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Seduced by the Comfort of the Familiar

A few days ago, after a discombobulated workday, I found myself thinking about having a glass of wine. This thought would not have been out of the ordinary 5 years ago. Back then it was normal for me to turn to alcohol to take the edge off, and it served as a symbol signifying the end of the workday and the beginning of the evening.

For me, having a glass of wine in the evenings was more than a symbol though. I had come to rely on it for so many things, especially inducing relaxation, and shifting my introverted tendency to being more at ease in social situations.

But it has been a few years since I’ve shifted away from the habit and ritual of alcohol, so when the thought popped-up, “A glass of wine would be nice right now,” I could see it as being out of the ordinary.

My first reaction to seeing this thought was Wow, I haven’t had that reaction in a while. Then I thought, Interesting that my body remembers the stress relief it got from having a glass of wine.

In the past few years I have developed some more healthful ways of managing my stress, including walks, foot massages, exercise and a deepening contemplative practice. But for sure, these habits are not as much of a quick-fix as having a few sips of wine.

Somewhere deep in my body and psyche was the memory and habituated practice of drinking wine for stress relief, and a few days ago it rose up as a seduction to be comforted by the familiar release.

This got me thinking about how seductive the familiar is.

Part of seductiveness is that doing what we have done before requires less energy. The brain is an energy hog, consuming about 20% of the energy requirements of our bodies.  Because of this cognitive demand, the brain likes to automate as much as possible. As I like to say:

The brain loves a habit; it doesn’t care if it’s a good habit or a bad habit, it just loves a habit.

So, part of the seduction of the familiar is that it comes easily; no thought or logistics or energy is required, we can do it on automatic.

Another part of the seduction of the familiar is that it is a known quantity. One of the primary roles of the brain is to keep us safe, so if we did something before and didn’t die, then by default it is safe to do again. This mechanism becomes problematic, however, when it comes to addictive substances.

Two other aspects of the seduction of the familiar are the ego and identity. The ego, that part of us that identifies with the “I,” doesn’t like to be wrong. This is clearly true in some people more than others – I’m sure you can think of some. Admitting to being wrong to someone else requires a certain amount of self-confidence and safety to show vulnerability. This is also true when thinking about changing our behavior, which is in a way admitting that we made some “wrong” choices in the past (if they weren’t wrong or in our best interest, why would we want to change them now?). I’ll admit that “wrong” sounds judgey, particularly because we may not have known any better at the time we started the behavior. The point here is that part of the reason why the ego doesn’t like to change is because it implies that it made some less-than-ideal decisions in the past.

The identity piece is that for most of us, we build our identity out of our accomplishments, our beliefs and values, and our likes and dislikes.

I like this city.

I don’t like that city,

I like this type of car.

I don’t like that type of car,

I like this kind of ice cream.

I don’t like that kind of ice cream.

We are constantly forming opinions – and thus shaping our identity – by naming what we like and don’t like. It would follow that we would want to pursue our likes and avoid our dislikes. And this is how our identities are built around food.

I like chocolate ice cream.

I don’t like squid.

I like corn chips.

I don’t like pork.

When it comes to eating more healthfully, which means not eating certain things we have come to enjoy, it can be a blow to the identity we have built as someone who loves croissants or is a doughnut connoisseur.

If you are trying to start new, healthier habits, and you find yourself being lured into the seduction of the familiar, know that this form of self-sabotage is your biology at work; once you understand the mechanisms at play, it makes it easier to not beat yourself up for setbacks. 

When you can see or hear your thoughts and identify where they are coming from, you can more easily implement an antidote.

On that day when I had the sudden urge for a glass of wine, I took it as a cue to raise the level of my self-care, which for me is most easily remedied by stepping outside – a place where I am easily seduced by awe.

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