Paste your Google Webmaster Tools verification code here

How to Overcome Barriers to Forgiveness

This article was written by Linda Graham, MFT and was reprinted with her permission.

It’s hard to let go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing. What barriers stand in the way of forgiveness—and how can we overcome them?

Laurie and Jamie sat in my office a few months ago, locked in an impasse all too common in couples therapy. The previous week, Laurie discovered that Jamie had done the seemingly unforgivable: He had had a brief fling with the new administrative assistant in his office while Laure was out of town visiting her ailing father. Jamie was genuinely remorseful, but he also carried a grudge of his own about Laurie’s repeated overspending on their credit card, despite his many requests to stay within their agreed upon budget.

We all know how painful it feels to suffer these kinds of hurts, betrayals, or abuse—and to have this pain harden into lasting grudges or resentments. I’ve spent 20 years helping couples like Laurie and Jamie recover a sense of trust after they have violated their vows or broken their agreements. In that time, I’ve found that helping people understand each other’s underlying motivations is crucial to repairing a rupture between them.

But I’ve also learned that helping people forgive each other is essential, even when there is good reason to resist. Indeed, study after study has suggested that being unable to forgive these past wrongs can wreak havoc on our mental and physical health.

Forgiveness is the practice of letting go of the suffering caused by someone else’s wrongdoing (or even our own). It does not mean excusing, overlooking, forgetting, condoning, or trivializing the harm or jumping to a premature or superficial reconciliation; it doesn’t necessarily require reconciliation at all. Instead, it involves changing our relationship to an offense through understanding, compassion, and release. Two decades of social psychology research have repeatedly demonstrated the emotional, physical, and social benefits of forgiveness. True forgiveness repairs relationships and restores inner well-being.

Yet we often find it hard to let go, forgive, and move on. According to research, even when we can feel compassion and empathy for the person who harmed us, we can remain stuck in fear or hostility for days, months, even years.

Why is something so good for us so hard to do? That’s the questions Ian Williamson at New Mexico Highlands University and Marti Gonzales at the University of Minnesota have explored through research on the psychological impediments to forgiveness.

In a recent study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, Williamson, Gonzales, and colleagues identify three broad categories of “forgiveness aversion.” Traditionally, ideas for helping one person to forgive another have implied either expanding one’s empathy or compassion for the offender or “distancing,” not taking things so personally. But their research on forgiveness aversion suggests another approach: Forgiveness comes not necessarily by appealing to kindness or compassion but by addressing the victim’s fears and concerns. Williamson and Gonzales’ research suggests how to work with perceived risks to forgiveness and to move toward forgiveness in a safe and genuine way.

Below I offer a brief tour of the three barriers to forgiveness, along with ways to overcome them, drawing on research and my own clinical experience with hundreds of couples and individuals. Understanding these barriers to forgiveness can be very useful to clinicians and to anyone who has ever struggled to forgive—in other words, most of us.

Barrier #1: Unreadiness

The first block is “unreadiness,” which Williamson and Gonzales define as an inner state of unresolved emotional turmoil that can delay or derail forgiveness. People can feel stuck in a victim loop, ruminating on the wrongs done to them by another person or by life, and be unable to shift their perspective to a larger view, to find the meaning, purpose, lessons, and possibilities for change from the events.

Who is most likely to experience unreadiness? Williamson and Gonzales found that people’s tendencies to be anxious and ruminate on the severity of the offending behavior reliably predicted an unreadiness to forgive. People showed more reluctance to move toward forgiveness especially when they held a fear that the offense would be repeated,

How can we overcome the barrier of unreadiness?Williamson and Gonzales’ research validates the folk wisdom that “time heals all wounds” and establishes the importance of not rushing the process, not coming to forgiveness too quickly. Certainly the passage of time is an important factor in helping people get some distance from the initial pain, confusion, and anger; it helps the offender establish a track record of new trustworthy behavior and helps the victim reframe the severity of the injury in the larger context of the entire relationship.

