Ego Depletion and Automatic Choices While Recovering from Addiction

Ego Depletion and Automatic Choices While Recovering from Addiction


Yesterday we looked at how to turn anger into something positive in recovery. Today we want to look at the idea of ego depletion and the implications that this can have on our recovery.

What is ego depletion?>

Ego depletion is a concept that involves willpower and making choices. There have been a number of experiments performed that prove that our willpower is not infinite and that it is a finite resource that we can use up.

For example, they did some experiments with people who were dieting and trying to lose weight, and then they gave them a table that had various food choices on it. One of the food choices was a piece of fruit (healthier) and the other food choices were desserts and cake (less healthy). Then they separated their dieters into two groups of people: half of them had to memorize and retain a fairly long number while they were making this food choice, and the other half of the dieters were not given anything to try to memorize. The people who were struggling to memorize something consistently had less healthy food choices.

“Big deal” you say? Not so fast! This has huge implications for recovery, and we need to explore the concepts here very thoroughly, as I believe we have a lot to learn from this.

First of all there is a certain amount of willpower that is needed for recovery, but the word “willpower” has become so tainted from the 12 step program that we now have to examine our words themselves. It it said in the twelve step program that “no willpower is necessary to overcome addiction with AA or NA” and that “willpower alone is not enough.” In other words, they are saying that if you try to muscle your way out of addiction using willpower you are going to fail.

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To an extent I have to agree with this. If you just try to white knuckle it you are going to fail. Success in recovery comes from working smarter, not harder.

However, that does not mean that you never need any willpower whatsoever in recovery!

You still have to make decisions, right? Your feet don’t just carry you to rehab, AA meetings, or counseling on their own, right? Someone has to decide to embrace a new recovery solution and that requires an act of willpower. So you might be arguing that “AA obviates the need for willpower” but this is misleading. It may do so but then you would still need willpower in order to embrace AA. You cannot entirely escape the fact that you retain self will, you retain the ability to relapse on drugs or alcohol, and therefore you depend on willpower to create your own success (to at least some degree) in recovery. You may not be white-knuckling it, but you still have to have the will to seek out and follow a solution.

So even if you are heavily involved in the 12 step program and you argue that “willpower is not required for this to work” you are kidding yourself. Who’s will keeps you plugged into the AA program? Your own will keeps you there and it can take you out of that solution as well. Therefore you need to concern yourself with willpower and the concept of ego depletion. It is relevant to everyone’s recovery.

How ego depletion affects your early recovery

Early recovery is absolutely overwhelming. It is like a giant trip.

Let’s put it into perspective: When I got clean and sober this last time around I went to a detox and inpatient rehab facility. Had I been whisked away to a foreign country across the globe and put into some sort of “detox boot camp for struggling alcoholics” this would have been no more or less of a wild ride for me.

Early recovery is overwhelming. When you actually surrender fully and commit to seeing this recovery thing through, the journey suddenly begins and it is a wild and crazy adventure. Nothing could possibly prepare you for it and at the same time there is no reason to be afraid of it. The best course of action is to kick back, put your feet up, relax, and enjoy the ride that is early recovery.

Of course none of us really do that. We are too busy being worried about every little thing, getting worked up over our own recovery, and so on. If I could go back in time I would have told myself during my first week of recovery “just relax and enjoy the ride. You are not in a hurry!”

I think I got pretty lucky in my early recovery in that I chose to live in a long term rehab center. This worked out very well for me and I was lucky enough to avoid relapse. To be honest I do not know how people recover if they are NOT living in long term treatment. For me it was like a giant safety net that could catch me when I was all worn out from the journey itself. Ego depletion was rampant all around me as many of my peers relapsed. They got sick of being sober. They got tired of trying to adopt this new lifestyle, so they gave up.

I think the reason that early recovery is so difficult is not because you are “giving up your drug of choice.” The truth is a lot deeper than that. Really what you are doing is that you are:

* Learning how to deal with negative feelings while sober.
* Learning how to communicate with your friends, family, and peers while sober.
* Learning how to have fun again without your drug of choice.
* Learning how to feel normal in social situations without being drunk or high.
* Learning how to deal with frustration or anxiety without self medicating.

