How to change destructive behavior and overcome shame
I received the following email in response to this article about drugs and addiction:
“Stephen, I really think you’re on to something here, but I don’t think you go far enough. How does one go on to meet the real need. Take your example of pornography for instance? How does one meet the real need? How about drug abuse because a person likes the high (I assume the low doesn’t offset the high). Perhaps consider a follow up article that can aid readers to determine how to complete their transformation.”
He’s absolutely right.
The challenge is trying to cover the depths in a newsletter format. The answer to this question would really require a book.
I’ll do my best to give you an overview here, with recommended reading if you want to explore this topic further.
Identify the real need
First, the real challenge for most of us isn’t actually meeting the need, but rather identifying the real need. We have trouble meeting our needs less because we don’t know how to and more because we can’t identify them.
For example, why do men get addicted to pornography? On the surface, it seems like the need is merely biological and physiological.
But the biological sex drive simply hijacks and masks a much deeper truth: What pornography addicts really yearn for is emotional connection.
Because of emotional wounds, they crave to feel wanted, and pornography gives them the illusion and feeling that they are desperately wanted.
This is why my definition of a lie is anything that promises to meet our needs but doesn’t. And lies usually don’t meet our needs because they conceal the real, actual need and replace it with counterfeits.
As another reader responded to me, with whom I absolutely agree:
“99.99% of the time the unmet need is emotional. We don’t know how to get our emotional needs met because we are taught from a young age that our emotional needs are somehow not valid or that we shouldn’t feel’ a certain way. This is especially true with men.
“Most of the time the unmet need is as simple as a hug. A hug produces the same feel good chemicals as sugar, cocaine, or even porn.
“But we leave the need unmet because to be vulnerable is to risk being seen as weak. And weakness, according to societal standards, is a bad thing.
So, avoid drugs, get more hugs. Sounds very simple and it is. It’s the being vulnerable enough to ask part that can sometimes seem impossible.”
Use mindfulness to identify needs
How we identify our real needs is through mindfulness. As defined by my mentor, friend, and client Michael Bunting, a twenty-two-year mindfulness practitioner and teacher,
“Mindfulness means to maintain an awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and environment in the present moment. It is paying attention in the present moment purposefully and non-judgmentally. It is experiencing and accepting the present moment as it really is — not how we want it to be, think it should be, or perceive it to be — but as it really is.”
As I said in my last newsletter, mindfulness invites you stop judging your use of your drug of choice and shaming yourself for it and instead, looking at it objectively and curiously, asking the question, “What need am I trying to meet with this drug?”
You explore that question with gentleness, inner kindness, and compassion, recognizing that underneath the destructive behavior lies pain and a desire to truly take care of yourself.
Identifying the actual, real, authentic need underneath the lies and counterfeits of drugs is half the battle. Meeting the need is relatively simple once you’ve identified it and see it clearly.
- Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield
- How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends With Your Mind by Pema Chodron
- Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
- The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
- A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristen Neff
Identify your needs in your criticisms of others
“Judgments, criticisms, diagnoses, and interpretations of others are all alienated expressions of our needs.”
Instead of getting in tune with and skillfully meeting our needs, we criticize others in an attempt to shame them into meeting our needs.
Every time you criticize someone, look closer to discover what your real need is. Criticizing won’t help you get your needs met — it only pushes people away from you — but it can help you identify them.
- Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
- The Surprising Purpose of Anger by Marshall Rosenberg
Find strength in vulnerability
Once you’ve identified your real need, you have to communicate it to others. The challenge here is that this feels vulnerable and vulnerability feels like weakness to the ego.
The truth is precisely the opposite: vulnerability makes us strong.
As Brene Brown explains,
“Masks make us feel safer even when they become suffocating. Armor makes us feel stronger even when we grow weary from dragging the extra weight around. The irony is that when we’re standing across from someone who is hidden or shielded by masks and armor, we feel frustrated and disconnected. That’s the paradox here: Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown
Communicate your needs to others clearly, respectfully, and nonviolently
Again, Marshall Rosenberg’s life-altering methodology is key here. A very brief overview:
- Make observations without evaluations. Laying in the couch playing video games is an observation. An evaluation is lazy. State simply what you observe, not what you interpret or evaluate.
- Express feelings responsibly. Tell the person whom you’re communicating with how you feel about what you’ve observed, without making them the source of your feelings. For example, an irresponsible communication of feelings would be, “You make me so angry when you lay on the couch playing video games.” A responsible way to express this is, “When you lay on the couch playing video games, I feel angry.”
- State your need. What is it you’re needing? State it clearly and directly. “When you lay on the couch playing video games, I feel angry because I want you to help me take care of the kids and I want to feel supported.”
- Make a request. Don’t say what you don’t want — say what you do want. “Will you please bathe the kids and get them ready for bed?” Also, make sincere requests, not hidden demands, which infer blame and/or punishment.
READ THIS BOOK ASAP: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
Learn to meet your own needs
There are many times when you won’t be able to get others to meet your needs. It’s imperative that you learn to meet your own needs through self-compassion.
You have a need to be loved unconditionally. You probably won’t receive that from most people. Learn to love yourself unconditionally.
You have a need to feel understood. Other people may not ever fully understand you. Learn to understand yourself, and for that to be enough.
You have a need to feel safe with the vulnerability of communicating your needs. Learn to be safe for and within yourself.
As you learn to lovingly and skillfully meet your own needs, your capacity to meet the needs of others is increased.
At the root of your attraction to drugs of any type, of everything you’ve ever done wrong, of all your destructive behavior is unmet needs.
And the only way you can change your attractions and behaviors for good is to meet your real needs.