How To Find The Line Between Healthy Habits & Numbing Behavior

mbg Contributor By Caitlin Padgett
mbg Contributor
Caitlin Padgett is a transformational coach for successful women who struggle with alcohol

Photo by @ch_ch / twenty20

When you're trying to relax after a stressful day, you might notice the tendency to want to "check out" is stronger than usual. Maybe you spend a little extra time scrolling social media, fill your shopping cart with a ton of unnecessary items that you didn't even know existed until a big red sales banner drew you in, or find yourself on dating apps without any real intention of meeting anyone. Or maybe you just slug back an extra glass of wine or burrow into your room for a few more hours on Netflix.

We usually turn to these small habits as a means of comforting ourselves when we're in the midst of tough or aggravating times—little forms of relaxation or even self-care, if you will. These numbing responses have become so ingrained and even celebrated as prescriptions to cope with modern-day stresses that we don't even question them anymore.

Is it possible to be nourished by something that also has the potential to numb?

This is a question I have pondered often, both through my own journey into mindfulness and conscious consumption and that of my clients. I'm a transformational coach who supports successful women struggling with alcohol and helps them redefine their relationship with it on their own terms. But what I've noticed over the years is that alcohol is just the poster child for a litany of habits we turn to for comfort that can easily spin into a sort of addiction.

Many of us have that one "vice"—or shall we say escapist behavior?—that's our way of coping or shutting out the stresses of everyday life. For myself and my clients, the primary behavior was over-drinking. For others it might be overeating, overworking, social media, shopping, or sex. None of these behaviors are so terrible on their own; in fact, some can be nourishing in moderation, which is what makes their numbing potential so insidious.

Over the past five years, I have become deeply curious about exploring the often fine line between what nourishes us—a glass of wine shared with a friend or significant other, a motivating and positive passion for our work, social media as a tool for connecting with our community, exercise as self-care—versus what we use to numb ourselves: drinking or eating in excess to drown out negative feelings, perfectionism as a means of averting judgment or ridicule, obsessive goals or mindless scrolling to keep from having to sit with oneself, and more.

I've found that, once we redefine our relationship to that primary numbing behavior, all of a sudden we're confronted with all the other ways we might try to escape our emotions. I could never have predicted the depth of self-inquiry that has come from eliminating the power one numbing substance had over my life. Most notably, it has forced me to look at all of the other ways that I had learned over the years to keep myself from myself, which stemmed from a need to mask the crushing feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness that were hiding underneath the layers of numbing and defensive behaviors.

While alcohol had led to some of the more obvious problems in my life, I had been almost oblivious to other ways I numbed. Over the years, I've turned to overwork and perfectionism, excessive shopping and spending, binge-watching Netflix, sleeping pills, codependency and intimacy, and travel and searching for "new and exciting" experiences rather than staying put and doing the hard work of being in my present situation. I had kept myself numbing, running, and distracting, trying to outperform my pain for years. Redefining my relationship to alcohol was the first step in gradually peeling back all of these layers.

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The healthy release of planned indulgence.

When we talk about addiction, often the solution prescribed by the masses is working toward abstinence. But the problem with total abstinence as the ultimate marker of success (and failure, if someone isn't able to achieve or maintain it) is that it ignores other very important markers of healing and improvement in quality of life. Here's how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery from addiction: "a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

Many of my clients, who like me pushed themselves to extremes and excess for most of their professional years, actually find freedom and healing in moderation as opposed to abstinence. Relaxing the rules is actually more productive as it provides us with the opportunity to explore why and how we pushed ourselves so hard to achieve such high standards and challenges us to release the "all or nothing" paradigm. There is a certain amount of self-knowledge required, and yes, this requires self-inquiry in the beginning, but many believe it's worth it.

A commitment to self-inquiry often comes in tandem with a practice of mindfulness, which is described by SMART Recovery as "the state of being present in the here and now; being in the moment, being in your body; not being on 'autopilot.'" Mindfulness helps detach the focus on far-off (and often unattainable ideals) to focus on experiencing and owning each moment in the present.

One strategy that has worked well for many of my clients is planned indulgence as a form of mindfulness, with an emphasis on "nourishment over numbing."

I'll use Jennifer as an example. Jennifer used to work long hours and push herself hard not only in her demanding finance job but also in her physical regime. By the end of the week, she felt she needed an escape. After pounding a few glasses of wine too quickly, she would dive into the "forbidden" treats. Pizza. A big slice of chocolate cake. Onion rings on the way home. The problem was, she wasn't really enjoying those treats. In fact, knowing the shame she was going to feel the next day about having "overdone it," she described to me a feeling of disassociation even as she was "indulging."

Together, we worked on "planned indulgence," which meant giving herself permission to take breaks, power off her phone, nap for 10 minutes, eat frozen yogurt on a Tuesday, and have a glass of wine (not three) spaced out with water or other non-alcoholic beverages. For someone who had pushed herself to extremes for so long, this relaxing of the rules was incredible healing, and it helped shift habits that had been numbing her into more nourishing rituals. 

Buddha describes the "middle way" as a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification (self-punishment). This, according to him, was the path of wisdom. This practice of mindfulness, moderation, and finding your "middle way" can be applied to anything that has the potential to help or harm, nourish or numb, such technology, substances, sex, intimacy, food, exercise, and other addictive social goods.

The "middle way" can also be framed another way, as a path of deep self-exploration. The middle way of moderation is amorphous; the boundaries are not so clearly defined. There is more wiggle room when you create your own rules, and sometimes, that is where the magic lies.

How do I find the line?

If you're curious about the line between nourishment and numbing, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do I understand any potential health (physical, mental, emotional) risks associated with what I'm choosing?
  • Is my "come from" a place of calm and self-love, or am I making this choice out of pain or fear?
  • Is this the most nourishing choice for me right now?
  • What is the amount I can consume while still being aligned with nourishment versus numbing?
  • Does this choice bring me joy, or will it be a source of shame?

Mindfulness is all about choosing consciously instead of living life on autopilot and allowing our impulses to dictate our actions. It's about being able to weigh the risks and the benefits and make an informed choice. Mindfulness allows us to feel in control and empowered in our lives rather than that sensation that "life is happening to us."

Seeking nourishment over numbing is not about restrictions—in fact, it's the very opposite. It's a choice. It's about giving yourself permission to heal. To feel pain. To feel joy. To be confused. To take a break. To indulge. To feel alive and live each moment to the fullest.

So choose, consciously. Choose the thing that will help you feel nourished and present rather than wanting to check out.

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