And on and on and on. These are just the tip of the iceberg, really. The challenges of being sober are many. If it were as simple as “just don’t use drugs or alcohol” then recovery would not be a big deal for people. But it is a big deal because the amount of challenge for the newly sober person is simply overwhelming. They are relearning how to live their entire life in a new way (sober). On top of this it can be downright scary to face these new challenges each day.

What the studies about willpower show is that all of these learning experiences in early recovery are drawing away from a “pool” of willpower that each of us have inside of us. In the past we had always assumed that this pool of willpower was infinite and that we could just keep pushing ourselves to generate more will. But the studies done recently show that this pool of willpower is actually finite and that when it is used up we start making poor choices immediately.

In early recovery you have some choices for how you are going to treat your addiction. There are various levels of treatment and some of these protect you from ego depletion more than others.

One way to protect yourself from depleting all of your willpower is to limit the amount of learning and choices that you need to make during a given time period.

For example, compare two people in early recovery: Person A decides to get clean and sober so they suddenly stop drinking and go to a 12 step meeting. The people at the meeting tell him to come back tomorrow so this person starts going to AA meetings every day. In the meantime they are still working at their job, still interacting with family and friends, and so on. Their life has not been put on hold in any way and so therefore they are still dealing with everything on top of trying to become clean and sober.

Person B on the other hand decides to get clean and sober so they check into rehab. After detox they are moved into residential treatment and they are staying in rehab overnight as well on an inpatient basis. Person B might even decide that they need more help and so they might end up living in long term treatment (as I did). During this time while they are in treatment they are shielded quite a bit from their outside life. They are not dealing with their job and to some extent they are distanced from their normal relationships in life as well. Once they move into long term rehab they may start slowly transitioning back into their old world. For example, they may go back to work while they are still in long term rehab but they will still remain somewhat shielded from their old life.

Person A is not in treatment at all and is just going to meetings. If they have plenty of willpower in order to deal with all of the life changes then they may be OK in terms of relapse, but it will likely be a tough road. They are not limiting what choices they have to make or what things they have to deal with in early recovery. They will deplete their willpower rather quickly.

Person B is in treatment and may even live in long term rehab. They are limiting what choices they have to make by placing themselves in a controlled environment. They cannot work a job while in short term rehab, so that is one less thing that their willpower must be used for. Thus they have isolated the problem of addiction to focus on it exclusively. On any given day during this journey person B should have more willpower “in reserve” than person A has. This is because person A is still out in the “real world” where they have to use their willpower on other things. Person B is shielded from these other things and can thus use their willpower exclusively on the problem of addiction.

This is a long way of saying that “treatment helps.” What you have to keep in mind is that some people who go to treatment simply decide “I don’t want to be sober, I want to get drunk or high, therefore I am going to go do so.” This is not necessarily the same as having your willpower exhausted and then relapsing. We are assuming that people actually WANT to get clean and sober here. Many people who attend rehab do NOT want to do so yet, or they may find out that they do not really want to do so yet. Such people are not running out of willpower, they are just realizing that they want to go get high. There is a difference.

Once you have surrendered and decided that you really want to change your life, then the issue of willpower comes into play. Now you have to use your will to make decisions about your new life in recovery. If you relapse at this point it will be due to being overwhelmed, exhausted, and pushed past your breaking point. If you are serious about recovery and you relapse anyway then you probably could have benefited by thinking carefully about ego depletion, and acting accordingly. If you are not serious about recovery then nothing would have helped you yet (other than more pain and misery to move you closer to surrender).

How setting up “automatic choices” can help you

So how do we use this knowledge to help us in recovery?

How can we use the knowledge that our willpower is limited to help us make better choices in recovery?

One way is by limiting your choices that you have to make. This makes sense because each choice that you have to make drains part of your “willpower reserves,” which we now know are finite and limited.

If you are serious about recovery then this means that you need those willpower reserves in order to avoid relapse. This is true even if you adopt a recovery program with which to overcome your addiction. You still need a certain amount of willpower to “stick to the program” and maintain sobriety.