Over the three months that I worked with Laurie and Jamie, I saw them confront and ultimately overcome the barrier of unreadiness. In taking that much time, Laurie was able to place Jamie’s transgression in the context of a 17-year marriage that had already survived even greater challenges than Jamie’s one night of out-of-bounds behavior. And over time, Jamie was able to trust the turn-around in Laurie’s spending habits, relaxing his vigilance about her every move.

Tips to Overcome Unreadiness

1. Recall the moment of wrongdoing you are struggling to forgive. “Light up the networks” of this memory by evoking a visual image, noticing emotions that arise as your recall this memory, notice where you feel those emotions in your body as contraction, heaviness, churning. Notice your thoughts about yourself and the other person now as you evoke this memory. Let this moment settle in your awareness.

2. Begin to reflect on what the lessons of this moment might be: what could you have done differently? What could the other person have done differently? What would you differently from now on? When we can turn a regrettable moment into a teachable moment, when we can even find the gift in the mistake, we can open our perspectives again to the possibilities of change, and forgiveness.

Barrier #2: Self-Protection

The second block to forgiveness is “self-protection”—a fear, very often legitimate, that forgiveness will backfire and leave the person offering forgiveness vulnerable to further harm, aggression, violation of boundaries, exploitation, or abuse.

Who is most likely to experience self-protection? People who have experienced repeatedly harmful behavior, and lack of remorse or apology for that behavior, are most likely to resist forgiving the offending party, according to the research by Williamson and Gonzales. In fact, they found that even the strongest motivation to forgive—to maintain a close relationship—can be mitigated by the perceived severity of the offense and/or by a perceived lack of sincere apology or remorse. Refusing to forgive is an attempt to re-calibrate the power or control in the relationship.

According to their study, one of the hardest decisions people ever face about forgiveness is: Can I get my core needs met in this relationship? Or do I need to give up this relationship to meet my core needs, including needs for safety and trust? The ongoing behavior of the offender is key here. If the hurtful behavior continues, if any sense of wrongdoing is denied, if the impact of the behavior is minimized, if the recipient’s sense of self continues to be diminished by another, or trust continues to be broken, or the victim continues to be blamed for the offender’s behavior—if someone experiences any or all of these factors, then forgiveness can start to feel like an impossible, if not a stupid, thing to do.

How can we overcome the barrier of self-protection?“Victims may be legitimately concerned that forgiveness opens them up to further victimization,” write the researchers. “Intriguingly, when people perceive themselves to be more powerful in their relationship, they are more likely to forgive, perhaps because they have fewer self-protection concerns in their relationships with their offenders.”

In other words, people sometimes have understandable fears that offering forgiveness will be (mis)interpreted by the offender as evidence that they can get away with the same behavior again. People very often need to learn they have the right to set and enforce legitimate boundaries in a relationship. Forgiveness can also involve not being in a relationship with the offender any longer or changing the rules and power dynamics for continuing the relationship.

Only when Laurie stopped her overspending and came to respect Jamie’s limits on their monthly budget could Jamie relax his need for self-protection and offer genuine forgiveness for Laurie’s past transgressions. When Laurie could again trust the sincerity of Jamie’s remorse and apology over his betrayal, and trust that indeed the behavior would never happen again, she could relax her need for self-protection and forgive.

How to Set Limits

1. Identify one boundary you’ve been reluctant to set with the person you are struggling to forgive.

2. Clarify in your own mind how setting this limit reflects and serves your own values, needs, and desires. Reflect on your understanding of the values and desires of the other person. Notice any common ground between the two of you; notice the differences.
3. Initiate the conversation about limits with the other person. Begin by expressing your appreciation for him or her listening to you. State the topic; state your understanding of your own needs and of theirs.
4. State the terms of your limit, simply, clearly, unequivocally. You’ve already stated the values, needs and desires behind the limit; you do not have to justify, explain or defend your position. State the consequences for the relationship if this limit is not respected.
5. Negotiate with the other person what behaviors they can do, by when, to demonstrate that they understand your limit, the need for it, the benefit of it.
6. At the end of the specified “test” period, discuss with your person the changes in the relationship, if the limit was respected, or the next step in consequences if the limit is not respected. You may have to repeat this exercise many times to shift the dynamics in your relationship.

