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How to Build Better Self-Control in Addiction Recovery


April 5, 2018

Humans are great at having good intentions. Sticking with your intentions and carrying them out, however, are far more challenging for many reasons. Change is hard even if you perceive the outcome of the change as positive. 

Self-control is a skill, not a character trait. It is something you initiate, practice, and develop by getting into the habit of controlling your behavior. You may be well-practiced in giving in to urges, but you might not be as practiced in self-control. There is no magic to self-control, only persistence and practice. The good news is that means that self-control is something you have the ability to improve. 

While self-control is not the same thing as addiction recovery, it certainly has a role in sustained addiction recovery. Here is what you should know about self-control if you are in recovery from addiction. 

Why “Just Stopping” Is Not a Solution for Addicts

It is only natural for someone who has never experienced addiction to say to themselves, “Why don’t they just stop?” in reference to people who abuse alcohol or other substances. Addiction physically changes the structure of the brain, however. It is not a weakness of character or inadequacy of willpower but is, in fact, a brain disease. 

Think about it. Have you ever met an addict that deliberately decided to become an addict? Of course not. That is because the brain of the addict is co-opted and rewired by addiction. Self-control is too frail a dart to penetrate a hide as tough as addiction. Once addiction recovery is underway, self-control gains a more important place in the recovering addict’s toolkit. 

Stall, Distract, Resist

Dealing with urges and cravings is part of addiction recovery, and it is like learning to cook or skate or play piano in that you have to start out as a beginner, force yourself to start behaving differently, and consistently practice those actions. It will not feel good at first, and you may feel clumsy or incompetent. This is perfectly normal, because self-control is a skill, and for a skill to be demonstrated consistently, it must be practiced consistently and deliberately. 

Stalling, distracting yourself, and ultimately resisting urges starts with reminding yourself that urges are generally time-limited. They subside if you stall on acting on them, and abate as you learn to divert your thoughts and actions to other things. In one study, kids left alone with a candy bar who were told they would receive two candy bars if they resisted eating it used valuable techniques to resist the temptation. They distracted themselves. They even verbally reminded themselves that something better awaited if they exercised self-control and resisted the temptation to eat the original candy bar. Short-term tactics can help you ride out many of your urges or cravings.

Attitudes and Practices That Support Better Self-Control

Self-control is easier to develop if you build it upon a foundation of smart attitudes and “best practices.” Here are several attitudes and actions that can help you in your journey toward better self-control in addiction recovery:

  • A positive attitude: “I am in control of my actions.”
  • Setting definable, doable goals
  • Monitoring progress toward goals
  • Enhancing motivation through visualization of the rewards that come with reaching goals
  • Building stronger self-confidence, a little at a time
  • Practicing willpower
  • Avoiding temptations and triggers
  • Reminding yourself why and how you will improve self-control
  • Understanding that each positive act makes the next positive act a little easier
  • Making “if-then” goals. For example, “If I become angry, I will take a deep breath and count to 10.”

No single step will “fix” self-control. Rather, you have to work on all aspects of it, and it can be a real grind sometimes. But just as muscle strength increases with exercise, making physical workouts easier and more rewarding as time goes on, self-control increases when it is exercised on a regular basis as well.

Self-control is not the same thing as addiction recovery. It is a component of sustained addiction recovery, however. And it is something you must deliberately practice if it is to become easier and eventually automatic. If you have questions about addiction recovery, we encourage you to contact us today.

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