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“I just can’t help it!”

What do you do with a powerful, irresistible craving or urge?

All of us have urges — It may be an urge to eat when we are stressed, to distract ourselves with social media, to binge watch Netflix, to shop online, to procrastinate an unpleasant task — it can be anything that we do compulsively, that feels out of our control.

Most of us think there are only two options for what you can do with a craving —

RESIST or GIVE IN.

This makes sense right. I either cave to the urge and indulge, or I fight it and distract myself, right? What else could there be?

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Jonathan Bricker describes a third option that can be called WILLINGNESS. We don’t comply with the urge and we don’t resist it — we are simply willing to allow it. You allow the urge without responding to it. You might be saying — huh? How in the world would I do that? Stay with me for just a minute.

Another way to look at it comes from Brooke Castillo. She says that the easy part is not complying with the urge, not doing thing you feel compelled today. The hard part is sitting with the feelings that are left in the wake of not doing it. Think about that for just a second — the easy part is to not comply; the hard part is facing the feelings that are left when you don’t. This is willingness. I will just be right here with these horribly uncomfortable feelings. I won’t push them away. I won’t distract myself. I will just let them be.

There is always a thought which causes our craving or urge — it may be unconscious, but nevertheless we have a thought. “I need to eat that…” “I need to check that…” “I have to do that…” — some version of “I have to; I can’t help myself.” It is this thought that creates that undesirable feeling. The stronger and more ingrained the thought, the more powerful the urge.

Rather than looking at this thought (which many of us don’t realize we are thinking), most of us try to deal with the BEHAVIOR the urge causes, rather than dealing with the urge directly. So if I tend to eat emotionally, then I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get myself not to eat, removing all tempting food from my house, avoiding situations where I may want to eat out of emotion. But all we are doing is trying to control the environment — and this can only last so long. And all this resistance give the craving more and more power over us. It makes the urge irresistible in our minds.

Another approach is to focus on the urge itself.

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Take the familiar example of a toddler having a tantrum.

When a toddler demands a candy bar in the store, she kicks and screams and demands — hoping to cause a big enough scene that you will give in and buy the candy bar. We can either give into her demands (causing the tantrums to increase next time you come to the store) or we can resist and distract (“Don’t do this! Calm down sweetheart. Make we’ll get a treat next time. Please stop screaming. What if we do this instead…”) and eventually we are either completely exhausted, resentful, and swear we will never bring the child to the store again, OR we just break down and give her the stinking candy bar. How many times have we all been in this scenario?

But what if we don’t resist and we don’t give in? We just wait for the tantrum to extinguish itself. We let the child scream and have a fit. We detach ourselves and ignore any stares from others. We just let them scream. What happens? Eventually the tantrum extinguishes itself. The child realizes the tantrum is going nowhere, they get worn out and give up. After repeating this scenario many times over, the child realizes it is pointless to have a tantrum and the behavior stops.

The same thing happens when our lower brain throws a tantrum (ie. we have a craving.) We can allow the monster created inside our head just to be.

Instead of running from it, we might describe how it feels. “Oh I am feeling anxious. I don’t want to feel anxious so I have the urge to distract myself by [specific urge]. I can feel anxious. It is not going to kill me. When I am anxious, my stomach is a little queasy, my chest gets tight, my palms start to sweat, my thoughts start to race. It is totally normal for me to feel anxious right now. I can do this.”

Eventually the urge will stop. It will lose steam and the inner screams will quiet down. The chemical surging through our body dissipates. It just takes time. No feeling lasts forever.

For most of us this is a totally new skill. Leaning into willingness will take practice, curiosity, and compasision. We have to be willing to be with that craving over and over again until we teach the lower brain that there is no reason to freak out. Everything will be okay. There is no need for a tantrum. This will take time, patience, and practice, but eventually it will extinguish.

So remember when you experience a craving, there is another option. You don’t have to give in to the urge. And you don’t have summon all your willpower and resist it. You can simply be willing to experience the urge and the discomfort it brings, and wait for it to extinguish itself.

If this topic speaks to you, please watch this great Tedx Talk by Jonathan Bricker. He talks about how he has applied this technique with clients who want to quitting smoking. He gives examples that help you see this technique in action (plus he’s entertaining!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTb3d5cjSFI

Need some help to practicing willingness?

If you would like some help in learning how to sit with your cravings from a place of curiosity, love and compassion, consider hiring a coach who can provide the system, support and accountability you need to really step into a new state of willingness and extinguish those cravings forever.

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