The public health crisis was going to be unprecedented, and catastrophic.
As the Americans clumsily extricated themselves from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of US troops would be returning home. And by some estimates, 90% of them had become addicted to heroin during their tour of duty.
How in the world was American society going to absorb all these broken souls, these addicts? What kind of law enforcement push was needed to contain the crime wave that would inevitably crash down on our cities and towns? Where were we going to find and pay for all the mental health professionals and detox facilities that would be required? And when would the troops be ready to assimilate back into their communities, into society, into the job market?
Pentagon officials, politicians, and civil servants braced themselves for a long, hard battle, a different kind of war.
And it simply didn’t happen.
Only about 5% of the addicted soldiers maintained their dependence on heroin after they returned home. Most simply dropped the habit as soon as the conditions under which they had adopted it were gone.
Their heroin use, far from an uncontrollable pathology, was simply self-medication in the face of the horrific experience of war in Southeast Asia. They sought a way out of the stress and danger, and the drug was cheap, plentiful, and easily obtainable. Once they left the jungles and ambushes, the rice paddies and snipers, the alienation and confusion, their need disappeared. So when their supply dried up, they moved on.
Lessons from the Epidemic That Wasn't
Behavioral scientists love this story, because it supports the prevailing narrative about habit formation and disruption: people form habits as remembered solutions to recurring problems, and drop those habits when the environmental cues that trigger them are removed.
That’s not the whole story, and you can argue (correctly) that I’ve oversimplified, but it’s accurate enough.
Here’s the crux of the argument, well-presented in Wendy Wood, PhD’s new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: Habits are the brain’s way of not having to think so hard. Make the behavior automatic, and create an unconscious link between a trigger and the behavior, and you’ve got a habit. If you want to disrupt the habit, disrupt the trigger.
Get the soldiers out of Vietnam, and all the cues (stress and drug) disappear. Habit extinguished. Remove the cookies from the kitchen, and you won’t run the circuitry that creates a craving. Take a different route home, and the golden arches won’t entice you to swing by the drive-through for a large fries. Turn off the phone, and you won’t constantly check Instagram and Twitter.
As far as you can clean up your environment, removing those triggers for unwanted behaviors, do it. The research is clear and unequivocal.
But is that always the best solution? Yes and no…
The Fragility of A Perfect Environment
There are a couple of downsides to sanitizing your environment to making “sin” impossible, or at least extremely difficult. First, you can't always control your environment.
There's a saying: “You can carpet the world, or you can just wear shoes.”
One of those options is a lot more manageable than the other. One requires a gargantuan degree of control over your surroundings. The other requires only that you control your own footwear.
When you rely on environmental “purity” to maintain good behavior, you're fragile. Because you can't control your environment. Not all the time, and not to the extent that you'd need to.
And even when you can, part of your mind is going to be freaking out, anticipating that horrible moment when you're going to lose that control.
Wendy Wood actually makes this case in her book, in a story about getting a new car that beeped when it drew near to an obstacle. She didn't like it at first, but gradually grew to depend on the feature. Which is why the first thing she did upon renting a car that didn't make those warning sounds was to reverse into a wall.
Without realizing it, Wood had developed a dependence on a feature that she had never needed and wasn't crazy about. So much so, that her ability to drive was impaired by its absence. Instead of relying on her own eyes, she had outsourced her judgment to an external cue that was not dependable.
If the only thing stopping you from eating cookies is avoiding all sights and smells of them, you've got to carpet the world. Sure, you can ban them from your house (as long as no one you live with objects). Sure, you can avoid that aisle in the supermarket (or maybe avoid the supermarket entirely and send someone else to do your shopping for you). Sure, you can stop socializing with colleagues and friends and family at all gatherings where cookies might be present.
But wouldn't you rather just be able to say “no” to cookies?
Where Did AFGO Go?
When I first got into coaching, I learned a charming acronym: AFGO.
It stands for, “Another Freaking Growth Opportunity” – or near enough.
We used it ironically, to put a positive spin on our screw-ups, heated arguments, and the annoying situations we experienced.
Waiting in line at the supermarket because the person checking out insists that their expired coupons be honored? AFGO.
Forgot to mail your taxes by the 15th, so now you owe penalties and interest? AFGO.
A giant tray of your favorite cookies at the Super Bowl party?
You get the idea. AFGO.
Life is really one long series of AFGOs, if you look at it a certain way.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Because AFGOs are growth opportunities. Sure, they're opportunities for tantrums and head-banging and self-recrimination and anger and misery too, but that's actually the point. Your response isn't automatic – it's a choice.
Even if you could remove all triggers for unwanted behaviors from your environment – which you can't – you'd be shutting off your most powerful engine of personal growth.
The Crux of the Matter
We can twist ourselves into pretzels trying to figure out why we keep engaging in self-sabotaging behavior.
Why'd I eat that box of cookies when I'm trying to lose weight?
Why'd I order Thai takeout when I had a fridge full of fresh produce?
Why'd I skip the gym and sit on the couch watching the first season of Taxi on Netflix? (Yes, it's there, if you buy the CBS All Access pass.)
We like to make this complicated, but the answer is always the same.
You did that thing because it distracted you from an unwanted feeling.
You were using the food or the entertainment as a bright shiny object, so you didn't have to focus on an undesired internal state.
Maybe you ate the cookies because you were stressed out.
Maybe you ordered Thai takeout because you felt lonely.
Maybe you chose Louie and Latka over legs and lats because you were sad. (If you aren't familiar with Taxi, just know that was a clever alliterative reference. Tank you very much.)
