How to Handle a Soft Addiction

Identify and break free from unwanted habits

I bite my fingernails. It’s a nasty habit and one I’d like to change, but is it a limiting addiction?

It can be, says Judith Wright, Ed.D, life coach and author of Soft Addiction Solution: Break Free of the Seemingly Harmless Habits That Keep You from the Life You Want.

Turns out many of the so-called harmless habits that we over-indulge in — nail biting, shopping, Web-surfing, texting, overworking, procrastinating, gossiping, watching television and scores of others can become soft addictions that limit our potential and ultimately drain our energy and self-respect.

Soft addictions, says Wright, who coined the phrase and works extensively with people who want to break free from them at the Wright Leadership Institute, which she co-founded, keep us from feeling our true emotions. They distract us from more satisfying activities and relationships and cloud our connection to the soul.

My nail biting, for example, keeps me from dealing directly with the source of my stress or anxiety, so it perpetuates. In the end, I’m still stressed, plus I’m disappointed in my lack of control and embarrassed by my messy nails. This pesky habit, like all soft addictions, is taking time and energy that I could be directing in a more positive, healthy way.

And that’s true for everybody, Wright says. Everyone deals with some soft addiction — often several. The key is to identify yours and break free.

What are soft addictions?

“Almost anything can be a soft addiction if we overdo it,” Wright says.

Watching an hour of television or venturing to the mall once in a while probably won’t get you into trouble, but when done to excess, when the habits substitute for more enriching things or disconnect you from the present, that’s when it veers toward addiction.

“Anything that is pleasurable can be a habit or addictive because it activates the pleasure centers in the brain,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., director of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and author of Virtual Addiction. “If that behavior creates a negative impact in one major area of your life, that’s when the habit becomes a problem.”

Some addictions, like alcohol and drug abuse, also have serious physical consequences. With these addictions, the substances themselves actually harm body tissues and create biochemical reactions that can be fatal.

While obsessive shopping and other soft addictions won’t kill you, they can limit or harm your health, relationships, finances and work. Ultimately, they keep you from living your higher purpose, Wright says.

“A lot of these things keep us from living in the present,” Greenfield says. “They are time shifters. They move you from where you are in the moment to somewhere else. And all of them can leave us emotionally numb.”

How to spot soft addictions

Often, it’s our co-workers, friends and family members who notice first when our behavior is getting in the way of our work, relationships or other aspects of our lives, Greenfield says.

If people are teasing you about always being late, or your husband complains that you spend more time with your Facebook friends than him, those are indications of a soft addiction. Also pay attention to your instincts, those little feelings that tell you when you’re off track.

“We are hungry for more than what we are stuffing our mouths with, for more than the big houses we spend money on and the Facebook pages,” Wright says. “The question is, what are you really hungry for?”

Logging onto Facebook instead of working, for example, may be a sign that you’re hungry for connection. Nail biting is a poor replacement for the comfort and perspective I need in times of stress. Chronic tardiness? Perhaps you’re wanting power or attention.

We often use a soft addiction to fill a larger hole or need in our lives. By recognizing what we truly lack and long for, we can close that gap with more meaningful things.

How to end the grip of soft addictions

Self-awareness will help you identify your soft addictions and illuminate the reasons behind them.

Wright and Greenfield have these suggestions to then break the pattern.

  • Track the behavior. Look at what you’re doing and when. What’s going on in your life when you plop down in front of the television or head to the mall — again? What did you once enjoy, but no longer experience due to the addiction? Notice what triggers the behavior and go deeper to determine what “hunger” it’s trying to feed.
  • Mind your thoughts. Watch for what Wright calls “stinking thinking.” These patterns rationalize or excuse our behavior and often beat us up with false, negative beliefs about how unworthy or incapable we are. Expose these stinking thoughts and replace them with kindness and self-compassion. A sense of humor is another powerful antidote.
  • Pick a new behavior. Nature abhors a vacuum, Greenfield says, so when you are preparing to quit an addictive behavior, you’ve got to replace it with something else that feels good.
  • Cut back slowly. Reduce the time you spend on your soft addiction by just a little. Instead of logging on to Facebook for three hours a day, cut it to two and connect with a friend for coffee. Cut back TV time by an hour and head outside instead. Stop biting your fingernails, one nail at a time.
  • Seek support. Reach out to family and friends. Connect with them rather than with your habit. A counselor, coach or therapist can also help and may be essential in the treatment of other “harder” addictions, such as substance abuse or pornography.

Feeding our emotional hunger with more soulful connections and experiences often makes our soft addictions easier to leave behind.

As you build more meaning into your life, the soft addictions become less attractive, Wright says. It becomes unlikely that you’ll be interested in anything that keeps you from living your deeper purpose.

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