Seven Mind Tricks that Hinder People from Breaking Addictions

Making Friends with the Spaciousness: Lessons from Gerald G. May’s Addiction and Grace

Part 2 of 3

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Someone who struggles to overcome an addiction will learn this lesson well. In Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May described his struggle by comparing it to quicksand:

Even when I consciously try to stop the behavior, my brain is unconsciously learning it better and seeking it more. My motivations are truly mixed, and I am fully at war with myself. My attachment has become like quicksand; the more I struggle and flail about with my willpower, the more mired down I become…My self-esteem crumbles as I sense how truly out of control I am. I am in the clutches of the enemy, and the enemy is clearly myself.[1]

You can break free of addictions, but you are going to fight yourself in doing so. You are going to come to know yourself as your own enemy. Since this is unavoidable, you might as well study your enemy and learn his or her tactics.

There is a part of you that wants to stay addicted, even while another part wants to be free. The pro-addiction part of you will use every weapon at his or her disposal. Gerald May called these weapons “mind tricks,” and he identified several of them.

Here are seven mind tricks you will likely be confronted with as you overcome an addiction. According to May, these mind tricks “all have a single purpose: to keep the addictive behavior going.”[2] This is why you want to be familiar with these tricks. When you see their goal, you will see through them.

Resolving to resolve

This is the delaying tactic in which you decide to dedicate some time and attention to breaking your addiction. This decision, in and of itself, can make you feel like you are dealing with the problem, even if nothing comes of it.

May described it this way:

The mind will suggest, perhaps, that it is not wise to rush into things. “I need to think this through and decide carefully when and how to quit and what my reasons and strategies will be.” If this delaying tactic works, the mind can simply forget what it planned to think about. Then, when the memory does come back, the delay can happen again. “I simply must figure out how I am going to stop.” The “resolving to resolve” stage can effectively prohibit any real action from taking place for years at a time.[3]

The myth of the ideal time

How many New Year’s resolutions have you made, and how many have you kept? Whatever your personal answer is, there is no doubt that such resolutions have a dismal track record. There is nothing about January 1 that gives you more power to defeat an addiction. There is nothing special about any other future day either.

No season in life is without some kind of stress. No season is safe from emergencies. The only really strategically special day is today.

Looking for the perfect time is similar to resolving to resolve. Both of these tricks are about making things more complicated than they need to be.

May warned that this tendency can drown your attempts to quit before they get started:

The mind is infinitely ingenious at complicating the process of quitting. When what is needed is direct, clear-cut refusal to perform the addictive behavior, the mind invents such convoluted and entangled complications that the addicted person finds himself thrashing about helplessly in an ocean of details.[4]

Focus attention on willpower

It’s tempting to think that all you need is more willpower. Theoretically, that might be true. But the fact is that you don’t have more willpower. And you are not going to get more as long as your will is divided.

Gerald May warned that the part of you that wants to stay addicted will also want to spotlight this divided willpower:

As soon as one tries to control any truly addictive behavior by making autonomous intentional resolutions, one begins to defeat oneself. For the most part, defeat is due to mixed motivations. One part of the will sincerely wants to be free. Another part wants to continue the addictive behavior. In any true addiction, the second part is stronger, and so the resolutions fail. A fundamental mind trick of addiction is focusing attention on willpower.[5]

You don’t just need willpower, you need help. Depending on the addiction, you may need professional help. You definitely need God’s help.

And you also have to want to quit. So you do need willpower. But you probably have enough of it already, if you apply it consistently. Don’t throw it away, but don’t let it become your obsession either.

A sense of terror

This is both ridiculous and a good sign at the same time. It is ridiculous because there really is nothing to be afraid of. Nevertheless, the terror is real. It is a good sign because it means you are approaching real freedom from the addiction, not just procrastinating.

If you experience this, May’s advice is to recognize the reason for it, and to see past it at the same time:

If the person makes it through these deceptions to the point of authentically deciding to quit, a profound sense of terror will arise at the prospect of relinquishing the addictive behavior. On the surface, the fear will seem reasonable; the addiction has become so much a part of the person’s life that its relinquishment feels like death. But it is just another mind trick, another delaying tactic. The truth, of course, is that the person survived quite well before the addiction and could do so again.[6]

Giving up in despair

This happens after trying and failing. At some point, you just say to yourself, “I can’t do it. I can’t quit. I am going to stop trying.”

This may seem like a natural reaction to failure, but follow it to its source. “I can’t quit” is not an accurate thought. It’s a mind trick. There is a part of you that doesn’t want to quit, and that’s where this idea is coming from.

This mind trick is especially strong after a failure. It seeks to use failure as an excuse not to try anymore.

Sometimes you might even think this giving up is your rock-bottom experience, the point at which God takes over and does what you can’t do. But May warned of a kind of counterfeit rock-bottom experience, which is really just an acceptance of the status quo:

There may be some grace in this admission of defeat, but it is still misperceived by the addicted person…the “higher power” to which she is surrendering is not God; it is the addiction itself.[7]

Letting your guard down too soon

Sometimes quitting an addiction is easier than you think it will be. Sometimes, however, it only seems easier. Stay vigilant. “That was easier than I thought” likely means that falling back into the addiction will also be easier than you think.

May had this to say about the premature victory celebration: “If, instead of failing, the person temporarily succeeds in stopping the addictive behavior, the greatest mind trick of all comes into play.”[8]

Deciding to manage and moderate instead of quit

This is another mind trick that arises after a little bit of victory. You start to think that maybe you don’t need to quit altogether. Maybe the addiction wasn’t so destructive and unhealthy after all. Maybe you just need to moderate it from now on. Maybe a few days of successfully abstaining from the addictive behavior was all you needed to get it under control.

May described it this way:

For a while, “I can handle it” means the person feels she can fight off any impulses to engage in the addictive behavior. Before long, however, “I can handle it” means she thinks she can engage in the addictive behavior without becoming enslaved to it again.[9]

Now, there is nothing wrong with abstaining from certain behavior for a season. Do it all you want. Go two weeks without the internet. Go three weeks without coffee. Go four weeks without chocolate. But decide ahead of time what you will do without, and for how long.

Don’t resolve to quit something for good, and then, after a few days of success, decide that you only needed to quit temporarily. Don’t downgrade your victory. A short-lived victory will turn out to be no victory at all. This is a mind trick.

Persevere

Learn these seven mind tricks. Recognize them, then ignore them. Don’t answer them. Don’t try to outsmart yourself. Just keep seeking freedom from addiction. If you experience a failure, continue.

Don’t resolve to try harder. In doing so, you may pause your efforts completely while you wait for that extra measure of willpower that is never coming. This is a delaying tactic.

Don’t decide to study the matter and try again after you have perfected your strategy. This is another delaying tactic.

Don’t give up in despair. This is also a delaying tactic. It will waste time you don’t have. You can’t afford the luxury of despair.

If you fail, fail without excuse. Fail without rationalization, self-flagellation, or self-deception. Fail with your eyes open. And then keep trying.

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Making Friends with the Spaciousness: Lessons from Gerald G. May’s Addiction and Grace

Part 1: A Christian Psychologist Looks at Addiction

Part 2: Seven Mind Tricks that Hinder People from Breaking Addictions

Part 3: Prayer as an Entrance into Freedom

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[1] May, Gerald G., Addiction and Grace, p. 60 (Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1988)

[2] May, p. 43

[3] May, p. 46

[4] May, p. 47

[5] May, p. 28

[6] May, p. 47

[7] May, p. 48

[8] May, p. 48

[9] May, p. 49