So somehow my son and I ended up in front of his laptop with Hulu open. I don't recall what he wanted to show me, but it ended up not being very interesting.
So, cultural rubber-necker that I am, I was drawn to a thumbnail of a show I had never heard of: My Strange Addiction. Apparently it ran for six seasons on TLC, starting in 2010. Apparently I had missed this cultural phenomenon entirely.
Here's the Hulu thumbnail that caught my eye:
If you can't see it on your browser, you're really not missing much. The photo shows a heavy dark-haired woman wearing eyeglasses, butterfly clips pulling back her hair, and a floral tattoo beginning at her hyoid and disappearing under her dress. The description says, “Lisa has been addicted to licking her cat and eating clumps of hair…”
I'm not proud to admit it, but I couldn't not click the play button.
The closeups of Lisa licking her cat's back and swallowing the hair were somehow both unwatchable and un-turn-awayable.
What was more interesting, and what I discovered was the central theme of the show (after watching 8 more episodes) was the tension between Lisa's perspective on her behavior and that of everyone else in the universe.
Lisa: “I don't have a problem. I'm not hurting anyone. There's no reason in the world for me to stop.”
Everyone else: “That's dangerous and disgusting. Stop it right now for God's sakes!”
So it turns out that what separates the characters featured in My Strange Addiction and the rest of us is a matter of spectacle, of degree, of sensationalism.
Deep down, we're all in some form of denial about the effects of our less-than-rational behavior.
Our – ahem, My – Normal Addictions
Look – I'm not crazy about the word “addiction.” I think it's used in a sloppy way, and can make ordinary habitual behaviors seem like prisons from which there is no escape save a lifetime of nightly meetings.
But I'm going with the lingo of the TV show, so let's talk about our addictions.
Not the big ones, the capital-A addictions that ruin lives, like alcohol and cocaine and opioids.
Not the freak-show ones, like cat-licking and Vic Rub-eating and getting multiple psychic readings each day.
No, let's talk about the ordinary ones, the socially accepted everyday behaviors that produce outcomes in conflict with our values, priorities, and goals.
Spending 30 minutes on Facebook in your bed in the morning.
Eating that second bowl of rice and beans when you're not hungry anymore.
Checking email eight times an hour when you should be writing your weekly newsletter.
Did I just say your, you're, and you?
I meant my, I'm and I.
And that's just today. And it's not even 10am.
So what's going on? Surely I know better, right? I mean, I have the audacity to write books about mastering our habits and achieving our goals. I have the chutzpah to charge people money to help them eat better and make better use of their time.
Why am I acting in ways that undermine my happiness and my identity?
I think it's because the process of aligning behavior with intention is a never-ending process. As soon as I make a breakthrough in one area, another area bubbles up, ready for my attention.
There's no “Done.” There's no “Winning.” There's only journey and plateau, effort and rest, ratchet and retract.
Inhale and exhale.
Life as State Management
Basically, we just want to feel OK all the time. Not necessarily euphoric, or productive, or orgasmic, or awestruck. But OK. Adequate. Comfortable. Safe enough.
And we'll do just about anything to feel OK.
To banish discomfort and mental disquiet.
To avoid boredom and frustration.
To escape shame and guilt.
Now, humans have been dealing with this shit for a long time. We haven't suddenly evolved a new brain circuit that's causing all the trouble.
In fact, those feelings aren't problematic in and of themselves, any more than the pain of touching a hot stove is problematic. Negative emotions and sensations are information; feedback that you are being asked to grow as a human being; feedback that your current choices and trajectory are not right for you; feedback that you haven't been paying attention to more subtle and gentle feedback, and it's time for a more direct message.
What's problematic is trying to distract yourself from the pain as your hand on the hot stove starts smoking and blistering.
Can't Buy Me Love
The difference between now and olden times is, we've traded the tribe for the market.
When we were part of a tribe, an integral contributor to the wellbeing of the group, other people really cared if we were firing on all cylinders or not. If I was depressed or distracted, I probably wasn't pulling my weight. So you would notice, and try to help out of pure self-interest.
You didn't have to be a “good” person to do good things. Your impulse to give comfort, to draw me out, to let the tribe's shaman know that I was out of sorts – the sort of attitude that we now attribute to saints and Tom Hanks – was ruthlessly pragmatic, as well as utterly benevolent.
But somewhere over time, human society – at least the one you and I live in – changed.
Our tribes grew to the point where they were no longer tribes. We didn't know each other. We retreated into extended families, then nuclear families, and now into individual atoms in an uncaring world.
