With the beginning of the new year, the topic of New Year’s resolutions can be found in our thoughts, on our lips, in our Google searches, and in our media. Our feelings about making resolutions for the year range from disdain to motivation and excitement. And it all has me thinking about the role addiction plays in our desire for change. Can addicts really make and keep New Year’s resolutions? Especially if these resolutions are about stopping the addictive behavior itself?
Pondering this leads directly to the question: What is the difference between habit and addiction? We can all give examples of trying to start or stop behaviors only to return to our old way of doing things in short order. In fact, most gyms base their whole financial model on people who make a monetary commitment to start working out, but who rarely show up after the initial motivation wears off. Imagine if everyone who had a gym membership regularly went to the gym. There wouldn’t be enough space or equipment to accommodate them all! We also know the nicotine addict who swears they are going to stop smoking or vaping and does it for a while, only to return to this behavior after a period of time.
Difficulty changing behavior is a primary descriptor of both a habit and an addiction. So, if the success in changing the behavior doesn’t distinguish between the two, what does?
But before we get to the difference between habit and addiction, let’s consider: Does it matter?
Absolutely! When addictions of all kinds are killing millions of people every year (not just alcohol or drug addiction… think of people dying because they can’t stop overeating, or undereating, or having unprotected sex, or those who commit suicide because they can’t stand the pain their addiction is causing themselves and loved ones any longer), this question is much more than academic.
We instinctively know habits and addictions are two differnet things, though we have a hard time putting words to it. After all, would you rather have a bad habit or be addicted? Most people intuitively choose a bad habit because we know habits are easier to change and cause less damage.
If there is truly a difference between habit and addiction, its important that we understand what the difference is and treat an addictionlike an addiction, not just a bad habit.
According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, a habit is “a usual way of behaving; something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way”. Habits often involve unintentional, non-conscious decisions to engage in behaviors repeatedly overtime. Habits, interestingly, can be beneficial or harmful or even benign. For example, watching hours of tv every night might be a negative habit whereas brushing my teeth before I leave the house is a positive one. The order in which I tie my shoes is an example of a benign habit.
Addiction, on the other hand, is defined as “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something or do something” (i.e., drink alcohol, watch pornography). Despite our culture’s flippant use of the word “addiction” to mean just about anything we like a lot, a true addiction is never positive. Those who are actually addicted to anything (even if it seems positive, like exercise or work) do it compulsively, have little choice to stop, and are neglecting other important areas of their lives to engage in the behavior.
Though our strategies for changing our habits can be helpful with addiction (i.e., putting a porn blocker on my electronic devices if I struggle with pornography, putting alcohol in a hard to reach/less visible location), they are rarely enough to stop addictive behavior. Consider these examples of habit changes versus the addictive experience:
It seems like one of the most important distinctions between habit and addiction is related to the difficulty in stopping/starting the behavior. While both addictions and habits are difficult to change, habits can be eliminated or added with some motivation, focused attention, behavioral strategies, and perhaps a little support. Typically, habits are changed by focusing on the behavior itself and applying will power or self-discipline. Most habits are changed because it becomes inconvenient to continue the way we’ve been going or we have a goal we want to accomplish, like in the examples above. For individuals who are not struggling with addiction, these behavior changes are relatively simple and straight forward.
However, addiction brings many other dynamics that make change more difficult and relapse more possible. A few complicating factors include:
· Characterological or personality changes that happen with addiction
· Values and boundary violations that addicts begin to accept as o.k. (i.e., dishonesty, manipulation, secret keeping, procrastination, stealing)
· Craving and preoccupation – many addicts experience intense cravings or overwhelming urges to participate in their addictive behavior. What’s more, once they begin thinking about using the behavior, they can’t stop obsessing
about it until they do it
· Addicts find that they can’t stop even if they experience painful or negative consequences
These dynamics are largely caused by changes that have occurred in the brain that ensures the addict will prioritize this pleasurable experience above anything else, including partner, children, work, nutrition, health, or even their own life. Because of these brain changes, an addict can’t stop the addictive behavior just because they want to, or because they try really hard, or because they put up a few speed bumps in the way (i.e., porn blocker on the computer or hiding the beer). Addiction will find ways around any of these efforts and will lead the person right back to the addictive behavior (or sometimes change addictive behaviors altogether). The bottom line is addicts can’t stop on their own. If they could, it wouldn’t be called addiction.
For this reason, those who want to stop addictive behaviors must treat it differently than a habit. One of the most important things is to not focus on stopping the behavior. While focusing on not engaging in a bad habit can be successful, focusing on not engaging in an addictive behavior will likely fail. Addiction is similar to cancer or diabetes or any other chronic illness. Sitting in my home trying to not have cancer or diabetes won’t make the disease go away. I have to have help.
So, recovering addicts focus on finding people who are successfully staying sober and finding professionals who can help them stay sober. Then, they start doing what sober people and professional people suggest they do. In effect, recovering addicts treat the disease of addiction with the appropriate “medicine”. They discover what other people did that helped them recover: like going to meetings, going to therapy, having a sponsor, working a 12 step program, going to treatment, focusing on being of service to others, focusing on being honest - no matter what, focusing on a lifestyle of recovery including spiritual growth and development. And they spend their time focused on these changes, rather than the behavior itself.
How do you know if you have a bad habit or an addiction? Please read our blog post on this subject or watch our video. In brief, if you have tried to stop or control your behavior and have failed, if you continue to do the behavior even though its hurting you and/or other people, and if you find that more and more of your thought life or your actual life is spent planning for, engaging in, or recovering from your behavior then you may have an addiction. If you are concerned that you may have a porn or sex addiction, you can take a self-assessment by click here.
If you have tried over and over to stop a behavior that you have thought of as a bad habit, consider that it may not be a habit at all. It may be an addiction. In this case, not being able to stop doesn’t mean you’re stupid, lazy, or undisciplined. It means that you have a difference in your brain that makes it almost impossible to stop this behavior on your own power. You didn’t ask for that or cause it. But you can do something about it.
If you wonder if your porn use or sexual behavior has crossed the line into addiction, visit our assessment page and take our online assessments. The score will give you a good idea if your behaviors have become compulsive and may require more help than just stopping a bad habit.
If you find that your behaviors have become more than just a habit, don’t struggle alone. Addiction is real, but so is recovery. You can heal from addictive behaviors and all their consequences. Contact us today to get started recovering from your addictive behavior.
At the Trauma and Addiction Recovery Center we offer many kinds of therapy services that can help you reach your goals. See our services by clicking here or call or email us today to learn more about this program or other services we offer for those struggling with addiction and their loved ones.
We applaud you for taking an important step toward healing and recovery by visiting our website. The next step is for you to learn how TARC can best support you. During the assessment process, we will thoroughly review an inventory of your thoughts, feelings and associated life choices in order to determine a plan of action that is most beneficial for your recovery.Schedule a Call
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