By Pamela Gawler-Wright
So here we are, knocking on February’s door, with Christmas excesses a distant memory and 2016 has unfolded its first wet and windy month.
Several people have shared with me their experience of another seasonal ritual growing in popularity known as “Dry January” – a commitment to go without alcohol for a calendar month. The experience has brought up for many some unexpected results, challenges and questions.
There has been coverage in the media about this, ranging from new guidance on alcohol limits to mockery of any resolutions for change that a person makes in the bleak, dark hours of winter.
First, yes, it’s good to experiment with removing from your habitual consumption this highly calorific, mind-altering substance known to have depressive side effects and links to increased cancer risk…
And no, just thinking of trying this out does not mean you should whisk yourself along to the nearest AA meeting (although if you started January with the intention of not drinking and found it impossible to keep up then it may be time to talk to some one about your relationship with alcohol).
And thirdly, is this a pointless excuse for Christmas excess or can anything lasting and useful be gained from such a trivial exercise?
This article explores the more interesting effects that people are describing from making this one simple, time limited change in their habits. Clients and readers have been reporting more change than they expected, in different ways than they had foreseen.
What happens when we resolve to drop one habit – any habitual behaviour we use to try to make ourselves feel better in specific situations?
Of course, there are the physical responses that let us know our bodies have grown accustomed to something, demanding it even when it’s not needed or healthy. Lots of people get sugar cravings in the evening when they cut out habitual drinking of alcohol.
This suggests that our metabolism has been affected by our previous unthinking resort to drink as a mood booster at the end of the day. It’s interesting to just notice these non-rational messages from our body temporarily begging us to feed ourselves into a blood sugar spike.
Accepting these sensations and thoughts without needing to act on them can allow us to observe how quickly they pass. Watching them pass, without trying to change those feelings, or stop them, can be the start of losing a few unwanted pounds and having more consistent energy levels through the day.
Another reported effect of Dry January is relational. It’s a chance to explore thoughts and reactions we have to saying “no” to something that is normally customary. How do we feel about something being out of bounds? What is it like to not join in when others are drinking? How do other peoples’ responses to this impact us? More than one letter I have received has talked about contrary pressure that came from spouses, friends and colleagues to abandon the plan and drink up, creating unexpected challenges to upholding this simple, autonomous boundary over the decision to not drink alcohol.
The psychological and emotional revelations have been particularly enlightening to many. Yes, many have dreams about enjoying a glass of wine followed by disappointment in themselves and then are relieved to wake up still having kept to their plan, but disturbed that they should apparently be missing a drink even while they are sleeping.
“Is my unconscious trying to tell me something?” one person asked.
Well, if you know me then you know that I believe our “unconscious mind”, or as I prefer to call it, our “Wider Mind”, is always trying to get in touch with us. Dreams, symptoms, strong feelings and strange thoughts may be communications from our Wider Mind. Rather than be disturbed by these, we can welcome them as opportunities to wake up out of automatic patterns that have outgrown their original usefulness.
During my Dry January I had two distinct “waking up” moments when I found myself getting to the end of the working day and thinking “I’d love a glass of wine or a trip to the pub right now!”
Normally, I’d have done just that…and “gone back to sleep” in the sense that I would not have stopped to pay any attention to what was making a drink feel like the logical and enjoyable accompaniment to my evening.
But I’d committed to breaking this one habit. It was just enough to keep me “awake” and open my eyes to what was really going on inside me.
Instead of dousing my thoughts and feelings with the handy relaxant that alcohol can be (or chocolate, or facebook, or video games), I had to stay with what was happening and wonder. Why now? I haven’t wanted a drink all week. What’s happening in this moment that is making me think it’s a good idea?
And I learned an interesting thing, not about alcohol, but about myself.
You see, in my job I work all day as a Psychotherapist with the range of human emotion. If you need some one to stay present with you when you are experiencing sadness, hurt, anger, confusion, I’m really committed in sharing, accepting and being with another person and letting those emotions process in transformative and healing ways.
People often ask “Doesn’t your job really drain you?” And I can sincerely answer that, no, it leaves me with a sense of privilege and awe at the resilience, sensitivity and beauty of human beings.
But on both occasions when I thought about drinking, when it felt like the most rational, automatic and harmless thing to do would be to enjoy a “drop of something nice”, it was clear that having a drink would be a way of distracting from my feelings rather than staying with them. And I hadn’t even known I’d been doing this.
Instead, with the habit interrupted, I had to stop and not try to brush over what was really happening in that moment - what my Wider Mind was telling me through the language of sensation, my own emotions.
And both times the message was the same. It took me a while to know what it was. I didn’t even know the real name of this very specific “craving”.
