A few weeks weeks into this year there’s a good chance your resolutions haven’t made it this far The idea that we can change our behaviour as easily as making a new year declaration is an ancient but impractical one.
Like the new year fireworks that dazzle for a few minutes and then are overwhelmed by the dark night, our good intentions glimmer with the hope of a different way of being, but soon succumb to the dark ruts of our well formed habits. Perhaps it is time we realise that what we regard as unskillful ways of living may be the only ways we are able to cope with the reality of our harsh lives? Maybe it is going to take more than intention, a self help article or a motivational speaker to get me out of the the rut that is my life?
One reason resolutions for change don’t work is we underestimate the power of our addictions. Many of the reforms we want to see in the new year relate to deeply entrenched habits we depend on to survive.
It is sad that our culture defines substance abusers as the only kind of people to be called addicts. That is a misunderstanding says Gabor Maté MD a Canadian doctor and leading thinker in the field of addiction recovery. Gabor believes that transcending genetics or bad choices, the root of our addictions grows out of childhood pain. His 2010 bestseller “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” spells out his perspective.
Addiction is a complex process that involves brain, body, emotions, psychology and social relationships. Addiction is any behaviour where a person craves and finds temporary pleasure or relief in something, despite suffering negative outcomes from that behaviour.
Addiction could be substance-related but it can also be sex, gambling, eating, shopping, work, extreme sports, relationships or cellphone use. It could be anything. It’s not the activity as such but rather that it provides temporary relief or pleasure from our pain? Maté calls addictive behaviour “self-soothing”. It’s an attempt to heal a deep hurt.
Does this behaviour create craving when you don’t have it? Does it create negative consequences, and is it difficult to give up despite those consequences? If those are the case, it’s an addiction.
Maté is clear. At the core of all addictions lies childhood trauma. Adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of addiction later on in life. It may not be that bad things happen, it could be that good things don’t happen when they should. A child has fundamental needs for emotional development and also for brain development and these development thresholds have to be met by the environment. If not met, the brain’s reward circuitry is impaired because when the reward centres should have been nurtured awake, stressed and busy parents did not have the time, energy or skill to nurture their children.
Our culture breeds addictions which may kill us, but they may also be the only way to cope with our alienated lives.