Therefore you need to make choices automatic whenever you can. If you have to think about it and decide each day then you are just draining your willpower.

This is what makes long term rehab so effective for people who are serious about recovery. By choosing to live in rehab you are making all sorts of choices become automatic. In my case I was being randomly drug tested and breathalyzed each week and the penalty for failing a test was immediate homelessness. This was not something that I was willing to risk so this choice was neatly made for me. By choosing to live in this environment I had removed the question of “should I get drunk or high today?” It was not even on the table because I knew that if I did then I would end up homeless and on the street.

That is a huge and direct example of setting up an automatic choice but you can also do it on a much smaller scale. For example, I struggled for years to try to break into the world of “regular exercise” so that I could be healthier in recovery. For a long time I could not get into a rhythm and I basically hated every workout. Each day was a new agony for me: “Should I work out today? Do I have to? Will I feel guilty if I do not? (yes)”

What I did in the end was to remove the choice. I made it automatic. Every day, I had to work out no matter what. This finally worked for me. I was no longer depleting my ego all the time by agonizing over whether or not I was going to work out that day or not. I was no longer beating myself up on days when I “skipped” because I felt guilty. I simply made one single decision that removed all future choices. Now I would work out every day as my first priority, period. Just do it and stop wasting mental energy over it.

This worked so well that eventually I was able to scale back to exercising every other day without beating myself up any more. But I had to have that long period of intense discipline where I had removed the choice completely.

If you find yourself hemming and hawing over the choices that you make each day, find a way to make those choices automatic. Remove the mental burden, even if it is “the more difficult path” (such as by exercising every single day no matter what). You will find that the harder path is actually easier because you removed the agony of having to decide.

Quitting a secondary addiction like smoking while you are in early recovery

There is conflicting evidence on this topic. Should you try to quit smoking cigarettes during early recovery? Should you quit everything all at once? Or should you try to become stable in recovery first and then quit smoking later?

The debate is endless, by my experience shows me that ego depletion plays a significant role.

I tried and failed many times to quit smoking in early recovery. It was only later on in my recovery when I was able to isolate the problem that I was able to overcome it. In fact I had to dedicate my entire life to the task of quitting to finally be successful at it.

I believe this had to do with my limited reserves of willpower. I was trying to change so much in early recovery. I was going back to work and also going back to college. I was doing these things while living in long term rehab. On top of this I had a whole new set of friends in recovery and was making all sorts of new social connections. It was a lot to do all at once. At some point you run out of “juice.”

For me that point was when I tried to quit smoking on top of all of the other changes. Apparently it was too much for me in early recovery. It was not until I had several years into recovery that I was able to properly isolate and tackle the problem of smoking.

Part of my solution was to increase my level of willpower. I did this by creating incentives. I saved up 500 dollars and told myself it was reward money for making it 7 days without nicotine. I bought fantastic food in order to treat myself during my big quit week. I took time off work in order to help isolate the problem and preserve my willpower while trying to quit. All of this worked wonderfully and I was actually able to quit successfully.

Creative recovery and the reason we focus on one big change at a time

One final thought for you is the idea of FOCUS in recovery.

With my philosophy of creative recovery the idea is to tackle just one major change in your life at a time.

I stumbled on this technique (while quitting smoking actually!) and did not realize at the time that it had anything to do with ego depletion.

But looking back now it makes perfect sense. If you try to make too many lifestyle changes at once you are bound to run out of “juice.” The alternative is to make one change at a time, master that change, and then move on to the next personal growth project.

For me this happened naturally during my recovery journey as I solved my problems in order of most urgent to least urgent:

* Got clean and sober.
* Quit smoking cigarettes.
* Got more education.
* Got into better shape.
* Created a successful business.

The stuff at the top of the list was more immediate and more important then the stuff at the bottom of the list. This is how you prioritize in recovery. Take your biggest problem first, isolate it, then overcome it. Then move on to the next. In this way you can be careful not to deplete your reserves of willpower.

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