We all screw up.
I’m trying to eat healthy, then I inhale an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. I’m giving an ex-beau the cold-shoulder, then I cave and send a nasty text I regret.
But sometimes we majorly screw up.
I’ve been in a loving relationship, but cheated anyway. I’ve told myself I’m never doing cocaine again, been down to the last dollars in my bank account, but hit up the dealer anyway.
There’s no denying that drugs and alcohol affect our abilities to make good decisions, and that addiction is a menacing beast with the power to hijack our right-thinking minds. But, even in sobriety, with our heads clear of mind-altering substances, we screw up. I know I have.
Maybe you’ve gone out on a limb and loaned some money to a friend who relapsed—despite your gut tightening into a knot—only to find they took advantage of your kindness. Maybe you’ve relapsed yourself, after months or even years of sobriety, despite already knowing that you can’t drink or use successfully.
In an Psychology Today article, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains the science behind making bad choices—even when we consciously know better—and understanding it might help us to recognize that “What the Hell Effect,” before it’s too late.
When Liking Succumbs to Wanting
As people in the recovery community, we know our fair share about pleasure. Scientifically and psychologically speaking, there are two kinds of pleasure to which our brains respond.
The pleasure known as “liking” is a state of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction. We all have our preferences—things we like—and our brain gives a little squirt of dopamine when we experience these things. We get this feeling after a good meal, a piece of our favorite candy, or hugging someone we love—which are often called natural rewards.
Then, there’s the pleasure known as “wanting,” which we find in pursuit of something, anticipation, seduction, or feeling excitement. Basically, it’s our lust, our desire, the thrill of the chase. Growing evidence shows dopamine plays a big role in us wanting something, giving our brains positive reinforcement so we want it more and more. Even if we know, tomorrow, we’ll wish we hadn’t acted on our desire, this wanting makes us fixate on it and drives us to do it anyway.
Substance Abuse Hijacks our Wanting
Here’s the bad news: Substances of abuse flood the brain’s reward system with insane amounts of dopamine, which can short circuit a brain’s ability to feel pleasure from natural rewards like tasty food and good hugs.
We may have started drinking or using drugs voluntarily, every once in a while, because of the pleasurable feeling these substances produced. But then, in combination with our genetic predisposition and experiences with substance abuse, our drinking or drug use became a compulsive addiction.
The anticipation of these giant dopamine surges conditions our reward systems to want more of a substance, to crave it, and to seek it out repeatedly—even when we know it’ll cost us friends, family, a job, or our health. Dopamine also plays a role in behavioral disorders that don’t involve drugs, like binge eating or gambling and sex addictions.
Even among the existing scientific research on dopamine and the brain’s reward system, the wanting produced by drugs, alcohol, and compulsive behaviors in general is considered undeniably strong. In recovery, it will take time for our brains’ reward systems to heal, which means we still might be liable to act out impulsively and compulsively.
But, here’s some good news: The bad choices we’ve made in addiction do not define our character. We need to be kind to ourselves.
This does not mean we are absolved of all responsibility for our wrongs, nor given a free pass when we make mistakes in recovery. Being aware of the fact that we’re healing can give us some power to recognize when we’re behaving compulsively, and make amends when necessary.
We Want What We Can’t Have
Another factor behind bad decision making is deprivation. When we tell ourselves we can’t have something, our brains want it more. That’s why, when I tell myself I can’t have ice cream, I crave it to the point of obsession.
In 1945, after World War II, scientists conducted The Minnesota Starvation Experiment to gain insight into the effects of semi-starvation and issues of feeding people who were starved in the war. In the experiment, healthy volunteers were semi-starved for six months. As the physical effects of starvation became more noticeable, the participants became more irritable, uninterested in life, and obsessed with food.
Not just hungry, mind you—obsessed. Participants couldn’t stop thinking about food. Some even bought cookbooks just to look at pictures of food. Sixty years later, participants were interviewed and one explained, “Food became the one central thing and only thing in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing.”
Sound familiar? For me, it’s eerily reminiscent of all the times I’ve tried to white-knuckle sobriety, telling myself I can’t get high and only becoming more obsessed with drugs.
So, What’s That Mean for People in Recovery?
Well, if you’re trying to eat healthier or quit smoking, suddenly depriving yourself of all ice cream or all cigarettes might just make those cravings more powerful. Psychologically speaking, it’s better to tell yourself that you can have ice cream or can have the cigarette—as long as these are rare indulgences and you keep your ultimate goals in mind. After all, a slip-up or two doesn’t mean we can’t break our bad habits.
But, in terms of our sobriety, allowing such “rare indulgences” could be extremely damaging. We hear so many stories of relapse—recovering people having a drink or a hit “just this once”—that turn into binges of days, weeks, or years. A bowl of ice cream or a cigarette doesn’t pose us the same kind of danger.
It’s all in the psychology of your sobriety.
No matter which kind of recovery program you adhere to, a huge part of sobriety is accepting a new lifestyle. In recovery, we can fill our lives with new people and passions—some that help us stay sober, some that are sheer gifts of our sobriety. One person thinks, I can’t drink, while another simply thinks, I don’t drink anymore.
We stay sober one day at a time. Rather than telling ourselves we can’t have a drink or a hit, we can reframe our brains: I don’t need to drink; I don’t want to get high; My life is better sober.
“Self-imposed deprivation”—telling ourselves daily that we can’t—will lead to cravings. Then, suppressing that craving makes it stronger. As Dr. Hendriksen says, it’s “like trying to hold a beach ball underwater.” The craving builds, we grow weary of shoving it down, and that want part of our brain will take the wheel once again—this time driving reckless with a vengeance.
The “What the Hell Effect”
After hearing can’t for so long, our brains finally give in to our want and make that bad decision—despite knowing better. We “accidentally-on-purpose” eat that old piece of Halloween candy, bum a cigarette on lunch break, or even impulsively order a drink with dinner.
Here’s where the “What the Hell Effect” kicks into gear and our brains go haywire: Well, I’ve already given in so—what the hell—might as well enjoy it.
The piece of candy takes us down the ice cream aisle, towards an ensuing stomach ache. The bummed cigarette leads us to buy a whole pack and smoke it in one day. The drink with dinner steers us to the liquor store or our dealer’s house.
Our one bad decision can snowball out of control, particularly after we’ve been tirelessly suppressing a craving or a want. We knew better in the first place, but, once we’ve given in, the “What the Hell Effect” makes us temporarily lose sight of our ultimate goal.
We may not be able to stop these psychological mechanisms from working in our brains, but awareness of them might increase our power to intervene in the midst of a bad decision. We can reframe our thinking from can’t, to we just don’t use alcohol and drugs anymore. If you do relapse or have relapsed, you don’t have to ride the What-the-Hell wave into oblivion—you can get back on track.
Nobody’s perfect. In the words of Voltaire, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Be good, be you.