There is a running joke that if I’m awake 14 hours, I’m eating 16 hours; people are amused by how my 3-year old self decimated an entire comb of 30 bananas in an hour. Anyone looking at the vastness of my colour-coded wardrobe, shoe collection and books know I’m not exaggerating.
I have an addictive personality courtesy of ADHD; sensation, stimulation and intensity drive me. Many things give me that glorious adrenaline rush and sense of satisfaction, and then I want a faster and bigger repeat.
If you experience mania or have obsessive compulsive personality disorder, you may also know an addictive personality intimately. Sure, life is colourful, but the Buy One Get One Free of shame around how you’re ‘not normal’ or have ‘little self-control’ hurts. Some of us seem to have high-functioning lives, so talking about our addictive behaviours feels pompous. Except, it’s not a competition or a race to the bottom.
Addiction Professor Judy Grisel argues that being predisposed to appreciating novelty makes us likelier to take risks, which in turn benefits society as we explore new horizons. Except that as civilisations stabilised, there are fewer opportunities to pursue this proclivity in healthy ways, and instead we manipulate our biochemistry.
As I’ve wrestled with and mastered my demons over the years, whilst thankfully leading a relatively stable life, I’ve reflected on how I stopped some experiences from becoming addictive whilst conquering those I succumbed to. In my work, mastering an addictive personality inevitably comes up with many clients. And so I wrote this piece on mastering and leveraging your addictive personality.
It takes willpower to pursue your addictions
In a depressive funk triggered by addictive eating, I had an epiphany that it takes as much willpower to stay in bed unhappy and self-sabotage by escaping with food later, as it takes to turn things around. With that, the story “I have no willpower” became bullshit.
I referenced all the times I’ve hyper-focused on projects of interest, and realised I could channel that willpower into something that works. Similarly, I realised the many things in life I’m cautious about, and coupling that with everything I’d accomplished, relegated the story “I have poor control” to fiction. Smashing these limiting beliefs affirmed I can accomplish anything I wanted badly enough. And with this came an acceptance of my wiring.
Acceptance means we stop getting angry about our addictive proclivities. By seeing ourselves as adequate, we stop punishing ourselves, and witness our strengths—that openness and curiosity to taste what life offers.
What are your real motivators?
“I’m embarrassed to say this, but my real reasons are superficial”, my client said sheepishly, “I want to look good”.
“So use it as pure motivation!”, I exclaimed, referencing another client who stopped smoking when he admitted it was really to prevent wrinkles.
It’s easy to lie that we’re doing something to be healthy or some socially-approved reason, when we really resonate with “control”, “vanity” and “money” which are frowned upon in some circles. Whenever I have healthier eating phases spurred by the intention to be healthier, I eventually cave because I’m lying to myself.
Honesty about our real motivations comes from a place of power and authenticity. When I admitted that I wanted to be in control and look good, my new lifestyle started and stayed. Case-in-point: I’ve been intermittent fasting for a minimum of 17 hours for 90% of the last six months, and have a kettlebells and running routine I adhere to despite once self-proclaiming as “the laziest person on earth”.
As someone who easily consumed 6000 calories a day, believing I’d faint from skipping breakfast, the idea of fasting terrified me; I’d never even done a Catholic ‘fast’ (which allows the consumption of some food) successfully. However, researching the science behind fasting reassured me and I easily did 18-hours on my first day without cravings. My monthly 60-hour fasts are similarly seamless.
This is testament to how getting the facts right and having a game plan is more useful than allowing anxiety to fester in our minds. We don’t have to give in to temptation, we simply have to face it.
I grew up in Singapore where public health posters scared us that “One puff, and you’re hooked”, reinforced by watching my friends become addicted. Except that many years later before my first cigarette, I remembered watching my father puff cigars and smoke occasionally. That memory trace affirmed that addiction wasn’t inevitable; indeed, I dabbled on-and-off for years without cravings.
I also remember watching four heavy-smoking family members quit the habit at the same time; in hindsight, that imprinted in my young mind that “You can conquer your demons”. Indeed, I’ve found that people who relapse multiple times have no personal role models who’ve quit a habit successfully, and therefore believe there are some demons that will haunt for life.
Witnessing real-life examples demonstrate what’s possible.
How can you raise your standards?
The problem with addictive behaviours is that sometimes, anything goes to fill the void or create that rush. And so we consume, do or hoard too much of a low-quality experience or product, and hate ourselves the next day.
Because the line between escape and pleasurable behaviours is thin, some questions to keep in check include:–
- Does this truly bring me joy?
- What am I escaping?
- Will I regret this?
Another way to turn this around is to define the minimum standards of said experience.
For instance, if someone loves indigo jeans and would typically buy many cheap pairs they don’t wear, we’d find one amazing pair they’d love and use, as a reward. This way, we only consume high-quality experiences and products mindfully, which shrinks the metaphorical muscle of mindless consumption.
“How can I reward myself?”
I once read a quote that if a chocolate brownie motivates you to run, then by all means you should eat it and run, rather than not run at all and eventually eat that brownie too.
