(Yes, I couldn’t resist — if I wrote a post about self-control, I just had to pay tribute to the late, great Laura Branigan.)
Do you ever get the sense that some of your behaviors are beyond your control — that they “just happen,” as if you’re playing no part in them at all?
I know a few smokers, for instance, who say they’d love to quit, but they just keep “ending up smoking.” They’ll be walking along or doing some task, and suddenly they’ll realize there’s a lit cigarette in their mouth.
But this doesn’t just happen to people who are addicted to nicotine or some other drug. Some clients I’ve worked with, who came to me hoping to find more focus in their work, have said they just tended to “end up procrastinating.” It’s as if their hand, of its own accord, keeps grabbing the mouse and opening that Minesweeper game.
Knowing Isn’t Enough By Itself
How do we take control over harmful behaviors that we just seem to “find ourselves” doing? Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be enough just to know that what we’re doing isn’t helpful. Smokers can read hundreds of articles about the dangers of smoking, and procrastinators can learn 500 different “e-mail inbox hacks,” and often both stay locked in the same self-destructive patterns.
Many of us have read that habits like smoking and procrastination result from some “deeper issue” — maybe an emotional wound we’re carrying around that we’re trying to numb with our behaviors. But just being aware of this doesn’t seem to do the trick either — simply knowing we’re “self-medicating” doesn’t take away our craving for a “fix.”
Watch For The Feeling
One insight I’ve picked up from spiritual teachings I’ve learned, as well as my own meditation practice, is that getting familiar with how we’re feeling, in that brief moment before we start doing the unwanted behavior, is more important than any intellectual understanding. In other words, we need to notice the sensations coming up in our bodies when we’re just about to begin smoking, procrastinating, playing Freecell, or whatever it is we want to stop doing.
Because smokers and users of other drugs feel their cravings so intensely, it’s easier for them — if they’re willing to look — to understand what’s going on inside right before they reach for their drug of choice. But even people with habits our culture considers less destructive — watching TV, compulsively shopping, or something else — will notice some telltale sensation before they’re about to indulge, if they watch carefully. It may be something painful, or something subtler like tingling or twitching, but they’re almost certainly feeling something.
We find these sensations uncomfortable and want to get rid of them, and our destructive habits serve that purpose. To a smoker, a cigarette relieves the burning emptiness they feel inside. For a procrastinator, playing a hand of Solitaire releases the tension that comes up when they’re working. And so on.
Buddhist teachers call these sensations sankharas, and say the best way to deal with our sankharas is simply to be aware of them and let them pass. In other words, keep breathing, and let yourself fully experience the tension, heat, tingling, or whatever you’re feeling, without doing anything about it. The more you do this, the more you come to realize that the sensations you’re feeling aren’t going to hurt you. If you just let them be, they’ll pass away on their own.
When you learn to accept and even welcome these sensations, you become able to genuinely choose how you’ll live your life. Rather than spending most of your time running from feelings you’d rather not experience, you become able to do what you want, even when those feelings come up. When you’re in this mindset, the next time that burning curiosity about what’s in your e-mail inbox arises, you can simply tell it “thanks for sharing — and I’m going to finish up this project.”
I recently had the good fortune to meet Wilma Ham, whose blog offers some great insights about communication and intimacy in relationships.
We all have behaviors we use to “take the edge off”—to temporarily rid ourselves of anxiety, depression or nagging discontent in our lives. Alcohol and drugs are the most obvious examples, but there are many other, subtler behaviors we use to distract ourselves from our difficult feelings.
For me, until I started consciously catching myself in the act, these included talking to myself, tapping rhythmically on the steering wheel, and constantly checking e-mail. The compulsion to do these things was very strong—so much that I sometimes found myself doing them without even remembering I’d started.
I wasn’t always aware I was using these behaviors to distract myself from difficult emotions. I used to think I was simply trying to avoid getting “bored.” Driving my car is boring, I thought, so I’ll drum on the steering wheel to stay occupied. Some of my job duties are boring, so I’ll check e-mail to break the monotony. Paying my bills is boring, so I’ll listen to loud music while paying them. And so on.
I didn’t give this further thought until one day when I was driving with a friend. My friend was reading a map and giving directions. All the while, I was tapping on the steering wheel, playing along to music in my head, to fight the tedium of the drive. Eventually, my friend said “would you please stop tapping? It’s kind of distracting.” I agreed, and we drove along for a while in silence.