And products and services rushed in to the fill the voids. So now we live in a society whose chief economic engine is the state of “I'm not OK.” Cosmetics, weight loss, and fitness are obvious examples. But since the acts of desiring and acquiring and consuming themselves distract us from the existential not-OK-ness in our souls, at least 90% of our economy serves to distract us from the
And under capitalism, the logic of industry is to grow. So the only way to grow these “I'm not OK” industries is to increase the “I'm not OK-ness” in the world, in people.
Enter marketing and advertising that tells a single story, a new mono-myth: “You will be happen when…”
Enter products that change our immediate state without improving the underlying causes, leading to the need for repeat consumption ad infinitum.
Enter a 24/7 convenience economy in which temporary and superficial state change is never more than a step, a swipe, or a click away.
And throw in social media in which our “friends” – most of whom we've never met in real life and wouldn't recognize on the street – are encouraged to choreograph and perform their own perfect fantasy lives for us to envy and emulate.
It's amazing that we're doing as well as we are, frankly.
The Way Out is Through
What our society hasn't taught us, or rather has actively discouraged us from learning, is that the only way to deal with negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations is to listen to them.
To train ourselves to stay present and not run away.
To attempt to feel deeply rather than numb out.
To try to be mindful instead of distracted.
To follow negativity to the low places in our bodies and minds where it originates, and let it speak to us of dreams unfulfilled and fears unfaced.
As my friend and teacher Peter Bregman says in Leading with Emotional Courage, “If you are willing to feel everything, you can do anything.”
When I slow down, breathe consciously, and scan my body, I can find my fear of financial ruin pulsing just below the hyoid bone in my throat.
I can feel the shame of a recent selfish as as a hot coal smoldering just below my solar plexus.
I can sense the dread of criticism as a sharp constriction behind my eyes.
When I stay with those sensations, something remarkable begins to happen. I find they are not so intolerable. If I am patient, they subside into intelligence, into messages, into guides for thought and action. They become allies, scouts; sonar pings in the dark submerged vessel of my soul, orienting me to the good and the right and the true.
A Behavioral Catch-22?
But here's the thing: as long as I persist in indulging my addictions – the phone, the overeating, the obsessive email checking – I can't feel what I need to.
Step 1: Just Stop It
So the first step in stopping an unwanted behavior is – to just “stop it.”
Don't wait until you've graduated from therapy, having “solved” your relationship with your mother. Just put away the f-ing chocolate.
Don't “get your head straight” before starting an exercise routine. Get your ass to the gym or on the trail.
Yes, this first phase takes some effort, and willpower. And is completely unsustainable.
It's also necessary. You won't be able to hear the signal until you turn down the noise.
Once you've done that – drawn a line in the sand, made a rule, gritted it out – you can move on to step 2.
Step 2: Pay Attention
Now that you've stopped your coping behavior, you really feel shitty. You want to escape, back into food, back into Instagram, back into porn, back into drink, back into licking your cat's ass – whatever.
Feel those impulses without acting on them. Follow the thoughts down into feelings, and translate those feelings into their sources, physical sensations in your body. Where does the urge to binge live in your body in this moment? Where does the memory of that humiliating moment when you forgot the lines of the play in 3rd grade sit right now within you?
Let them speak. Finally, let them speak.
Notice that in the very center of your not-OK-ness, you're OK.
In the middle of the unhandle-able mess, you're still there. Broken, and intact. Destroyed, and functioning. Gone, and deeply present.
Which brings us to step 3: Address the Root Cause
Step 3: Address the Root Cause
The problem with our addictive behaviors is not that they don't work – they do, in the short term. The problem is, they are solving for symptoms rather than causes. And when we ignore causes, they just get louder and more serious over time.
That black duct tape over the Check Engine light has solved the problem, until it hasn't. And then the problem is going to be orders of magnitude more costly to address.
So once we allow ourselves to descend into ourselves, we can glimpse root causes.
Ancient traumas. Faulty belief systems.
And from there, we can begin to heal.
Not as atomized individuals, but in community. With other souls that are also striving, struggling, hungry for connection with other souls in a context other than Black Friday mayhem.
It's Time for Down and In
As Robert MacFarlane points out in Underland: A Deep Time Journey, new knowledge requires going down and in, rather than up and out. Listen for the subterranean echoes in the words “understand” and “discover.”
Our addictions, coping behaviors, habitual foibles, are all up and out ways of dealing with not-OK-ness. Let's not hate them for that – they're better than being utterly defenseless. Better than self-annihilating for lack of more effective means in a culture that has buried the road to healing under the rubble of commerce.
But once we know that down and in can be safe (and if your inner wisdom guides you, then by all means find a professional to guide and support you on this journey), we have found an ancient and proven path to our own humanity. To connection. To healing.
May all beings become well and happy. And soon!
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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.
It's $10, and Josh and I split it evenly 🙂
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You can learn about Will, listen to more tracks, and buy music on his website, WillRidenour.com.
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