Barrier #3: “Face” Concerns

The third block is “face” concerns—what we might call the need to save face in front of other people and protect one’s own public reputation, as well as avoid threats to one’s own self-concept—i.e, feeling that “I’m a pushover” or “I’m a doormat.”

As social beings, we’re primed to not want to appear weak or vulnerable or pathetic in front of other people. We will protect ourselves from feeling inner shame in many ways, which may include a reluctance to forgive. Researchers have also found that hanging on to a grudge can give people a sense of control in their relationships; they may fear that forgiveness will cause them to lose this “social power.” If our concerns about saving face foster a desire to retaliate or seek vengeance rather than forgive, we may need to re-strengthen our inner sense of self-worth and self-respect before forgiveness can be an option.

Who is most likely to experience face concerns? People who feel their self-worth has been diminished by the offense, or who experience a threat to their sense of control, belonging, or social reputation, or even feel a need for revenge, are more likely to experience the face concerns that could block forgiveness. “To the extent that victims fear that they may appear weak by forgiving, and are concerned with projecting an image of power and interpersonal control, they should feel more averse to the prospect of forgiving,” write the researchers.

How can we overcome the barrier of face concerns? Very often people who have been hurt by another need to recover their own sense of self-respect and self-worth to create the mental space where forgiveness looks like a real option. We need to develop and maintain an inner subjective reality—a sense of self—that is independent of other people’s negative opinions and expectations of us. Good friends, trusted family members, therapists, or clergy can be very helpful in functioning as a True Other to someone’s True Self—they’re figures who can help generate a more positive sense of self.

How to See Yourself

1. Sit comfortably, allowing your eyes to gently close. Focus your attention on your breathing.

2. When you’re ready, bring to mind someone in your life in whose presence you feel safe. This person could be a dear friend, a therapist, a teacher, a spiritual figure, your own wiser self.
3. Imagine yourself sitting with this person face-to-face. Visualize the person looking at you with acceptance and tenderness, appreciation and delight. Feel yourself taking in his or her love and acceptance of you.
4. Now imagine yourself being the other person, looking at yourself through his or her eyes. Feel that person’s love and openness being directed toward you. See in yourself the goodness the other person sees in you. Savor this awareness of your own goodness.
5. Now come back to being yourself. You are in your own body again, experiencing the other person looking at you again, with so much love and acceptance. Notice how and where you feel that love and acceptance in your body – as a smile, as a warmth in your heart – and savor it.
6. Take a moment to reflect on your experience. You are recovering a positive view of your own self again. Set the intention to remember this feeling when you need to.

Laurie and Jamie had kept their struggles private from friends or family, so they didn’t have strong face concerns about social reputations. But they did need to move beyond the shaming-blaming behaviors prevalent when they first came into couples therapy. They had to work on not taking things so personally and on feeling appreciated and worthy in each other’s eyes again before they could move toward forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. It takes sincere intention and diligent practice over time. But overcoming reluctance, even refusal, to forgive can be facilitated by understanding these specific aversions to forgiveness, and by implementing strategies to address these barriers skillfully.

Originally published at Greater Good.

How Does Addiction Happen?

This article was written by Jennifer Fernandez, PhD, from the Pathways Institute.

Although we don’t fully understand addiction, there are lots of theories that attempt to explain it. The most popular one is the disease model. It explains that addiction has a biological origin that causes changes in the brain. This model also accounts for the heredity of addiction, or genetic predisposition. Studies of twins who have been separated at birth show that they are likely to develop addictions, despite growing up in different home environments.

You may have also heard addiction described as a hijacker of the reward center of the brain. Brain imaging studies show that overuse of drugs or compulsive behaviors “hijack” the reward system and can lead to changes in the brain that make it difficult to experience pleasure as one did before.

Then there’s the self-medication hypothesis. It posits that people use drugs to help them cope with physical and/or emotional pain. It helps explain why people turn to specific drugs or compulsive behaviors to help them deal with things like depression, chronic pain, trauma, or grief.