The Roots Go Down
And here's the beautiful thing about those negative feelings: they are giant AFGOs.
Obviously, we don't want to respond to them by eating or entertaining ourselves into distraction. We don't want to get high to divert ourselves from our lows.
When you have a safe, sanitized environment, you've anticipated all those moments of potential weakness and set up workarounds.
You choose fruit instead of cookies.
You start your Instant Pot as a slow cooker in the morning so dinner's ready-made and aromatic by the time you get home.
You drive straight to the gym from work, with your gym bag always packed in the trunk of your car, so you don't have to deal with the need to choose that plan of action.
All rational and effective choices.
And for a while, they may be exactly what you need to stay on the straight and narrow.
The downside is, you miss the opportunity to sit and struggle with the negative feelings that lurk beneath the surface.
Those negative feelings are the beginnings of deep roots.
They lead to your sense of not feeling safe in the world.
To your fear of abandonment.
To your worry that you aren't enough.
Whatever your core internal struggles, those feelings – if given space to express – will bring you face to face with them.
And that can be terrifying, if you don't have the tools and support and ego strength to deal with them.
But when you're ready, facing the feelings you have been avoiding your whole life is the most profound act of liberation you can take.
As my friend and teacher Peter Bregman writes, “If you are willing to feel everything, you can do anything.”
If you're willing to feel what stress feels like in your body, you can surf those sensations without needing a box of Mint Milanos to stuff them back down.
If you're willing to sit with the loneliness and breathe in and out in self-compassion, you can find peace in a simple home-cooked meal.
If you're able to tolerate the physical manifestations of sadness in your chest and belly, you can take those sensations to the gym and metabolize them on the elliptical machine.
The Other Side of Struggle is Freedom
Yes, sometimes it makes sense to avoid challenge and struggle and temptation.
When you're starting out. When you're trying to establish a new pattern, a new habit, a new set of choices.
When you're sure you'll fail. When you don't want to put yourself in a situation where you can do real harm to yourself. When you don't feel up to the challenge.
In those cases, stay away from the cookies. Keep them out of your house, out of your sight, and out of your reach.
Make that dinner in advance and toss out your takeout menus.
Cancel Netflix (or at least CBS All Access) and remove it from your home computer.
But as you build the habit, start looking for opportunities to stress test your commitment.
Go to the supermarket with the best cookie aisle, and avoid it on purpose.
Then walk into that aisle, for a couple of steps, and back out again. (Don't bump into anyone – your shopping cart probably isn't going to beep as you reverse.)
Then walk down that aisle and keep going, not stopping for your favorite cookies.
Then stop and stare at the Milanos, and keep going.
Then pick up a package, put it back down, and keep going.
Notice what comes up for you in that moment.
Notice the thoughts. Notice the emotions.
And most of all, notice the physical sensations.
Because it's those physical sensations that we label as thoughts and emotions.
Stress; loneliness; sadness – those are just names we give to the sensations of pressure, heat, numbness, racing heart, butterflies, and others that arise in our bodies.
Drop below the name and stay with the sensation itself.
Give it a number, on a scale from Zero to Amputation Without Anesthesia. (For most of us, these sensations that we'd been spending decades doing anything to avoid are pretty mild, compared to actual pain.)
And give the sensation your full attention. Don't try to push it away, speed its departure, or resist in any way. Simply let it express itself to your consciousness.
That's the path to freedom.
When you are willing to feel everything, you no longer are held hostage by habits that sabotage your wellbeing in order to distract you from your internal reality.
When you are confident in your ability to handle your inner states, you won't reach for sugar or booze or porn or other forms of destructive distraction whenever you feel a less-than-blissful state coming on.
Be Wise and Be Kind to Yourself
Mindfulness of your feelings and sensations is a powerful tool for self-development and happiness, but you need to take it slowly. This is no place to be a badass, to go for the gold out of pride.
Start small, with feelings that you can tolerate. Don't go straight into the deepest traumas of your life. Not alone, not without support.
If you can't sense your body at all, start with simple practices, like noticing your right foot tapping. Noticing what rises and falls as you breathe. Feel the air on the skin of the back of your hand.
And gradually, with the support you need (from family and friends, yes, but also from mental health professionals if that's called for), allow more and more feelings and sensations to surface and reveal themselves.
You may get to the “bottom” of them, and you may not. In a sense, that's not the point.
Instead, the point is to be able to tolerate more and more, so that you're no longer compelled to act out as an avoidance strategy.
I'm not suggesting that you go back to your equivalent of the Battle of Hamburger Hill in order to face your demons.
I'm not saying to fill your house with cookies so you always have to struggle against temptation.
Instead, I'm inviting you to look at situations that right now may feel scary and unfortunate as opportunities for liberation.
Rather than viewing the world as a dangerous neighborhood where you might be mugged at any moment if you stray from your safe space, grow to see it as an arena where you stride with resolve and dignity.
Sure, you'll win some, you'll lose some. Expect that.
Use both the wins and the losses to get wiser about yourself. To grow your capacity to feel everything.
Because that kind of joy is so much better than a cookie.
Because that kind of joy is so much better than the safety of a self-imposed cage.
Become a Health Coach
New cohort beginning March 2021. Live classes will be 10-11:30am US Eastern Time on Wednesday, so this is a Europe- and Africa-friendly class. Also for folks in the US, Canada, and Central/South America who have flexible mornings.
Find out more and apply here: WellStartCoach.com.
New Audiobook: Use the Weight to Lose the Weight
Listen to Josh LaJaunie and me narrate our latest audiobook, about how to start moving when you're obese.
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