July 22, 2003 -- Do you watch TV for hours without noticing? Or do you ramble on the phone for hours instead of going to bed?
If you answered yes to the questions above, there's a chance you could be a victime of "soft addictions."
Best-selling author, Judith Wright, coined the term "soft addictions" more than 12 years ago when she began teaching people how to break seemingly harmless habits like watching too much TV, over shopping, overeating, or surfing the Internet for hours.
Find out more about soft addictions and how to break them by reading an excerpt from Wright's book, There Must Be More Than This:
What are Soft Addictions? Soft addictions can be habits, compulsive behaviors, or recurring moods or thought patterns. Their essential defining quality is that they satisfy a surface want but ignore or block the satisfaction of a deeper need. They numb us to feelings and spiritual awareness by substituting a superficial high, or a sense of activity, for genuine feeling or accomplishment.
Many soft addictions involve necessary behaviors like eating, reading, and sleeping. They become soft addictions when we overdo them and when they are used for more than their intended purpose. Soft addictions, unlike hard ones such as drugs and alcohol, are seductive in their softness. E-mailing, shopping, and talking on the phone seem like perfectly harmless, pleasurable activities while we're engaged in them. When we realize how much time and energy we devote to them, however, we can see how they compromise the quality of our lives.
Though I'm going to provide you with a list of common soft addictions, you should understand that an almost infinite variety exists. A soft addiction can be as idiosyncratic as any individual personality. While a universal soft addiction might be television watching, a more personal form might be doodling geometric figures or counting things for no reason.
Some people have difficulty differentiating an occasional behavior or fleeting mood from a soft addiction. If you watch television one hour per day, is it only a harmless habit, while if you watch three hours per day (the national average), is it a soft addiction?
As a general rule, keep the following in mind: The motivation and the function of your behavior determine whether or not it's a soft addiction. For instance, television can be a window into new worlds, stimulating viewers with new ideas and leading them into meaningful pursuits -- or it can be a means of escape. I know a woman who is very selective in what she watches, using television as a tool to learn about life in foreign cultures and to understand animal behavior. She employs television watching as a tool to gain knowledge. Another woman I know vegges out in front of the television daily, channel surfing and letting the programs wash over her. She leads a tough, hectic work life, and she mistakenly believes her viewing habits relieve her of stress. Rarely does she have a particular program she wants to watch or a real reason for watching it.
As you compare the two television watchers, the differences in motivation and function are clear. The first woman's motivation revolves around very specific learning goals; the second woman's motivation is to numb herself. The first woman uses television to enhance her life; the second woman uses it to escape from her life.
Sometimes, however, the line between soft addictions and productive activities is less clear. Here are a few clues to help you define this line and recognize that your behavior is a soft addiction:
Zoning out. One way of identifying a soft addiction is to ask if you zone out while you're doing it. When we are zoned out, we are not fully engaged. We may be checked out or have a "nobody's home" look on our face. Zoning out suggests that the goal of our activity is numbness. Although we're physically engaged in an activity, our mind is elsewhere. After the activity, we often don't remember what we've done, seen, or read. While this often happens when watching television, it can also occur while shopping, working, having superficial conversations, or doing other activities.
Avoiding feelings. Does a given activity or mood grant you a reprieve from your emotions, especially intense emotions? We avoid feelings by being numb, enhancing the feelings we like to the exclusion of others, or even wallowing in one unpleasant feeling to avoid another. Many of us are uncomfortable with our deepest feelings, whether positive or negative. We don't know how to deal productively with our sadness or anger (or, in some instances, with our joy), so we find an activity or a mood that facilitates an emotion-muting state, leaving us with subdued sadness, low, level anger, or other unsettled feelings.
