Patterns of destructive thought and behavior that repeatedly fuel each other.
Do you ever leave the news running in the background because you “need to keep your thumb on the pulse of what’s happening?” or eat just one more bite of the chocolate cake even though your stomach is about to burst? Perhaps someone cuts you off on the highway, and you blow your top or your favorite piece of china breaks, and you kick the wall in a fury, stubbing your toe in the process.
In this chapter, we’re going to dig into the spinning wheels of Addictionand Aggression. When I say Addiction, I don’t just mean drugs or alcohol. I’m talking about the array of behaviors we ALL do to escape, like unhealthy eating, binging on social media, or working long hours. Similarly, Aggression is any mood that takesvover your entire being and leaves you and others wallowing in regret.
Most of us take comfort in the fact that our Addictions and Aggressions are socially acceptable enough that no one pushes us to jump into rehab, but these behaviors wreak havoc on our lives every day, and not just because they keep us from living healthy lifestyles. It’s because they keep us from facing one of our greatest teachers: pain. You may be thinking: Pain – A teacher? How could that be? Karla learned exactly how after a session that began with her calling me in a huff.
Chana: What’s wrong?
Karla: I’ve been working on a blog post for hours. I spent the past few days on it, and yesterday my computer crashed and erased the whole thing!
Notice that Karla has simply stated a collection of facts: She was working, and the computer did crash. But our brain doesn’t just process facts; it colors the experience through the lens of our beliefs, which is why Karla’s voice is charged with frustration.
Chana: And why are you upset?
Karla: What do you mean? Of course I’m upset! Wouldn’t you be upset if your work was erased?
Chana: If I were upset, I would have my reasons. What is more important here are what your reasons are. What does it mean to you that your work got erased? (ATM)
Karla: I… I don’t know.
Chana: Take a moment to breathe and think about it. Your computer crashed, and your blog post was erased. And that means…
Karla: It means that, as usual, things just don’t work out for me.
Bingo! Here’s why Karla’s frustrated. It’s not the computer crash, but rather the grand symbolism of it.
Chana: How do you react when you believe that things don’t work out for you?
Karla: Ugh. My body sinks. I feel weak.
Chana: Any emotions come up?
Karla: Yeah… I feel sad. And frustrated. I want to give up.
Chana: What are you unable to do when you believe that things don’t work out for you?
Karla: I can’t remember what I wrote. I can’t sit at the computer and try again. And… Oh yeah… I don’t even think of asking one of my computer savvy friends to try and help me recover the file. It just feels hopeless.
Chana: Any movies playing in your mind?
Karla: Yes. Of all the times that things went bust. My middle school science project… Now I see the big fat F at the top of my college history paper and the nasty haircut I got when I was 8. It’s such a miserable movie. That’s why I couldn’t sleep last night. It was the “Karla’s a Loser” rerun special.
Any motivation to move forward has drained out of Karla. In a nutshell, she’s in mental and physical pain. For most of us, pain is tremendously uncomfortable.
Our culture pushes us to avoid it at all costs. So what do we do to combat it? We muster up our two best friends: fight and flight.
Fight manifests as rebellion, anger, and blame. In other words, Aggression:
Chana: What did you do while you couldn’t sleep?
Karla: This is so embarrassing. I recorded a very obnoxious message to my friend Allison. She’s the one who encouraged me to start the blog in the first place. I fumed at her for like five minutes. I’m so humiliated.
Karla: Because now she probably hates me.
The Aggression Tailspin has begun. Karla’s believing a thought that causes her pain, and to fight it, she’s gets aggressive, but the aggression leads her either back to her original belief or a similarly destructive one.
Chana: And how do you react when you believe that she probably hates you?
Karla: Believe it or not, this morning, when I looked in the mirror, I actually slapped myself.
Chana: You didn’t like the upset you experienced when you believed that nothing works out for you, so you tried to get it out on Allison.
Chana: But what did that lead to?
Karla: More pain. Oh… and more aggression. I could be running in this loop forever if I don’t stop.
Flight seems more demure than fight, because we’re just running away. Flight manifests itself as Addiction, which includes screen time and drugs, but also behaviors we often label as “psychotic,” like dark or obsessive thinking. Hard though it may be to believe, thoughts of self-harm are an addiction that allows us to escape the excruciating story we might be telling ourselves about our lives. It can keep us so busy that we don’t have to face our rotting pile of pain.
Karla’s sleepless night has me wondering whether this situation is an addiction trigger. Only one way to find out:
Chana: Did any addictions come up for you when you believed that things don’t work out for you?
Karla: Yeah. Last night, after my hideous message to Allison, I went straight for my favorite comforts: chocolate chunk ice cream and a trashy novel. I know it’s bad for me and so fattening, but last night, I didn’t care.
We already see that Karla judges her addictive behavior as bad, fattening, and trashy, and I’m guessing there’s more judgment on the way:
Chana: How do you feel about the ice cream and novel now?
Karla: Lousy. It just further proves that nothing ever works out for me.