After a few minutes, I noticed a tension forming in my chest and jaw—sensations I associate with anger. And with this came a nearly irresistible urge to start tapping again, or do anything that would divert my attention from the mounting discomfort in my body.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that my behavior was distracting—not just to my friend while he was trying to read the map, but to me. I was feeling angry, and the purpose of the tapping was to avoid experiencing my emotions. It definitely wasn’t just a matter of avoiding boredom—the feelings that came up when I stopped my distracting behaviors were deeper and more intense than that. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote, “[b]oredom is a sign of too many feelings, too deep and too hard to summon to the surface.” What’s more, I had the disturbing realization that I was distracting myself in some way in almost every situation I entered in life.
With this understanding in mind, I made an effort to stop my self-distracting behaviors. I resolved to find out what sensations I was spending my life avoiding. As I expected, a storm of intense feeling struck my body as I went through life undistracted. But the experience wasn’t purely unpleasant. I also found myself experiencing peace, joy, and fulfillment more intensely than before.
Without my distractions, my experience of the world took on a new depth and richness. As psychologist Christine Caldwell observes in Getting Our Bodies Back, “[o]ur happiness lies in our ability to experience life directly and to the hilt,” and abandoning the ways we divert our attention from what we’re feeling thus helps us to be happy.
Stopping my self-distraction also had a larger and more concrete impact. In my old job as a lawyer, I’d often let my mind wander, checking my e-mail, listening to music, and so on to divert my attention while doing something I found dull. As expected, my dissatisfaction became very strong when I stopped “taking the edge off.”
I quickly understood I had entered my career for a host of wrong reasons, and that for years I’d been desperately desiring a new direction. Through self-distraction, I’d been deliberately keeping that knowledge from myself, so I wouldn’t have to make difficult choices about the next steps in my life.
The result was that I started writing books and articles and began my coaching practice, and ultimately I left my law firm to pursue these activities full-time. This brought a greater sense of purpose and freedom into my life. If I hadn’t stopped distracting myself, I probably would have continued to settle for a career that was, for me, second best.
Perhaps you, like most people, have behaviors you use to keep from getting bored in your daily life. Maybe you talk to yourself, watch TV, play loud music, drink alcohol, or something else. You may not think of these as ways to distract yourself from your emotions—they may seem like perfectly natural antidotes for those moments when you’re doing something you have to do but don’t want to do.
If you do behaviors like these, I’m not going to ask you to stop them outright. Instead, I suggest you just try a few simple experiments and see whether they make your life more enriching and fulfilling.
First, just go through the day as you normally would, observing how often you’re engaging in these distracting behaviors. How much of your life are you living distraction-free? How much time do you spend each day fully focused on what you’re doing, open to every sensation and emotion you’re experiencing? You may be surprised at how little time you spend being truly receptive to the world.
Second, try stopping just one of the self-distracting behaviors you do, and notice the effect. Do you find yourself thinking unpleasant thoughts you haven’t wanted to focus on? Are you suddenly flooded with emotions you didn’t know you were feeling? Do you find yourself compensating by immediately turning to another diversion?
If you consider these questions for a few minutes, I’m confident you’ll get some insight into who you are and the way you see and respond to the world. As Mark Linden O’Meara explains in The Feeling Soul: A Roadmap To Healing And Living, “[j]ust as a doctor becomes quiet and uses a stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heart, so too must you quiet the things around you, focus and listen to what is going on inside. Doing this allows you to obtain the information you need to gain the awareness required to create a shift in your feelings, behaviors and thoughts.”
We use distracting behaviors to hide from the areas of our lives and ourselves we aren’t fully comfortable with. These areas of dissatisfaction are the “edge” we “take off” by twitching, drinking alcohol, talking to ourselves, and so on. Allowing ourselves to see and experience these areas does make life “edgy” for a while—we’re confronted by strong sensations we may not have let ourselves have for a long time.
However, we have to let ourselves see where our lives need improvement to actually begin improving our quality of life. By distracting ourselves, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to make positive changes, and condemn ourselves to a second-best existence. If you want to change your life for the better, a key first step is allowing yourself to fully experience life distraction-free.