Because it’s not a feeling I give time to normally and allow to healthily pass through me in the way I do other, just as painful or powerful emotions, the ones I accompany my clients through every day, the ones I know in myself and have more resourceful ways of processing.
It’s not a feeling that I feel good about having or even want to admit to. So naturally I have not developed good ways to recognize, listen and respond well to it. Short on options of how to deal with it, my automatic response to having this unidentified sensation in my solar plexus was “get myself a nice glass of something”.
Now before I come clean and tell you the emotion that I am now trying to better own and respond to with more compassion and openness, I want to say that my unmet feelings will almost certainly be different from your unmet feelings.
Where we may be the same is that we all have unnamed, invalidated feelings which hold the key to unmet needs and wants. But instead of listening and knowing those real wants and needs we develop a habit to cover them up when they are present.
Interrupting a habit, any habit that is really not very good for us, can show us a hidden part of self that is longing to be known and cared for. When we drown out that emotion with a knee-jerk distraction or feel-good comfort we continue to repeat the unthinking patterns. For some reason, we haven’t learned to recognise and don’t know how to just be, to attend, name and better understand that specific emotion, until the feeling resolves itself.
If Dry January has brought to your notice a feeling you find difficult to name and respond to in an accepting way, then maybe deliberate attention to this part of yourself, even if that means bearing some temporary pain or discomfort, may bring more long-term comfort and satisfaction.
And the change of habit doesn’t have to be cutting out drink – and it doesn’t have to have anything to do with January. All you need to do is identify a behaviour that you do more of than you intend to, in a habitual way. Then commit to an experiment of interrupting that habit and bringing awareness to what comes up for you.
Just this small change creates an opportunity to open to the wisdom from your Wider Mind. Eventually you will discover that that habit was triggered at key moments – moments when something was happening within you that you haven’t yet understood.
It could be a relatively brief time of stopping any compulsive, automatic pattern that you’ve become aware of that is costing you in some way. Too much time on facebook, eating chocolate, checking emails while out walking the dog, smoking, gossiping, volunteering your time to others.
All of these habitual compulsions that we may get ourselves hooked into, when done without purpose or enjoyment, may be doing an unconscious job of drowning out a part of ourselves that wants to connect and tell us about a way we could be happier.
Here is a simple set of steps you can follow to gain in this way.
1. Notice an habitual behaviour that you do more often than you want to, or that you overly invest with your time and energy.
2. Commit to a period of time (a month is great, and three months can be life-changing) of cutting out this habit.
3. Prepare yourself to uphold this commitment under pressure, such as people trying to dissuade you from your resolution.
4. When you get the urge or craving, or when you have a momentary relapse into this habit – stop and bring your attention to what is going on around you.
5. Then bring your attention inside, to your physical sensations, your thoughts and feelings. Open your attention in a kindly and curious way to what you are really feeling and wanting.
6. Do something different, something more responsive to the genuine need or want that is coming up for you. What is a better way to deal with this than to resort to your old habit?
This is a deceptively simple process. Don’t underestimate that it can take practice to begin to really put it into action, and it can take time to really listen and understand what is going on inside when we trigger an unhelpful habitual response.
But give it a go and over time you might begin to understand something new coming through from your Wider Mind.
As Carl Gustav Jung said
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
For me, the message from my Wider Mind soon became more clear. This feeling, that was just under that urge to pour a drink, was the heavy hollowness of feeling frustrated and powerless. It occurred in response to the same situation, something I’ve been banging my head against for too long without progress.
But my self-perception didn’t allow me to admit it’s time to just walk away. Because I don’t relate well to that feeling in myself and so I haven’t yet developed better ways to allow myself to get the message and be guided by my Wider Mind. Instead I’d tell myself it was pub-time or wine-o’-clock.
“What’s the fxxxing point?” that feeling was saying, a state that I was horrified at first to find within me - it goes so counter to my perception of myself and why I get up in the morning.
No wonder I had learned to numb myself and deny when this sensation came over me. But that sinking feeling was falsely named as a “let’s pour a glass of wine” feeling.
So instead of “giving myself a well deserved drink” I’ve been dialoging with that sensation of frustration and powerlessness. Knowing what’s really going on has given me new options to recognize and respond differently to situations that make me feel there’s no point in continuing to struggle for healthy change.
So what can stopping one habit do for you? What unnamed and valuable message is trying to get through to you? What will be possible when you listen to what has been silenced for longer than is useful?
As a result of my Dry January I am giving myself permission to listen to my inner messages of when I want to walk away from a situation I can’t improve or healthily engage with, to genuinely sooth my disappointment and channel my energy, hope and creativity into more fruitful environments and relationships.
It hurts for just a little while.
And then it helps.
So Cheers for That!