Compulsiveness. Does an irresistible urge drive you to indulge a particular behavior or mood? Do you feel compelled to do, have, or buy something, even though you know you don't need it? This may be accompanied by a helpless, powerless feeling. You may be unable to stop or reduce the amount of time spent on a given activity. Though you may find some transient pleasure, you often don't feel good about yourself after engaging in it. You persist in following the routine, saying to yourself, I'll never do this again. Though you try to stop, you can't.
Denial/Rationalization. If you're defensive or make excuses for your behavior, chances are it's a soft addiction. Denial is a refusal to acknowledge and rationalization is an excuse or explanation we use to justify a compulsive behavior. Both blunt our self-awareness and lower our expectations of ourselves. To make our actions acceptable, we ignore, conceal, or gloss over the real motive or cost. Either we maintain that a habit isn't a problem or we rationalize why it's an acceptable or necessary way to spend our time. "What's so bad about a few cups of coffee?" is a typical rationalization. We may deny that the hours spent surfing the Net are a waste of time and energy. The impulse to deny or rationalize a routine suggests a soft addiction.
Stinking thinking. Related to denial and rationalization, "stinking thinking" is distorted thinking based on mistaken beliefs. Overgeneralizing, magnifying, minimizing, justifying, blaming, and emotional reasoning are some examples. Stinking thinking creates the funny rules and logic of soft addictions, such as "There are no calories if I eat standing up," or "I can't possibly work out if I've already showered." Woven throughout soft addiction routines, this type of thinking is addictive in itself. The distorted thoughts prompt indulging in a soft addiction in the first place and later let us justify the indulgence.
Hiding the behavior. Beware of habits that become guilty pleasures you seek to hide. Covering up the amount of time you spend on an activity or lying to others about how you frequently spend your time or your money are signs of soft addictions. In other words, you feet ashamed of what you're doing and that's why you want to hide it from others.
Avoiding feelings or zoning out are perhaps the most telling of these signs. Part of the allure of soft addictions is that they provide an escape from the pace and pressure of life. If we've had a tough day, we want to relieve the pressure. The same impulse that pushes people to have a drink rather than talk out tensions at the end of a hard day leads them to soft addictions.
Doing this is perfectly natural. We all need to zone out at times. Zoning out allows our unconscious mind to sort things out, giving us the downtime we need to regroup. It would be unusual to find anyone who didn't need to escape from his feelings at certain moments. The problem, of course, is when this becomes a way of life and soft addictions become deeply ingrained. We become like football players who have an injury but anesthetize themselves so they can get back in the game. As a short-term strategy, this may work. We convince ourselves that if we didn't have our soft addictions, we couldn't keep going to work, taking care of the kids, and generally keeping our life together. The danger to the football player, however, is that the underlying injury never gets treated and can even worsen. Similarly, we become accustomed to numbing ourselves and never consciously feeling any pain (or any intense emotion, for that matter). In this way, we become out of touch with our deeper self. We fail to meet deeper needs and move farther from our full potential. At certain moments, however, we glimpse how out of touch we are and ask, "Is this all there is?"
People Who Ask the Question
Dave, Sharon, and Lana are examples of individuals in the grip of soft addictions who recognize that something is missing in their lives. They realize that the low level of sustenance provided by their soft addictions is insufficient or comes at great cost. See if these stories remind you of yourself or someone you know.
Dave is an executive with a start-up company. Not only does he work late and on weekends, he has also significantly reduced the time he spends with his wife and two small children. Even worse, his wife complains that he's always distracted when he's at home with the family. At work, Dave downs cup after cup of coffee to stay awake and alert. He tells himself that his current situation is only temporary (though it's lasted over two years) and he'll be his old self when the company turns the corner. One night he was still at the office at ten o'clock, and he overheard a coworker calling his wife and talking sweetly to his children. Dave couldn't remember the last time he'd spoken so sweetly to his family. Deep inside himself, Dave wondered if he wasn't missing the point. For a moment, he experienced a sense of panic, a feeling that he had somehow devoted himself to the wrong cause.
Excerpted from There Must Be More Than This by Judith Wright Copyright 2003. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.