Impulsive. It’s a dynamic force found in all walks of human life. We see it in the shopper who cannot resist a new handbag to reward herself for a “terrible day at work”, the individual who hooks up with a stranger to briefly escape his own loneliness, and in the addict who relapses to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that arise in sobriety.
When we cannot delay gratification, when we cannot say “no” to something tempting today in order to potentially say “yes” to something even greater tomorrow, we risk captivity to our own erratic compulsions and rampant desires. We exist as slaves to our internal temper tantrums telling us that we need instant relief, that we can’t cope, that we essentially cannot trust ourselves to withstand.
In addiction, delayed gratification does not just feel uncomfortable. That is just the visible layer. Rather, it feels foreign, as it embodies a radically different way in approaching life. At this point, addiction roots a powerful belief that all emotions are intolerable because the continous anticipation of inevitable pain trumps even the happiest feelings, which delay the addict from thinking about getting sober. Thus, life and all its ebbs and flows, feels unbearable.
Additionally, this phenomenon creeps in more insidious ways, in being unable to say no to the things that provide cheap relief or coveted escape. Think of the person who continues to eat donuts everyday despite wanting to lose weight or the person who blows their paycheck every week despite living in debt. Think of the person who continuously enters easy, but toxic, relationships because he or she cannot stand the thought of loneliness. Think of the person who desperately wants to be sober, but cannot trust him or herself to sit with the feelings that arise with an intense drug craving. Think of the patterns we loathe, but cannot break. When we give into the impulse, the problem multiplies; the relief is incredibly short-lived, and the unfolding of painful emotions and consequences afterwards (guilt, shame, humiliation, fear, anger) maintain a tremendous sense of helplessness and defeat.
Whole recovery and getting sober and staying sober entails waiting and accepting. It entails discomfort- a lot of it- and the willingness to cope with that discomfort. It entails returning back to the authentic self, to increasing the actions that move us closer to our higher selves (i.e: mindfulness, positive relationships, gratitude) and decreasing the actions that move us to our lower selves (i.e: substance use, compulsive behaviors, chaotic relationships). This journey towards wellness moves us on a rollercoaster of emotions and obstacles, but if we never get on the ride, we risk missing out on the experience and the growth.
Delaying gratification and accepting life as is- pain, hardships, and all- defines the essence of sobriety. Resistance to believing and executing these principles so often leads such beautiful souls right back into the destructive throes of their addiction. Impulsion is 10% about what you want (i.e: the escape, the relief) and 90% what you don’t want (i.e: the pain, the anxieties)
In early recovery, relinquishing the substance of choice is only the beginning of a long, intense, and profound journey. The real untangling comes with recognizing relief is rarely instantaneous, and life may not happen at the speed or design we envision.
Such realization often evokes powerful feelings of negativity, which typically lead to strong desires to sabotage and relapse. In that moment, the pain feels insufferable, and the relief must be felt. At this point, therapists, including myself, emphasize sitting with feelings, and despite the cliche, it’s an essential life skill and key to getting sober. Your inner self must be able to know that any and every feeling is allowed. It is only when we trust ourselves to cope with whatever comes our way- that we open our minds and our hearts to the spectrum of both pleasure and pain- that we experience the empowerment and self-esteem we’ve been lacking.
The art of delaying pleasure allows us to choose deeper gifts. While these gifts may take time to open, the lasting effects of them actually increase feelings of happiness, security, and confidence. We have to trust the organic unfolding process. We have to realize that our future self depends and trusts our current self.
Holistic recovery embodies such discipline. We have to know how to say no, how to sit with feelings of discomfort, jealousy, and anger. We have to sit with loneliness and insecurity and fear. Our feelings are our own unique languages, and they will do what they need to do to speak to us. A lifetime of attempting to numb or escape cannot alleviate them. It only keeps them waiting. Getting sober depends on it.
I believe taking care of our past, present, and future selves all have equal significance. When one of them is neglected, the other two inevitably suffer.
Nicole is a therapist specializing in addiction treatment and recovery. For more of the author’s writing, please visit souloftherapy.com.