Several of my blogs now have been singing the praises of Gabor Maté’s “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” This blog is an unabashed summary of his chapter entitled, “The Four Steps, Plus One.” Maté adapts Jeffrey Schwartz’s “Four-Step Self Treatment Model” which was developed to overcome compulsions (such as hand-washing) that are part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Schwartz’s book is entitled “Brain Lock” which is the phenomenon of stuck neurological gears that lead the person to act out thoughts before those thoughts can be stopped. Maté argues that addiction involves a very similar “brain lock” and suggests that these same steps can be useful in overcoming an addiction. He says that this method will require a high level of motivation, should be practiced daily and used whenever urges arise, and that the work should be written down in a journal.
Step One: Relabel
This involves relabeling the addictive urge for what it is and what it isn’t. The urge is not telling you to do something that you “need” to do. It is merely my addiction talking. The urge is not pointing to any reality that must be acted on. It is crucial to develop a mindful attention to this truth and writing down these truths can be extremely helpful.
Step Two: Reattribute
This step answers the question: so what IS the urge about? The urge is simply my brain on autopilot in ways that echo unmet emotional needs from long ago. Blame the urge on your brain. The urge is your brain signaling “I want more dopamine or endorphins” and telling you an old reliable way of getting them. But there are much better sources of dopamine and endorphins that don’t have all the negative consequences of the addiction. Be clear, the addictive behavior will not satisfy a single real need.
Step Three: Refocus
This step could have been called: Delay. Simply delay doing the addictive behavior by doing anything else that you enjoy. See if you can buy yourself just 15 minutes. And if you can’t manage that, then go for 5. Set a timer, “I’m going to go play guitar for 15 minutes and then I’ll decide if I’m going to act out or not.” Physical activity is especially helpful.
Step Four: Revalue
This step should be called: Devalue. You get clear on how the addiction has screwed up your life. Remember how your addiction promised connection but left you isolated and lonely. It promised happiness and left you feeling shame and despair. It has robbed you of time, respect of family, career success, friendships, and peace of mind. It is a dirty, rotten, lying, thief and it wants to rob you again.
Step Five: Re-create
Maté added this step to Schwartz’s four. What do you choose to create in the absence of your addiction? Distinctive to human nature is the capacity to create: music, art, poetry, new ideas, even furniture for your house! Write down your values and intentions. If you had no limitations, what would you choose to do? Then figure out a way to go do some part of that. If you had no limitations, you’d take a trip around the world? Well, grab your best friend and go on a trip this evening or this weekend into a part of your neighborhood you’ve yet to see.
Use these five steps as a way of strengthening your addiction recovery. You can experience the healing (re-wiring) of your brain as you practice these steps day by day.