By Rebecca Niziol
It’s human nature: We feel pain and naturally move away from it. We place our hand on a hot stove and the brain rapidly cues us to pull back. Our hearts are broken and we instinctively retreat inside—sometimes into sweatpants, sometimes into an emotionally closed off and dark place.
The truth is, humans aren’t wired to endure pain; they are made to avoid it. Moving toward pleasure and away from pain is necessary for survival.
Addiction happens when human nature takes over and draws us into momentary pockets of pleasure to ease pain. These diversions provide a chance to escape the hardships of life, such as running away from being overscheduled, feeling empty at work, being disconnected in relationships, or experiencing the boredom that sets in when monotony becomes the norm. A whole new category of addictions, known as soft addictions, is on the rise as we ingest more information than ever before and attempt to live up to the incredibly high standards we’ve placed on ourselves.
Soft addictions, the lighter cousin of hard addictions to substances like drugs and alcohol, are the seemingly innocent but detrimental habits we often indulge in without a second thought. From online shopping to procrastination, little habits turn into big blockades when it comes to living fulfilling lives. Addictions, whether soft or hard, are often there to fill a void or cover up pain. When we believe we lack something, we naturally seek out something to give us the illusion of fullness. The problem is, these soft addictions aren’t actually fulfilling; they’re numbing. The pain is still there, poorly buried underneath our Facebook profiles and smartphones.
The term soft addiction was first coined by Chicago native Dr. Judith Wright, author of The Soft Addiction Solution and co-founder of The Wright Institute. What’s so bad about these types of addictions? Wright explains, “They cost us money, rob us of time, numb us from our feelings, mute our consciousness and drain our energy. And we all have them.”
We all have them because we’ve become a society keen on self-medicating rather than self-healing.
A telltale sign of soft addiction: The behavior is used to escape thoughts, feelings or life. The line between habit and soft addiction is often blurry and personal. One person might watch three hours of TV so she doesn’t have to feel the pain of her recent divorce, while another does so in order to learn about new science and technology advances in the medical field. A habit turns the corner into the shadows of soft addiction when we begin to unconsciously fall into it, losing the awareness and choice in engaging in the behavior, and instead feeling like we’re mindlessly drawn back to it again and again.
As we explore soft addiction, one begins to wonder how it relates to positive habits, like our yoga practice, healthy eating and meditation. Is it possible to be addicted to things that are actually good for you? Is it possible to have addictions that actually help you live a better life?
Yes…indeed, you can get addicted to the good stuff. Addictions grab us because they light up the pleasure centers of the brain. Technically anything that does that—love, yoga, food, drugs—can create an addictive hold on us that draws us back for more. A soft addiction, however, is characterized by our longing to escape, to get away from or cover up our lives and feelings. Even something healthy and helpful, like a strong yoga practice, can become a soft addiction if it becomes our automatic escape, rather than an enhancement for our lives.
The difference between healthy and harmful lies in intention and awareness. Sometimes we need escapes. Sometimes the pain is so deep and wide that we want to be carried far, far away into a place where we can feel good momentarily. Yoga and meditation can certainly give us that. But more importantly, the practice of yoga reminds us that we don’t need to escape forever, because we’re more than capable of feeling those heavy feelings, moving past negative thoughts, and changing our lives so we don’t have to numb out so often.
Tony Robbins shares his take on addiction: “The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.”
Try shifting your soft addictions into deeper connections with your awareness. If addictions are filling a void or covering pain, ask yourself, “What do I need to connect or reconnect to in order to feel whole and complete? Most of all, know when you’re escaping into the land of soft addictions, so you have the power to stop or change your behavior. Your life will be waiting for you when you return. Even with all the chaos and pain, it is a glorious life when you’re present in it.