But the best way to explain addiction is as a biopsychosocial phenomenon. We know that addiction has a biological component. It causes temporary and permanent changes in the brain and body. We also know there is a psychological component: an inability to cope with distressing emotions. The social component of addiction is related to peer culture, as they influence what you use, how you use it, or how (not) to deal with your emotions.

In the question about nature versus nurture, the answer might just be nature and nurture. Drugs affect us biologically and we may even be genetically predisposed to those effects. In addition to that, your parents, family, friends, or lovers may have modeled addictive behaviors or inability to cope with emotions in a healthy manner.

Jennifer Fernandez, PhD

Warning: Being Bad Can Feel So Good

Recently, researchers Nicole Ruedy, Francesca Gino, Celia Moore, and Maurice Schweitzer, at the University of Washington, the London Business School, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania published an article titled The Cheater’s High: The Unexpected Affective Benefits of Unethical Behavior in the The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Conventional theories of moral behavior and decision making assume that unethical behavior triggers negative emotions, and indeed, when participants in the study were interviewed before the study, they themselves reported an expectation that if they were to act unethically, they would feel guilty about it. These theories help support the idea that we are internally motivated to do the right thing, because it makes us feel bad not to.

But when put to the test, so to speak, the people who cheated actually experienced an immediate boost in emotion, which the researchers termed a “cheaters high.” The researchers went on to say that once people have this experience, it may be difficult to resist future unethical behavior, especially when someone can “derive both material and psychological rewards” from the behavior.

Those of us working in the field of “process addictions” or compulsive behaviors (such as compulsive stealing or sexual behavior, gambling, compulsive eating, etc) are certainly not surprised by these results – it validates the behavior we see all of the time. Indeed, many of the people we see are they themselves flummoxed by their own behavior – they don’t understand why they continue to repeat a behavior they don’t feel good about and goes against their morals, beliefs, and even self-image, and wreaks havoc in their lives.

The short answer, which these researchers have validated, is that they do it because in the moment it feels good. It gives the person a boost and if that person is feeling depressed, anxious, having difficulty coping, can’t assert what they need and want in a healthy way, etc. this little boost is a way to escape all of that, for a moment. And the escape works, which is why when all of the negative feelings return (which they always do, in addition to the feelings of shame due to the behavior), eventually the desire to do it again comes back, and thus the compulsion is born.

This important study helps to explain how and why motivation, behavior, and feelings don’t always align with morals and values. It also helps to make a case for treatment for people who compulsively repeat these behaviors; they need help with a transformation that will give them a deeper, longer-lasting experience of happiness, so they can give up the “boost” of the “cheater’s high.”

Samantha Smithstein, PsyD

The Myth of the Average

The following is an interview Todd Rose, faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Square Peg, and co-founder of Project Variability. In his recent Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average he explains the myth of the average and how it harms kids in the education system by depriving them of learning, and our society as a whole, robbing us of needed talent and creativity.

We found his work to be highly relevant to the work we do at Pathways Institute, where it is part of our stated mission to help all children “function at their highest level and bring their unique gifts to the world.” We began the interview by asking him about the Myth of the Average:

 

L. TODD ROSE:  The Myth of Average is a belief that’s been prominent in most sciences and in education. It’s the belief that we can use statistical averages to understand individuals. Scientists have come to realize that it’s a myth, and over the last 10 years have been moving from averages to individuals, so for example we’re hearing a lot of things like ‘personalized medicine.’  Unfortunately, education has not quite realized the myth yet, and so what we have is a situation where not only do we accept the idea of designing something for the individual based on the average, we actually promote it.  The myth is that the average is fits for most people, when, in fact, it doesn’t.

Interviewer:  And how does that hurt us?

L. TODD ROSE:  When it comes to designing environments it hurts us in two ways.  As I said in my TEDX talk, the first is that you can be incredibly talented in one area, but average or below average in another. For example, say you’re really gifted in math, but you are an average or below average reader. The way our education system is designed will make it very hard for us to be able to get at your talent, because even in math class many of the problems are reading problems, so the reading problem can mask what you’re really good at.