Learning to reward ourselves for our continued progress trumps that big reward when we’ve achieved that ultimate goal, because we may burn out. Instead, small rewards flood our synapses with dopamine, making us likelier to repeat that behaviour.
Another way to build momentum is to start a Jar Of Awesome— a physical or digital list of accomplishments, to track our progress. The rule is that it doesn’t matter how small or ‘stupid’ your progress is, or how someone does it easily. What matters is it’s meaningful to you.
Last, I advocate my clients to tell themselves “Thank you for showing up for me”, when they’ve done something good. This fosters gratitude to themselves, making them appreciative of their progress.
What are your brakes?
Someone told me, “I set a limit on how much money I spend, and then walk out of the casino regardless”. Many mistakenly think that novel and pleasure-seeking experiences will be gone should they redesign their habits.
Actually, it revolves around the question, “How can I ground thrill within a stable structure?”
I loved the adrenaline rush of gambling; but the only reason I was in the VIP room of that casino was because my host supplied the chips. At 19, I also knew I loved money more than the rush, so I cashed in half my chips. Admitting that has stopped me from picking up vices with a recurring monetary burden. I coach clients to get honest about their priorities– my younger self always preferred to spend money on a pair of Dolce & Gabbana heels once a year and save the rest, rather than to lose it to an addiction.
With food, a limited time window to eat keeps me in-check, because I’m not a calorie counter. A time boundary has also made my Netflix-bingeing and gaming habits a thing of a past. With other behaviours I once dabbled with, I set two rules. First, I’d never pay for them; second, I’d stop the moment I found myself using them to escape my emotions. Setting these boundaries means I’ve already had pre-defined brakes, which I’ve always adhered to.
Is there an epigenetic inheritance?
Generations in my family have been through epic ups and downs financially; inevitably, stories and traumas related to scarcity may be transmitted epigenetically, playing out as compelling habits in our lives.
I’ve explored that with how I used to hoard all sorts of clothes and resources, and my feeding behaviours. Reminding myself that this is not my burden to bear has turned this around.
Learn how to deal when triggered
Use self-knowledge and mindfulness as your strategy to master an addictive personality. In particular, some questions:—
- What triggers the strong desires?
- When does it happen?
Because being able to anticipate them means you are more in-control. He champions learning to observe the cravings as another thought or emotion that arises, rather than be swept away.
It’s akin to Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki’s wisdom— “Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
When we feel triggered, it’s easy to get lost in our heads. A simple method I advocate is to ground ourselves— shuffle our feet on the floor, and do a quick 3-breath meditation to reset our brain’s fear centre, so we reconnect with our innate wisdom.
What about your environment needs to change?
Grisel states, “Disordered use might be mitigated by more opportunities to purpose this tendency in healthy ways. Indeed, our circumstances are both more likely and easier to change than internal factors”.
Consider your social circle— we are the sum average of the 5 people we hang around. So, examine who’s toxic or ambivalent, and whether they’re enabling your behaviours or triggering them as a result of feeling emotionally drained.
Also, remove situations of high risk— hunger, anger, tiredness and boredom— or have a gameplan to deal with them.
Be aware of self-sabotage
The old adage, “The easiest way to get rid of one addiction is to replace it with another” rings familiar. Our new lifestyles of choice may sadly become new addictions, if we’re not mindful.
Consider, “How can this new behaviour serve me best?”
In my case, I was worried I’d turn orthorexic. This fear didn’t come true. I eat my white carbs and desserts gleefully, and even during my non-fasting I’ve never eaten the way I used to. Being able to honestly and impartially examine and acknowledge our fears, rather than justify defensively, helps.
In his book The Big Leap, Psychologist Gay Hendricks writes that most of us are so unused to feeling good, we eventually sabotage ourselves. Or, what he christens The Upper Limit Problem. Awareness of this inoculates against self-sabotage.
Ask: How is my addiction serving me?
Sometimes, we benefit from keeping the status quo, even if we know it’s detrimental in the long-term. What we can do here is to honestly acknowledge what we believe our addiction protects us from. Fears may include being boring, bored or having others withdraw their attention when we no longer struggle with said behaviour.
Facing these means we strategise getting around these potential problems; making the future less scary and instead, welcoming.
Experiment and reflect
Consider your lifestyle redesign as an experiment in incremental steps, being open to how some things will suit you more than others. Sometimes, we pile on too many changes because we need our lives frantic and full, however this sabotages progress because we get overwhelmed.
It’s more important to take time out to reflect on the lessons learned. This way, we leverage accidental experiments.
For instance, reflecting on how I unintentionally lived out of a suitcase for three months taught me I can repeat the same outfit every few days (rather than every two years), and this spurred a substantial paring down of my possessions and shopping appetite.
Indeed, being centered means not being the puppet of addictive behaviours and learning to master who you are.
I get that ultimately, change is scary. Writing as someone who’s wrestled with many demons, hold on to your grand vision for your life, and then you’ll realise that it is costlier to keep things the way they are than to create transformation.
If you would like help to channel your addictive personality for your benefit, please get in touch.
* Disclaimer: If you have an addiction that is harming yourself and the people around you, please seek help from a professional.