Standing Up to Cravings

When you do the hard work to break a bad habit or addiction—like smoking or drinking—you will likely recognize the same thought patterns that kept you stuck as they pop up around other behaviors.

For example: I am a salt freak. I cannot adequately stress how much I love salt. My placemat at the dining table is covered in salt. If I eat tuna salad on top of lettuce, I will probably salt it at least 10 times throughout the meal.

My blood pressure has never been high, so I wielded that salt shaker with abandon for decades. Recently I read that there are other negative health risks associated with sodium besides high blood pressure, so I decided to experiment with cutting back on salt in my diet.

In addition to reading the labels more closely on packaged food and reducing the amount of salt I add while cooking, I promised myself I would refrain from using any salt on my meals until my taste buds were restored to their factory settings.

This experiment started about a month ago, and it’s been a challenging four weeks. Suddenly, a salt drama queen was unleashed inside my head. You want me to eat cooked veggies without salt? she screamed. Wait, no salt on scrambled eggs?! What about a baked potato? Surely, we can make an exception for chicken salad. A little bit won’t hurt!

My salt queen has been describing everything I eat as boring and bland. She has even suggested that all the color has been drained from my (our?) life. How will we survive this wasteland devoid of salty goodness?

More black pepper? Yes, please, but not the same. Mrs. Dash? Nope. Maybe hot sauce? That seemed promising until I checked and saw that most of our hot sauces contain a fair amount of sodium.

My salt abstention is reminiscent of giving up cigarettes ten years ago and alcohol four years ago. In all three cases, the physical cravings were amplified by the mental and emotional links that had solidified over time.

Each time, my mind did not want to go through the readjustment period required to break those links. To me, so many foods are supposed to taste like salt. Just like long phone conversations with friends were supposed to be accompanied by cigarette after cigarette. And dinners at restaurants were supposed to feature a free flow of alcohol.

Not only that, but my use of alcohol and cigarettes had become deeply intertwined with each other. When I first quit smoking, I didn’t think I could drink a bottle of wine without going through a pack of cigarettes. Well, I proved myself wrong—I went on drinking smoke-free just fine. Then, when I quit drinking six years later, I found a way to continue eating nice meals out without alcohol.

So, now I find myself disentangling the consumption of myriad foods from copious amounts of salt. It sounds like a minor thing, but sadly it is not. My salt queen has calmed down some, but she still thinks our meals have been downgraded to black and white.

When you try to remove a longtime habit from your life, you realize how important it has become to you. How it has grown like ivy, spreading and twisting itself around many parts of your life. How a voice inside your head has been put in charge of its defense.

Deeply ingrained habits can be detached from your life, but first you must stand up to that stubborn voice, and you must be willing to sever every last vine.

Your Cluttered House

In my last blog post I compared a worn-out couch sitting in your living room to a bad habit taking up space in your life. Both the couch and the habit need to go, but you must make a plan for what to put in the spots that they occupy. Now I would like to propose a follow-up analogy—a cluttered house.

Let’s say you inherit a cabin in the woods from a distant relative. You didn’t even know someone in your family had a getaway house! You head out to the cabin, and you discover that the place is a mess. Apparently this relative was a bit of a hoarder.

Towering piles of books, newspapers, and magazines are everywhere. The kitchen is littered with empty jars, broken toasters, and abandoned cereal boxes. The bathroom is crowded with old towels, shampoo bottles, and loads of extra toilet paper. The bedroom is bursting with creepy dolls and other thrift store purchases.

Where do you start? Maybe you should just burn it all down you think, only half joking. You were so excited about spending long weekends and summer vacations at your very own cabin, so you reluctantly get cleaning.

You start with the biggest fire hazard—those ancient newspapers and magazines in the living room. It takes a lot of hard work, but you feel great once you’ve removed all that paper from the house. Then, you start to see an abundance of plastic grocery bags stuffed with trash that had been tucked in between the piles.

With the bags tossed, you move on to the other rooms. Room after room is the same: As you sweep away the junk that stands out the most, you uncover more stuff. There always seems to be more stuff.

This work takes time. You return to the cabin every weekend. Slowly, the floorboards, the bathroom tile, and the kitchen counters become visible. You can see the bones of the house. Now you must identify and address the structural issues that were hidden.

This house is us. The junk is all the unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and distractions that we’ve built up over our lives. The foundation, the walls, the windows, the roof—these represent our body, mind, heart, and soul. As we clear away the behaviors and beliefs that haven’t been serving us, we can pinpoint the issues underneath.  

I’ve been cleaning out my metaphorical house for more than three years. I started with my drinking because it was the towering pile that was getting in the way of the life I wanted to lead. Without the drinking, it became obvious that my TV and social media habits needed tackling.

There was and is no shortage of crap in my house. I am a hoarder of personal issues: Shopping and money-related anxiety, fixating on my weight and body image, people-pleasing, ruminating and catastrophizing, body-focused repetitive behaviors, procrastination tendencies, and so on.

This assortment of diversions, short-term solutions, and numbing techniques kept me from peering below the surface. Without all the clutter, I was able to get a good look at my self-doubt. Then I had to acknowledged that unless I wanted to fill myself up all over again with a new set of counter-productive habits, I needed to face my pain and my fears.

Keeping your personal foundation solid is an ongoing task, but much like a real house, if you want a nice place in which to live, you have to do the work!