The second way it hurts us is that someone can be unbelievably gifted in something, but their environment won’t challenge them because it’s teaching to the average. They end up getting on-board and doing only what they are supposed to. In this way, designing environments to averages end up hurting even our best and brightest.

Interviewer:  So how does that play itself out in our everyday world?  How are these problems going to effect all of us, even if they don’t harm us personally?

L. TODD ROSE:  Good question.  To me, the effect of the Myth of the Averages is even broader than education.  It’s really about how we develop our current and future talent pool, and as you know we have big challenges in our society and need all of the talent and creativity we can get.

We already have all the raw talent that we need! If you think about something as big as finding a cure for cancer, we need as many people who have the talent and the work ethic becoming scientists and chasing down this problem as possible.  But if we design our educational environment so that an individual’s limitations make it almost impossible for us to get to their talents, then we are going to lose a whole bunch of talented individuals, and in my mind we’re in danger of losing the cure for cancer.  If we extend this myth of averages all the way it has very serious implications, because when we studied cancer on the average, it led us to conclusions that were not helping us actually cure people.  And since we’ve gone away from average and started studying cancer, individual cancer, we’ve made great progress.

The workforce environment is not dissimilar. We’re trying to get people to be the most productive and effective person they can be. But if the environment is designed around averages, it makes people less efficient, less creative. So, you know, in every sector of society this idea of average has turned out to be a sort of barrier to advancement.

Interviewer: I see.  And so what does Ban the Average mean?

L. TODD ROSE:  Well, to me it’s step one of a two-step process that gets us away from this average and toward helping our institutions become institutions of opportunity that can actually nurture individuals.  So Ban the Average is the first step. It’s about helping people realize the average really is the problem. We can’t move forward until we realize that.

The phrase “Ban the Average” comes from the Air Force, which gained insight about the Myth of Average 60 years ago, when cockpits, jumpsuits, and instruction was designed for the mythical average person.  They they realized it was a problem, and even though they didn’t really know what the solution was that didn’t stop them from saying, ‘You know what?  We know the average is hurting our performance and shrinking our talent pool, so we’re going to ban the use of average.’ That initial step was enough to make a signal to the market that things were going to change, and it forced designers and entrepreneurs to create better solutions.  So we can talk about solutions, which is ultimately what needs to be done, but until we have the common understanding that the myth of average is a problem we’re not going to get very far.  So Ban the Average is the first step.

Interviewer:  And how does Project Variability fit into this?

L. TODD ROSE:  Project Variability is an enabling organization.  We see this emerging new science of the individual and we have the knowledge that we to be able to create an environment that understands individuals and nurtures individual potential.  At the same time, we’re seeing a massive shift toward technology in every sector of society, from workforce to science, and in education.  So we see a wonderful opportunity to combine those two in ways that enable us to do things that are almost magical, quite honestly, and that won’t actually cost more money. We can do things in education today that we only dreamed of before.  But it requires making good choice.

What we realized as a team was that those choices are rarely going to be made on their own because people in all parts of the current system have an interest in keeping the status quo.  What we’ve decided to do is be an organization that exists solely to initiate the transition from average to individual.  We’re doing it as a messaging campaign: to communicate to the public so people understand what’s possible and what to ask for, to ultimately create the demand. At the same time, we’re going to enable scientists and entrepreneurs to create solutions that will meet the demand. The truth is, is we exist to put ourselves out of business.  We just need to change the demand structure and help create some new solutions. At that point our goals have been met.

We highly recommend you watch Todd Rose’s Sonoma TedX talk “Ban the Average.

And a special thank you to Peter Dippery of Fuse Media for help making this interview possible.

This is your brain on dope(amine)

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for movement, pleasure, motivation, and cognitive processes, such as learning. For the purposes of understanding its role in addiction, let’s concentrate on pleasure and motivation.

Whenever we do something that propagates the advancement of our species, dopamine is released in order to motivate repetition of the action. When we sleep, eat, and have sex dopamine is released in our brain and the message is, “That was great, do it again!” We also release dopamine whenever we find something pleasurable. Be it 18th century poetry, heroin, or Radiohead, our brain will release dopamine to encode the stimulus as something that brings us pleasure.

