People don’t use substances because they’re crazy. People don’t use substances because they’re bad people. People use substances because they get something they like, or want, or need out of it. As human animals, the things we do are motivated by what happens next: we repeat or increase our behavior if something good happens. These good things can be “outside of ourselves” like recognition from others (a raise, pat on the back, a compliment) or “inside ourselves” (a feeling of calmness, positive mood, less anger). And while we repeat things that work for us in some way, we decrease or stop a behavior if it doesn’t’ work or something negative happens.

Tolerating The Pain

When you are trying to change a behavior that in the short term feels good, like drinking, you will have to tolerate not having that desired outcome. Maybe drinking helps reduce anxiety or depression, or maybe it helps you feel more accepted by your friends. When you work to change your substance use, whatever it is that you get from drinking or using, you’re not going to get anymore. And that is a difficult thing for people to tolerate! To resist engaging in that behavior pattern, you have to decide to allow pain, discomfort, and other not-so-great feelings in as you figure out something else to do. To pursue paths we feel are important, like stopping smoking, trying to spend less, or reducing your drinking, we have to be open to the discomfort of not engaging in the habit.

It is always an option to try to NOT experience this discomfort; it makes a lot of sense, especially when things already feel really rocky. While avoiding discomfort might feel like the best path to take, there are unintended consequences – you also lose something valuable that is connected with the pain. For example, if you avoid social interactions because you aren’t drinking, you don’t have to face a potentially awkward conversation. You also avoid having moments with your friends, the ability to gain support from them (or be a support for them), and opportunities to build stronger bonds.

Does This Mean You Can’t Avoid Pain?

We are not saying getting away from the pain is “bad!” Sometimes it’s good self care (e.g. resting at home instead of going to a party that makes you uncomfortable) to take a step away from something that is painful. Choosing to step back to regroup because things have gotten very intense is important to do at times so that you have enough energy to maintain your behavior changes in the long term. The goal is to just be mindful and conscious about what you stand to gain from avoiding a painful moment, and also what you lose.

Discomfort is a part of behavior change. So is positive gain. Sometimes, in our efforts to reduce discomfort, we also lose out on some of the positives that would come if we could tolerate it. Knowing what you stand to gain, working on tolerating discomfort, and know when it is in your best interest to step away are keys to making and maintaining long-lasting change.