Many of my clients with addiction problems have asked why they often drink or use drugs when things are going well for them. “I can understand if I’d been feeling bad,” they say, “but why is it that when things are good I’d start using again?” There are many reasons and I am going to offer my views focusing on the aspects which I find particularly interesting.
Sometimes, we use the excuse of wanting to celebrate to go on a binge and end up abusing ourselves. This is not what I am addressing; here, the celebratory mood is likely to be forced just because we want an excuse to embark on our self-abusing behaviour. What I am addressing is when your life genuinely starts to look good and you’re feeling good, and then you choose an unhealthy habit and you end up sabotaging yourself.
A typical description sounds like this:
They’ve stopped using. They’ve been working out regularly, and their body is fitter and stronger. People are commenting on how good they look. They’ve learnt to take time out to relax and meditate. They feel more balanced emotionally and less prone to anxiety. They feel inspired and creative, perhaps picking up a project they had abandoned. Overall, they’re feeling good, probably the best they’ve felt in years. Their life is ripe with possibilities, all the things they’ve always wanted is within their reach…
Then all of a sudden, a thought comes into their head strong and clear: “I want to have a drink” or “I need to go on a hedonistic weekend.” With that, they embark on the old road of addiction and find themselves in that awful, familiar place – sabotaging all the good they’ve achieved. This happens not only for those addicted to substances; people also sabotage themselves this way in relationships and businesses. What is it that makes feeling good so difficult to bear?
Most of us have been programmed to expect pain. Therefore, when we find ourselves in the unfamiliar place of feeling good, we tend to sabotage it. If you’ve been struggling in a painful place for a long time, experiencing abundance would be a new concept for you. You’re simply not used to the feelings of having abundance.
This is similar to having ‘poverty consciousness’. You might have read statistics of people who won the lottery only to lose all the money they’ve won within a very short time. In wealth seminars, one of the things they get you to do is to raise your threshold for wealth – how much you believe you are worth deep down – so that you are driven to achieve more wealth and without sabotaging it. But what I’m addressing is the feelings itself that come from having good things. If feeling good is uncomfortable for you, you may need to raise your threshold for feeling good. To make changes, we need to first know where we’re at – where is your current threshold? How good can you stand?
If your self-concept does not fit into the concept of someone who experiences good, then you are likely to sabotage your situation so that it fits more into your concept of yourself as someone who is in pain – because no matter how good things have become, deep down it’s not what you’ve been programmed to achieve.
Perhaps you secretly believe that you deserve to be punished, and you’ve been dealing with deep-seated guilt and shame about who you are. If this rings true for you, perhaps now is the time to take a real hard look at what you believe about yourself and work to change those beliefs. Changing beliefs isn’t just about uttering positive statements to yourself over and over again – it involves the process of reconciling your relationship with yourself, making peace with yourself through forgiveness of yourself and/or others.
Another reason why we might sabotage ourselves is the fear of being disappointed – i.e. we believe that we won’t be able to sustain the good, so we preempt it being ended for us by ending it for ourselves. One or even a series of disappointments in the past does not mean that it is the most probable outcome for you now, unless you choose to perpetuate that story. It is fine to be cautious and learn from past mistakes, but it is defeatist to expect disappointment all the time.
We do this in our heads long before we act on it – i.e. we note the possibility of a positive outcome but we quickly thrash it down just in case we jinx it. There’s something almost superstitious about the way we think, as if the chance of us getting something good will be better if we don’t expect it. Actually the reverse is true: if we don’t hold a sense of expectancy for something good to happen, there won’t be a space for it to happen, because when the good things start to come you’re likely to miss recognising it and continue on a self-defeating path. Expectancy allows us to expand into the realm of positive outcomes, whereas expectation of disappointment closes off the door to this realm.
We fear the unknown. The unknown is neither destructive nor expansive, but it stores the potential of both. That’s why it’s so scary to think of stepping into the unknown. Yet we must be brave to step into the unknown in order to claim the joyous. We must allow ourselves to not know what form the positive outcome is going to look like and to just expect to be able to experience joyousness that can come in any form. The form is less important – what we can imagine right now is only limited, but the feelings of good can come from many, many different outcomes.
Every time you catch yourself taking a turn for the worse, through your own chosen behaviours, you mark that line that defines your feeling-good threshold. In time, you’ll develop a definite sense of that threshold. Next, you can stretch yourself to stay in the space of feeling good until it becomes more comfortable for you being in that space. We can get used to anything if we stayed in it long enough – after a while, our tolerance will increase and what used to be uncomfortable will become less so. With awareness that you’ve reached your threshold and that you are about to sabotage yourself but you’re choosing to stay in the space of feeling good, you can train yourself to stop reacting automatically and thus end up in a far better place for a prolonged period. Life gets better for you as you learn to enjoy positive experiences.