Dopamine not only serves to categorize the good things we encounter in life, it also programs our pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in judgement and decision making) to alert us when the pleasurable stimulus is available. If your brain cells could talk, it might sound something like, “OMG! There’s a flyer on that lamppost for a Radiohead concert. Go look at it!” In other words, we become hyperaware of opportunities for engaging in behaviors that bring us pleasure. In fact, a study on people with alcoholism found they were more likely to spot alcoholic beverages in a busy photograph than people who don’t have problems with alcohol.

When we consume substances, it makes us feel good because our brains release dopamine, but drugs elicit a higher amount of dopamine release than is necessary. This is part of what causes experiences of euphoria and feeling high. Sometimes the amount of dopamine released is so great, the chemicals in our brain become unbalanced and we may experience hangover or withdrawal. In time, our brain regains chemical equilibrium. However, if one abuses substances, the brain may develop a tolerance (meaning the person needs to use greater amounts to get high) or dependence on the substance as a source of dopamine. If one becomes dependent on a drug, it may take some time for the brain to regain equilibrium and the person may experience extreme physical discomfort and emotional distress when they aren’t using. The period of re-calibration depends on the amount, type, and frequency of the drug used. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to be under medical supervision and receive support from friends, family, and a mental health professional if you’re dependent on a drug and want to stop or decrease your use.

The mechanism of tolerance is also evident in impulse control disorders, such as sex addiction, kleptomania, and compulsive gambling. Although it doesn’t appear that persons with an impulse control disorder undergo the same intensity of withdrawal that persons addicted to substances experience, there can certainly be a period of re-calibration of dopamine receptors during which a person feels irritable and agitated after stopping a behavior.

Based on the information presented here, we can conclude that we are all hard-wired to potentially become addicts and you may be asking yourself, “If this is true, why do some people become addicted and others don’t?” This is a really good question and the answer is “We don’t really know.” We can predict the likelihood of someone becoming an addict based on factors such as first age of substance use and family history of addiction, and we know that a lack of social support and coping strategies (especially when coupled with mental illness) can also lead to addiction, but there is no conclusive answer to date.

The best ways to prevent addiction are to educate yourself about the substances you use (or to abstain from substance use altogether) and to be mindful about the choices you make. If you have a mental illness, ensuring that you are getting appropriate treatment and maintaining social support are good preventative measures.

Jennifer Fernandez, PhD

We Admitted We Were Powerless

The very first step of every 12-Step program begins with these words – an admission of powerlessness. For many people, that very first step makes participation in a 12-Step program very difficult and with good reason: powerlessness is an uncomfortable feeling and not one that most people seek out or admit to.

In fact, most of us spend a great deal of energy, time, and effort attempting to try to control things and other people in our lives. We work hard to try to create a life of happiness, as we should. However, these efforts often involve trying to gain control over something we don’t have control of, like an addiction. Other times, the efforts involve trying to change or control other people who are in our lives. And understandably, because the people in our lives – their choices and behaviors – affect us; sometimes profoundly.

But when we stop and look at how effective our efforts are to bend others’ actions to our will – when we really examine how well our efforts to control things go – we find that, in fact, we cannot figure out a way to make others be or do what we want. We discover that using all of our efforts to control someone so they don’t cause us pain doesn’t, in fact, protect us. As the program of Alanon says: we don’t cause the behavior of others, we can’t control it, and we can’t “fix” it. Trying to do so simply makes our life feel unmanageable and increases our unhappiness.

Acknowledging that we are powerless is not about acknowledging that we are weak. Instead it acknowledges what is true, and allows us to focus on the things that we can control and the person who we can help: ourselves. Acknowledging the ways we are powerless also allows us to be more accepting of others, and to find a more peaceful way of being in the world and in relationships.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Helen Keller

Enjoy Your Life

Sometimes change is simple, even if it’s not easy

Enjoy your life and be happy. Being happy is of the utmost importance. Success in anything is through happiness. More support of nature comes from being happy. Under all circumstances be happy, even if you have to force it a bit to change some long standing habits.

