Hello, beautiful friends. It's been ages since my last post. In February and March, I battled my way through Anatomy and Physiology and had an amazing time exploring the beaches in Thailand and the jungle in Northern Sumatra. I've recently started a new course at school which I'm really excited about called "Psychology of Disease", which is the study of energy centers in our bodies (chakras) and how they affect disease. It's definitely my jam : )
We were asked to write a paper on our own personal 'confirmed addictions'. This really got me thinking about my definition of addiction. Vulnerability warning: I'm letting it all hang out in this post.
Okay, deep breath. Here goes.
‘Addiction’ is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble).” The secondary definition is "an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something.” What is my definition of addiction? Personally, the secondary definition from the dictionary resonates with me more than the primary. Society tends to label addicts as those who have an extreme or severe problem with abusing alcohol or drugs, food, shopping, or gambling. We (subjectively) measure the severity of the problem based on the frequency and how we perceive its effect on the person’s life. For example, we tend to place the label of ‘addict’ on those who are debilitated by their behaviour: the crack-using prostitute on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the alcoholic husband who beats his wife, the gambling wife who has put her family in thousands of dollars of debt. But what about the individual’s intent behind the repeated behaviour? Is it a form of self-medication in order to cope with trauma, fear, sadness, anger, anxiety? And, if it isn’t a form of self-medication, is it still an addiction? What about the thirty-something female who goes to work every day and doesn’t touch drugs or alcohol, and who also repeatedly exercises without ever giving her body a rest because she believes she is fat? Or the teenage girl who is the star on her high school’s volleyball team who is also consumed with imitating the behaviour and appearance of a pop culture icon because she believes that that is the only way that boys will be interested in her? Or the twenty-something male who gets straight A’s in university and regularly binge drinks on the weekend because he believes it’s the only way his peers will accept him. Couldn’t we argue that even though these individuals are participating in their lives in a way that society deems acceptable, these behaviours are still debilitating for them? If we really look within, isn’t it possible that we are all addicted to something, and that that addiction could be preventing us from accepting ourselves exactly as we are, and discovering and living the lives we truly want? Just imagine if society softened its judgment of self and others, and opened up to this idea. So, my definition of addiction lies in the answer to this question: Is my repeated behaviour, or an unusually great interest in something, or a need to regularly do or have something an attempt to cover up or numb a part of myself that I have not yet accepted and/or made peace with?
I am going to talk about two of my own addictions: perfectionism and productivity, how they show up in my life, how they serve or don’t serve me, and some strategies to enhance my wellbeing and soften my addiction.
I would not classify myself as someone who has ever been obsessed with being perfect. However, I would say that I have strived for certain ideals that could be classified as slightly imbalanced. Truthfully, I don’t enjoy engaging in activities that I don’t already know I am great at. I want to be the best at everything I do and every role I play: the best student, the best paralegal, the best friend, the best daughter, the best sister. It manifested as anxiety in my late teens and early 20’s, and the word “should” was a famous player in my vocabulary. And when I make a mistake? Yikes. I am definitely not always very kind or gentle with myself. I have very high expectations of myself, which also means I have very high expectations of others; and, this means I’ve spent a lot of time being disappointed.
I believe that my addiction to perfectionism has also served me. I consider myself a highly motivated person who always wants to do her best. I set the bar high, and I have achieved many of the goals I have set in my life. Perfectionism has made me accountable to myself, and to others. I know that the people in my life can count on me to show up and to do a good job. I have always maintained good grades in school, and I take great pride in handing in high quality work. In my career as a paralegal, I am organized, work efficiently, and have a strong attention for detail and consistency.
My desire for perfection was born in the shadow of my ego. I have used perfectionism as a way to over compensate for the beliefs I’ve held about myself at different times in my life that I am not worthy of love and acceptance of others, unless I am flawless. I can remember times in my life where I felt devastated if I received any sort of negative feedback either at school or at work. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity for growth and improvement, I saw myself as a complete failure. Now I realize that there is always room to improve, as long as that desire to improve myself doesn’t lead to unrealistic ideals. I am mindful of keeping this balance, and gently remind myself often that perfection is not a realistic standard to achieve.
