I guess this is something we have to laugh at ourselves about: the ridiculousness of the way we tend to cling to self-sabotaging behaviours in order to avoid the risk of being happy and well. I include myself in the following statement. We’re kind of all fucked up. Who wants to be happy and well anyways? Only weirdos are truly happy. This is what I love about psychology.
For addictions and behaviour changes that are so common that money-making industries have been created around them (i.e. smoking cessation and weight loss control), funding has supported research, which has produced statistics. For cigarette smoking, for example, I have heard numbers raging from 9 to 12 for the average count of relapses before one quits once and for all.
I suggest that this notion of relapse applies to any and all kind of unhelpful or unhealthy patterns we seek to change. Really, we’re talking about thought patterns, emotional reactions, and coping strategies. “When _(I get stressed)_______, I __(bite my nails, smoke, drink, eat, not eat, avoid responsibilities, argue, get defensive, become offensive, cry, run away…or whatever your pattern is)________, because _(it’s automatic)___________”. The fucked up part is that whatever the behaviour is, it often doesn’t actually make us feel better nor does it help reduce the stress, stop the unhelpful thoughts or feelings in any lasting way. There’s a paradox to whatever reasons we give for maintaining the behaviour… which is how we are aware that there would be a benefit to changing the pattern.
Why? Fear. I support the theory that change is scary. For some, happiness is scary simply because it’s unfamiliar. We don’t like venturing into unknown territory because God forbid (no offense intended) we could like what we experience and lose total control over feeling wonderful and healthy. Then what? If we change, we have to let go of the past pattern completely, be wrong about a past perspective, say goodbye, shut that door. It’s easiest to leave the door open a crack, stay close-by, not venture too far down that unfamiliar path too quickly. In fact, it’s easiest to just go back to what’s familiar as soon as the fear begins to limit us. It’s also easiest to do this all sub-consciously. It takes courage to be vulnerable, self-aware, honest, and to let go of what we think we know. There is basically a ton of comfort in those familiar patterns, even if this familiarity involves suffering.
I think the 9 to 12 average applies to a lot more than smoking cessation and weight loss. Like I said, we’re all kind of fucked up. I know that for one of my desired changes in a pattern that hasn’t been working for me since I was an acne-prone unhappy 13 year old, I’ve counted over a dozen relapses. Now that I see it in this sort of addictions perspective, I can at least shift my approach in dealing with it and laugh at myself each time I come out of a relapse. Its not at all funny when I’m in the middle of the relapse (unless someone who has a really great sense of humour helps by laughing at me in that “you are ridiculous and I love you for it” kind of way). The thing about coming out of a relapse is that each time, new insights emerge, the old pattern loses force and the new pattern gains momentum and becomes the familiarity that is comfortable to cling to. Then… a new problematic pattern emerges and we start the process all over again. Smile about it and you’ll be ok, I promise.