Just think of any negativity that comes at you as a raindrop falling into the ocean of your bliss. You may not always have an ocean of bliss, but think that way anyway and it will help it come. Doubting is not blissful and does not create happiness. Be happy, healthy and let all that love flow through your heart.

— Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

 

To many, this quote by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi may seem trite, or overly simplistic. And indeed, there are times when we need more than this to create happiness—we may to make changes in our lives or our behaviors, we may need insight and/or healing. We may need transformation through meditation, psychotherapy, or relationship before we can apply new ways of thinking effectively.

However, there is a basic truth to the above quote, as evidenced by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT); a psychotherapeutic approach that addresses dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and cognitions through a goal-oriented, systemic process. It is also evidenced through programs such as the 12-Step programs, which helps its members transform, in part, through addressing habits of thought. Programs such as this address a basic truth in the same way Maharishi does: habits of thought create an experience in life, and sometimes we have to consciously change those habits in order to create a different experience, one of happiness.

Addiction or Excuse?

Public shaming is counterproductive and simply wrong.

Whether it’s food, alcohol, or sex, there are a number of people who react strongly to hearing that someone has engaged in self-destructive behaviors because they are an addict by saying, “Don’t use addiction as an excuse for your behavior! Take responsibility!”

This concept of an “addiction excuse” is relatively new, and while it captures the imagination of those who are hurt, angry, or frustrated by the behavior of an addict, or by someone who lacks basic understanding of addiction, it simply doesn’t hold water for people who are addicts or those who work with people who struggle with addiction. People who speak about addiction as a “convenient excuse for bad behavior” or a “way to not take responsibility,” don’t comprehend what addiction is, and what the experience is like for the person who struggles with it.

Addiction is a psychological and physiological disorder. Even for “process addictions” such as those related to eating, sugar, sex, gambling, and stealing, there is strong scientific evidence that the neurological pathways related to dopamine are activated similarly to an addiction to cocaine. So addiction is not something made up by people to explain something away, it is a real condition, with both biological and psychological underpinnings.

For the vast majority of people who suffer from an addiction or impulse control disorder, acknowledging an addiction is one of the most difficult steps they will ever take. Most are in denial for years, believing in the “free will” that addiction naysayers speak about; addicts want to believe they are in control, and can stop any time they want. Many struggle for years to gain that control and feel deep shame when they fail, again and again.

Acknowledging an addiction, therefore, is an incredibly important first step. No problem can be solved if the problem is not acknowledged. Until someone admits, “I have lost control of this situation and can’t stop myself,” they cannot possibly be open to learning and working on the steps it takes to change their behavior. To the addict, acknowledging an addiction may be the most difficult, shameful, and scary step they take … but is also a crucial first step in saving his or her life. In fact, rather than being about shirking responsibility, acknowledging an addiction is the first step to taking responsibility.

As a society, we must stop shaming them further by telling them that acknowledging their addiction is an “excuse” and that they should “take responsibility for acting badly” and just feel ashamed. Instead, addicts must be supported in their first step and invited to take the many steps— psychological, physiological, spiritual, and emotional—that must take place for them to become well.

It may be that part of what people are reacting to is the overwhelming list of addictions that we hear about these days. People have begun to feel as if it is an overused term, and that there simply can’t be so many people in our society addicted to so many different things. Sadly, this is also not something that is made up. It doesn’t take much work to look around and see the sheer numbers of people who are addicted to food, shopping, electronics, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and the myriad of ways available to us to avoid the profoundly beautiful but sometimes acutely painful process of being human.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

We may be human, but we are also animals

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been around for a long time and has shown significant success in use for the treatment of difficult to treat disorders such as depression, impulse disorders, addictions, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and others.  That said, for those of us who are deep thinkers – who are always asking “But why?” – the idea of changing our lives for the better by simply changing the way we think or behave feels superficial, overly simplistic, or even distasteful.