The following three strategies are some which I am either already using, or can use, to balance and soften my addiction and create realistic standards for myself, and others:
1. Teach someone something that I am very good at that perhaps they are not as strong at, and observe my patience with that person. Journal about my experience to gain perspective on how I might cultivate that patience and gentleness for myself;
2. Practice metta (loving-kindness) meditation using the Buddhist tonglen technique to cultivate loving-kindness towards myself, my loved ones, strangers, and enemies. Using the tonglen technique, I breathe in (receiving) the suffering of myself and others, and breathe out (sending) happiness for myself and others; and
3. In times where I am being unkind to myself or beating myself up for not meeting an impossibly high standard, repeat the affirmation: “I am enough”.
“Being busy is my antidepressant”. I remember telling my best friend this, about eight years ago. Always a full social calendar, a full-time job, a part-time job, part-time school, training for half-marathons, performing in musical theatre productions, and never-ending goals and to-do lists. Just typing this out makes me dizzy. I’m happy to say that over the past few years, I’ve been working really hard on slowing down. In the past, I’ve definitely been addicted to using productivity as a distraction from looking at and dealing with things I was unhappy with in my life.
While I’ve largely begun to change my relationship with productivity, it still shows up in my life. I’ve been known to pull out my phone while waiting in line or for an appointment, treating it as an opportunity to respond to an email or text message, instead of noticing what’s going on around me or reading a magazine or a book. I’ve also been known on a Sunday night to schedule out my work, play and exercise regime for the week, and create monster to-do lists. I will often look at a day off as an opportunity to run from here to there and accomplish as much as possible in a small amount of time. I catch myself engaging in one conversation and listening to another going on around me at the same time.
Productivity has definitely served me in a positive way in my life. As the saying goes, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Working full time and going to school part time means I have to manage my time and make the most of it. My career is very deadline oriented which means prioritizing competing tasks in order to complete things on time. In short, productivity has helped me accomplish a lot.
Where productivity hasn’t served me is when I am constantly expending my energy outward, rather than keeping it for myself, and I end up putting others’ needs before my own. Productivity prevents me from saying “no” and often results in feeling over extended and burnt out. It makes me feel angry and grumpy. Productivity has also distracted me from uncovering my true life’s purpose.
The following three strategies are some which I am either already using, or can use, to balance and soften my addiction and keep my energy inward:
1. Carve out time for myself each week, either during the week or on the weekend, to do nothing but what I absolutely want to do, versus what I could or should be doing. This can include booking a lunch break for myself a few times a week and/or turning off technology and anything else that may tempt my energy outward, or treating myself to an hour with a good book instead of cleaning the bathroom : )
2. Practice saying “no” to perceived or real obligations and choose to spend time and energy on my myself; and
3. When unexpected free time presents itself, take the opportunity to choose an activity that does not require doing something for others or expending my energy externally. For example, carry a book in my purse to pull out while I’m waiting for an appointment, rather than responding to emails and text messages on my phone.
In conclusion, the definition of addiction can be viewed in a very broad sense. We all engage in behaviours that don’t serve us and that may be preventing us from living the lives we are truly meant to live. And, before attaching a negative stigma and beating ourselves up over it, we can consider whether balancing or softening the behaviour can serve us. Maybe we create new patterns of behavior that enable us to recover from our alcohol addiction in order to help others around us who are struggling with the same demons. Or maybe we being to practice self-acceptance in order to overcome our eating disorder to help others who are suffering in their relationships with food.
In considering what our own addictions are, we can look at the behaviours and patterns that we find ourselves regularly engaging in, and look at our intentions behind them. If we stop ourselves before we engage in the familiar pattern, and ask ourselves what we are feeling: are we angry, afraid, anxious, sad? What is the outcome we are hoping for? Are we trying to distract from something, or cover up a negative belief we have about ourselves? If we are willing to look at the answers to those questions, we can begin to untie ourselves from the knot that is keeping us entrenched in a behavior that is no longer serving us. We can also begin to observe with compassion those around us who may be suffering with addictions of their own. As we begin to loosen the grip and “get out of the way” of ourselves, we can recreate patterns to help us to live the life we are truly meant to live.
After all, we are all divine, unique, sweet souls having a human experience.
The universe needs you, to be YOU,