When Thoughts Are Addicting: Breaking Free of Habits and Heartbreaks
“I can feel it breaking...or maybe it’s me breaking through it.” I told her. You’d remember her as being the friend I once told a terrible secret. She’s now my very intimate friend who gifted me an incredible kit for my birthday to help me burn off the last year of life and welcome in my new intentions on my recent birthday. The ceremony helped to get me past some things I needed to let go of, which included people, patterns and habits. But even after the rituals, there was the element of time needed. You can have all the right ingredients in order, but even birthday cakes need time to bake.
“It’s been three days and I can finally start to feel some normalcy coming back in, like I’m getting to a place where the potency is wearing off. I can finally think about other things. Over thinking it, analyzing it, trying to change it in my head, it's finally getting easier, like an addiction I’m breaking free of.”
There’s a crucial step in personal growth, the space between decision and result, a small but crucial phase that doesn’t get enough air time or attention. That little path one must walk between deciding to change or let go, and the actual conclusion of having it dispel.
Being in that space, trying to break out of old belief patterns of who I should be and what I should be doing at such a special but daunting time as a birthday, I had been wondering not what it would take to fully get over a heartbreak or conflict or even a belief pattern. But instead, the step just before that.
What does it take to start believing one will actually, eventually get over ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ may be? What does it take to start thinking things might actually change, and what kickstarts the growth process once one chooses it?
We concluded: Three days.
Three days because it's not the event itself you’re breaking from, be it a heartbreak or the bad habit you last performed. It’s the addiction to thinking about it or reasoning it or worse yet, trying to solve it with your thoughts. Like anything, thoughts and messages in your head can be addicting as hell. They can become so habitual and overwhelming, and you can come to rely on them so much for your understanding of yourself and the rest of the world, it feels like you can’t live without them. They can become one’s vices and yet one’s poisons. They can make you feel like you can’t live without them. Thinking about it would be to relive the moment or circumstance again and again. Reasoning it would be to come up with reasons why you should, could, or will perform that habit one more time. Solving it - or attempting to before the time is right - would be to examine from every angle with a selfish, self-serving perspective that isn't fully developed enough to do anyone good. But if you can survive three days with, at the very least, not acting on them, you stand a chance to get over them and one day, in the very distant future, break free of them.
Good things come in threes: There are the three Doshas: Vata, Kapha and Pitta. There are three warrior poses in yoga I can (somewhat) successfully accomplish. Freud based his personality assessment on three factors: the id, the ego and the super ego. Three little pigs. Three pieces to the aptly named three-piece-suit. Three virtues to live by: hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.
I’ve tested this time table more times than I care to admit. More times than I can count might be a more accurate assessment, but in either case...three seems to be the magic number. All one can do in the face of pain and grieving is wait it out anyway, but the knowledge that in three days that grief will be lessoned is incredibly soothing. It’s just three days.
It works in love. It works in friendships and family matters. It also works when you’ve spent the entire week prior gluttonously over indulging in cold, plain macaroni noodles and raw cookie dough and copious amounts of bacon (aka breakfast, lunch, dinner) as a way of coping with work stress and lack of sleep, and the guilt of not taking better care of yourself. I’m happy to report there are other, more important times it comes in handy: when you’ve been rejected by the umpteenth editor for being ‘too out there’ in your work, even though you can’t fathom such a thing being true or even possible. It works when you’ve just had a fight with your coworker. It works when you’ve just had a fight with your diet, your passion project, your yoga mat, your wardrobe, yourself and your future. I fight with those last two quite often.
Bottom line: give it three days. It works, and all it takes is that you do absolutely nothing but allow the evolution of the emotions to take place unhindered.
That means no texts to the guy that burned you. That means no internal messages of how you’ll never make this ‘gym thing’ stick. That means no calling out pettiness or passive aggressive remarks to the other party. That means no self criticism. That means no judgment. No decisions. Nothing. Just waiting. Three days initiates that first turn, not a transformation or rebirth but simply that first sense of relief, the breaking free of the addiction. And make no mistake, whether it’s a broken relationship, a broken diet, or a battered career, the addiction is present enacted through self sabotage, negative self talk, doubting one’s self or any other form of personal criticism and unworthiness. Three days from now, and you’ll start to see the light.