In truth, there are values to all types of therapy, and because of this many therapists who consider themselves to be psychodynamic and relationship-focused have incorporated techniques that involve CBT – especially the “cognitive” part that addresses reflexive thinking.  But research continues to demonstrate that behavioral modification techniques can help a great deal – for people of all ages.  In spite of wanting to use our capacity for insight, thought, and reasoning to place ourselves above our fellow animals, it turns out we are also subject to the same basic behavioral conditioning that teaches a dog to “sit” using a treat, or training a cat to stay off the dining room table by using a squirt gun.

An example of this was demonstrated in recent research published in Psychological Science.  University of Amsterdam experimental psychologist Reinout W. Wiers and his associates had alcoholics practice “pushing away” images of alcohol with a joystick when they appeared.  When studied originally, those addicted to alcohol had an immediate impulse to “pull” these images towards them when they appeared.  Through the very simple practice, that impulse was re-trained as one that would reflexively push the image away.  They were then given the standard abstinence-based, cognitive behavioral three month program with everyone else.

During the follow-up study it was found that there were expected relapses by all groups.  However, the group with the cognitive-bias modification (CBM) or “pushing away” technique had significantly lower incidents of relapse. One still-abstinent patient told a story illustrating how the technique had worked for him. At a party, looking for a soda, the man opened the refrigerator, but found it full of beer. “Immediately, he made the push movement” — he closed the door.  Certainly, in the moments following he would have to think about whether or not he wants to take a drink and will have a decision to make.  But it appears that this CBM technique enabled people to reverse their initial impulse, giving them the time to think and make the choice not to drink.

This reversal of impulse has tremendous implications in the treatment of other addictions and impulse disorders.  This study will not be news for those who treat sex offenders and have used aversive techniques for years.  However, it does open the door for those who suffer from addictions to drugs and alcohol, or process addictions such as gambling or stealing.  These simple techniques might help, in the moment, to give people who suffer from these impulses the time they need to make a better choice.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Charlie Sheen: we are “sick and tired” but is he?

A patient of mine once told me the story of when he “hit bottom” and stopped drinking.  He had promised his wife he would stop drinking but they were headed towards a party and he felt panicked.  He asked her to stop at a grocery store on the way to pick something up, ran in to the store, and searched frantically for anything with a screw top.  As he sat in the bathroom of the grocery store downing a bottle of cheap booze he thought to himself with disgust, “What the hell am I doing here?”  That was the last time he took a drink.

That man didn’t need to destroy his marriage, lose his job, get arrested, or make headlines to come to the realization that he couldn’t keep doing what he was doing; but others are not so fortunate.  Charlie Sheen just entered rehab for the third time in the past 12 months and his behavior over the course of the last year has included extreme substance abuse, destruction of property, tens of thousands of dollars spent on prostitutes and porn stars, and loss of his marriage, just to name a few.  Is this the end of substance abuse and sex addiction for him?  Only he has the answer for that; we can hope for him but it may not be.

In 12-step programs, “hitting bottom” is defined as the moment when someone becomes “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” In other words, the pain accrued from continuing the behavior outweighs the pain anticipated from stopping the behavior.  Sometimes family members, therapists, friends, or others will try to “raise the bottom” for an addict by intervening in some way, calling attention to the self-destructive (life-destructive, relationship-destructive) nature of their behaviors.  This can have some success and is certainly worth the effort.  However, repeatedly trying to intervene often leads to frustration and despair, or to a cycle of codependency.  People in an addict’s life need to accept that for an addict, just like for anyone under any circumstances, change has to ultimately be internally motivated.

Change is hard.  There is no way around that.  It takes great courage and usually perseverance.  So as much as any one of us would like to, we can’t force someone to get tired enough to “stop digging the hole they are standing in.”  And in truth, any moment can be that “bottom.”  It could be (and for some, needs to be) a painful, life-changing event; but it could also just be a simple moment of waking up to the reality of your life.

And of course, “hitting bottom” and getting into recovery is only the first step on a long road of every day making a choice to live a different kind of life – a life for which you are fully present and conscious.

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.

Get Adobe Flash player