is too hard! I can’t do it! I want to give up!” And then you start to ask, “Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Life is too short to suffer so much.” Then you think, “Just once, one little time, won’t matter. No one will know. One exception won’t hurt anything. It’s the long run that matters.”
Except that one exception does hurt. It leads you to the same rationalization the next time (“One more time won’t hurt”) and then in your mind, you’re not quitting anymore.
Our minds get in our way.
So what can we do? Well, luckily this is entirely fixable. We just have to 1) examine our beliefs, and 2) change them.
Yes, our beliefs are changeable. I know because I’ve changed numerous beliefs, and tested those new beliefs with self-experiments, and found the new ones to be true. The old beliefs will be true, too, if you believe them. Experience will bear out the beliefs getting in your way, if you believe them. But experience can prove better beliefs to be true too, if you’re willing to give them a try.
Let’s take some examples of beliefs that stand in our way:
- Old belief: I’m a smoker who is trying to quit but it’s hard. New belief: I don’t smoke. I’m a non-smoker. It’s who I am. (Change your self-identity.)
- Old belief: I can’t do it if it’s too hard. New belief: I’ve done hard things before. I can do this if it’s hard. In fact, I’ll take it as a personal challenge.
- Old belief: It won’t hurt to do it just once. New belief: It will hurt my trust in myself, which is more important to me than some momentary pleasure.
- Old belief: I need my ___ (cigarette, beer, meat, cheese, sweets). New belief: I don’t need it. It’s unnecessary and causing me harm.
- Old belief: I have a complicated emotional past with food and can’t do it. New belief: I can focus on the moment, instead of the past. I have the power to decide what goes in my mouth. It’s not complicated, it’s simple — one step at a time.
- Old belief: This makes me feel better (comforted, pleasured, joy, etc). New belief: It actually makes me feel worse. I don’t want to do that to myself. I’m going to love myself by doing things that are better for me.
These are only examples — there may be numerous other beliefs that you have about the issue of quitting. But you can’t change them if you don’t know they’re there. Pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself, examine your beliefs, and hold them lightly. They aren’t necessarily true — and in fact, I don’t believe they’re true at all.
It’s just the scared child in you wanting to be comforted.
The Physical Addiction
The suffering of withdrawing from physical addiction really only lasts a few days. I’ve seen it with alcohol and drug addiction (in others close to me) and I’ve gone through it with cigarettes. It’s a tough time.
But do you know what’s tougher? Going through pregnancy and labor (based on helping my wife through those), running a marathon or ultramarathon or doing some other physical challenge. Starting your own business or going on stage or cramming for the bar exam or going through a tough disease or helping a loved one who is dying or raising a child.
These are things many of us have done — not all of them, but perhaps one or two. And if you haven’t done these things, you’ve done other hard things. Hard things aren’t things to be dreaded. We can make it through them, and be stronger and better off having done it.
Some tips to get you through a hard few days of overcoming physical addiction:
- Be accountable. Tell others you’re doing it, and ask them to hold you accountable. Just telling them won’t get you through it, but knowing they’re watching and checking on you and encouraging you will.
- Have support. Ask a few close friends to support you. Call on them when you get strong urges. Ask for their help. Lean on them.
- Distract yourself. Keep yourself busy. Don’t dwell on the suffering. Do stuff.
- Create your environment. Get rid of the cigarettes or sugar. Don’t go out with friends if you’re trying to quit alcohol or cigarettes or junk food — just for a few days. Stock up on healthy stuff. Make your environment friendly to your change.
- Get good at getting through an urge. An urge isn’t an absolute command. It’s an itch. You can overcome it. Watch the urge, let it rise, and know that it will pass in a minute. Get through it. Then you’re good.
Find the strategies that work for you, but you can do it.
Your Coping Mechanism
One of the biggest problems with quitting an addiction is that you use it to cope with real problems. When you are stressed, or sick, or sad, or depressed, or going through a crisis, or lonely, or need to socialize in an uncomfortable situation … you use the addiction to cope.
But it’s only a crutch. You can cope without it. You just need to find new strategies.
A few strategies for coping that might help:
- Stress: I’ve learned to use exercise, meditation, and simplifying as ways to cope with stress. Going for a run or a walk have helped me tremendously. Talking to other people about your stressful problems also help. So does a mindful cup of tea.
- Sad: When I’m sad, I find things in my life to be grateful for. I connect with loved ones. I acknowledge my feelings and realize that it’s OK to be sad sometimes — it reminds you that you’re human. Then I take action and find something I’m passionate about.
- Lonely: Actually, while most people would seek the company of others (which isn’t a bad idea), I like to learn to keep myself company. I’m great company when I want to be — I play, I imagine, I write and read and meditate and learn.
- Crisis: When there’s a crisis, does leaning on an unhealthy addiction actually make it better? Only in that it gives you a temporary reprieve (going out to have a smoke or a drink) or temporary pleasure (having a cupcake or soda). They don’t take care of the problem, and can actually make it worse (try solving a crisis while inebriated). Instead, allow yourself the reprieve without the addiction — take a walk or meditate. Getting away from the crisis, even for a few minutes, can give you a breather and some perspective. Then figure out what you can do, let go of what you can’t control, and take one action.
- Need to socialize: Often we use smoking or drinking or eating as ways to lubricate awkward social situations. But they’re just crutches — you can actually do without them and get stronger without them. You can socialize without these things — try it once and see. You’ll get better at socializing if you do without the crutches.
- Sick: Unhealthy addictions don’t help you when you’re sick. Shoveling junk food into your face when you’re sick (I’ve done it many times) might make you feel comforted, but you aren’t doing your health any favors. Instead, nurture yourself. Give yourself some healthier food to fuel the healing process. Give yourself a rest, and a hug.
These strategies can work, if you believe you can do without the addictions. So go back to the previous section (You Think You Can’t) if you’re having troubles.
Quitting something can be hard, it’s true. But not quitting them is harder — you have to live with health problems (or other problems) for the rest of your life. That’s years of pain vs. a few days or weeks of struggle. To me, the choice is clear — choose yourself.