The first day feels like a jarring and necessarily determined attempt to not think about whatever’s going on. Trust me, the thoughts will come. The worries will bubble up. The fear, the insecurity, the questions (why, who’s right, who’s justified, what next?). Forget answering. Forget as much as you can.
Day one is about getting through said day without overindulging in vices and toxic thoughts. That might mean just spending way too long at the gym listening through the Anderson Paak catalog on Spotify. It might mean watching all of GOT again. And it might mean spending all day with your friends trying not to talk about it and finding yourself saying “sorry, I keep bringing it up but one more thing...”. Most important thing: get through day one. Don’t be too brash. Don’t make any sudden moves, like text anyone you shouldn’t. Just get through it. Today your heart and head need a day to breath, because simple breath is part of processing as well, like an open wound need time in fresh air without a water soaked band-aid covering it up or you mucking about in their gore.
Things will get a little easier today. I mean it when I use the word ‘little’. Not easy, but easier. The hours have piled on themselves steadily, hours in which you haven’t eaten an entire bag of chocolate chips or over analyzed, yet again, why that relationship didn’t work out. You’ve got 24 down, why not go for 48 without texting or snapping back something snarky to your coworker? Or if the problem was breaking up with your vice food (guilty), then there’s enough space to be able to say “I’ve made it one day, or most of one day, I need to keep going”. Hour 25, 26, 27...
It’s still difficult of course. Day two is when one starts to wonder: wait, why that other person isn’t reaching out to me and wanting to talk to ME. Why can’t I seem to stop thinking about cookie dough?
Again, just get through the day. Just get through it. Do whatever you have to - time is now on your side because you’re collecting victorious hours of freedom one by one. Hour 34, 35, 36. You’ve accomplished something. You have a short but miraculous track record of success to keep you accountable. Rely on it. Count it again and again like a precious coin purse of your personal will. And keep going.
In some ways, it’s the hardest. Because now it’s been three days since you spoke to that other person, if there is one. Maybe three days since you saw them and so you can assume three days since they wanted anything to do with you. Are they thinking of it too? Would one bite really kill you? Should you weigh yourself? Still lots of questions but it’s not time for answers. Because the fact that there are still lots of questions lets you know you’re still in addiction mode. Addicted to thinking about it too much. It’s still got a grip on you. That’s not a sound time to make decisions or have discussions.
On day three, your thoughts on the matter don’t, well, matter. It’s that itchy phase of a wound healing in which you want so badly to pick, pull, look too closely at, and generally mess with all the work that the healing process has been doing. But don’t. Don’t mess with it. Just get through today again, and know that this is that last pull, that last moment of really hard addiction trying to call you back into the thought processes that got you in this mess in the first place and if you can just be strong for one more day, tomorrow the cravings will finally get sick of you and wear off.
Just keep reminding yourself tomorrow you’ll feel stronger, better, and more clear headed. The emotional hangover of all this will wear off tomorrow if you can just stay away from your own vice or pain or problem a little longer. As much as you’re now energized enough to be curious (and the thoughts roll in like storm clouds...COULD I STOP AT JUST ONE BITE OF COOKIE DOUGH??). Don’t bother. It would be a waste of all the energy you’ve accumulated. And you’ll want to use that energy tomorrow.
Today, after three days of sleeping, resting, maybe even some yoga, you’re starting to see things with more clarity. The energy you’ve allowed to accumulate in all those hours of not spending it is now ready for you to direct to something better: You’re breaking free. The answers are starting to drip in: what you want, what you weren’t getting, why cold pasta is a sometimes-food. What they weren’t but you convinced themselves they were. What you actually want next time. Why it would have been so very sad and pathetic and self serving in the most embarrassing way had you sent that text you crafted so meticulously, and were sure would get them to respond. You’ll use that new found clarity to make a better decision. To clean out the text fight. To start reading your book again, did you forget you were in the middle of a book before all this drama? (I did.)
What did all that work, the ironic work of doing absolutely nothing for three straight days accomplish? The quietude you feel now that it’s over. The open, blank slate upon which your mind is out of hurt and pain ever so slightly enough that you can listen for answers of what to do next. The ability to breathe, and take a more objective look. Will you have all the answers? Will you know what to do next? Of course not.
But you’ll be able to breathe.