Karla: Because for one, I broke my resolution to stop eating sweets; two, I didn’t keep my commitment to finish my blog on time; and three, I wasted hours doing nothing.
Karla has added three new neural pathways to this belief, so it’s become stronger inside her brain. On top of that, renewing it makes her feel even worse. She now has a heftier mound of pain to face.
Chana: Karla, when you believe all that, what do you want to do?
Karla: Honestly? This is going to sound ridiculous, but… I want more
Exactly! And I’m sure as she opens the freezer she’ll be telling herself, “This’ll be the very last one…” Then she’ll feel yuckier, which will lead to more ice cream and, of course, more yuck. Karla would become a hamster in a cage, stuck running ‘round and ‘round in the AddictionLoop.
A person can easily spin in and between both the Aggression Tailspin and the Addiction Loop, jumping from anger to cocaine to violence to pizza. That’s why we see rage and addiction packaged together in so many people.
We may crazy-eight in and out of the Addiction Loop and Aggression Tailspin, so it’s important to see them as a paired system. The diagram below shows you how seemingly out-of-control behavior has a logical progression and an available remedy:
How do we stop these crazy cycles? By activating courage. Brene Brown teaches that courage is the strength to share what’s in our heart, to be vulnerable with our emotions. I believe that since we are our own worst critics, we’re also our most challenging audience and the one we have to open up to the most.
First, Karla has to allow herself to feel the sadness that’s sinking her body and motivation to the ground.
Karla: It’s so uncomfortable. I wish I could just have the ice cream.
Chana: Do you really want the ice cream?
Karla: No. I’d rather have peace and a good night’s rest.
Chana: So close your eyes and go back to the moment when you realized that your file was erased. Breathe and permit yourself to feel without judging the feelings or wishing them away.
Karla: Okay, I’m in it.
Chana: The file was deleted, and you’re upset, but are you okay?
Karla: Huh. I never thought of it that way. Yeah, I’m okay. I’m not dying or anything.
Chana: The question is, do you want to continue to feel how you’re feeling?
Karla: For sure not!
Chana: So what do you need to do?
Karla: Um… ask, “What’s the thought?” It’s the one I mentioned earlier. Nothing ever works out for me.
Karla’s pain is a guide: the physical suffering created by her thoughts is her body’s way of letting her know that she’s somehow fighting reality. If she doesn’t want to keep suffering, she’ll need to reassess her thinking.
Chana: Is it true that things don’t ever work out for you?
Karla: Feels like it.
Chana: Can you absolutely know that it’s true that things don’t ever work out for you?
Chana: We have a pretty good idea of how you react when you believe the thought. I’d like you to take a moment to imagine yourself in front of the computer without believing that things don’t ever work out for you?
Karla: I’m annoyed that I lost my file, but I don’t feel devastated. My body isn’t sinking to the ground. I’m in more of a problem-solving mode.
Chana: Do you have any cravings for ice cream without the thought?
Karla: No, I simply want to get the blog done. I can see myself calling a friend to try and retrieve the file or just starting over again. I’ll finish later than I hoped, but the rewrite will be much faster because I have my thoughts organized better now than when I first started.
Chana: Great. Open your eyes again and give me a turnaround for, “Things don’t ever work out for me.”
Karla: Things do work out for me.
Chana: Give me three reasons why that’s as true or truer than your original thought.
Karla: Even though my computer crashed, it’s up and working again. I’m excited about the ideas in this post and know that even though it’ll take me extra hours of work, it’s going to be a good one.
Chana: One more.
Karla: My blog has been getting more popular every week. It’s working out for me, even though I was originally hesitant to start sharing my ideas on the Internet.
Chana: Wow. That’s inspiring. Can you give me another turnaround?
Karla: My thinking doesn’t ever work out for me.
Chana: And that’s true because…?
Karla: I had this minor setback, and my thinking turned it into a major saga. People lose files all the time. It doesn’t have to mean anything other than that it would be a good idea for me to back up my files.
Chana: Why else is it true?
Karla: My thinking was focused on judging me and my life rather than on solving the challenge I had in front of me. And it led me to binge on ice cream… which I think I’m never buying again. If it’s not there, I’ll be more likely to do Inquiry next time.
Chana: Sounds like a courageous move.
Karla. Yeah. Thanks!
Escaping pain might feel good in the short run, but deprives us of the opportunity to learn and grow beyond the limiting beliefs that pin us down into feeling small and behaving in ways that cause us further suffering. Identifying Aggression and Addiction, stopping them in their tracks, and questioning the beliefs that get us there is the boldest exit from the roller coaster.
Summary of The Addiction Loop and Aggression Tailspin
Identify The Addiction Loop and Aggression Tailspinwhen you’re consistently using your “drugs” of choice or engaging in harmful behavior to avoid the pain caused by unexamined beliefs. Take the courage to face your pain and identify the false beliefs fueling it. You can then do Inquiry and move towards peace, joy, and light.
Like what you’ve read? You can learn Addiction Loop and Aggression Tailspinalong with 21 other tools in my book, Hold That Thought. Download a free copy of the book here.