Have you ever made a determination to start a new habit and have you been able to stay 100% dedicated to it through the remainder of your life? (insert cricket sound…) Of course, if you are reading this then you are still living and cannot confirm nor deny the attainment of this goal. If you are like most people, you set a goal to establish some new behavior which can be performed consistently and probably have sometimes where you fall short of your idealized expectations. Perhaps you said you would start waking up an hour earlier so you can exercise, or you’ve sworn off some specific type of food, only to find yourself having periodic success.
This is all a normal part of the change process. Setting a goal, taking steps to achieve it, and at times falling short. For those struggling with some form of addiction, this is a very relatable topic. Making a commitment to stop drinking only to find yourself days, weeks, months or years down the road ingesting alcohol. If you can relate with this, I’d like you to think of a time when you deviated from your goal to abstain and what your mind told you the moment you veered off that path. Did it say something to the effect of “Well, you’ve had one so you might as well drink the rest of the 6 pack…” or “I knew I couldn’t do this, afterall I am an alcoholic and I always screw things up and get drunk”, or even “I slipped yesterday so I am only at day one so I might as well keep going and I can start again tomorrow”. This type of thinking is a prime example of the Abstinence Violation Effect, or AVE.
The Abstinence Violation Effect is when there is any deviation from a desired behavior goal and this deviation is viewed as a total failure. This viewpoint that the deviation is a total failure is then used as a further justification to continue using or doing the addictive behavior. I have had clients that expressed after having one sip of a drink, they felt so badly and shameful for failing that this was the permission giving thought that getting drunk wouldn’t be any worse. After 5 years of sobriety, someone had a glass of champagne at a wedding and then felt that they had wasted their 5 years of sobriety and would have to start over anyway, so they ended up going on a binge for the next 18 months for fear of having to “start over”.
While this phenomenon is common with all types of people, it is often seen the most in those who put a strong emphasis on total consecutive days sober, as opposed to cumulative days sober. If you’ve struggled with an addiction, imagine the most acute period when you were struggling, and then imagine if someone told you that you would have 5 years sober, with only a glass of champagne, or one use of your addiction over the course of those 5 years. Would you see that as a victory, or would you focus on the fact that you had one day out of 1,825 days where you engaged in your addiction and therefore failed?
It is suggested to work on staying in the moment and not beating yourself up for deviating from the path of your desired goal. Just like your phone navigation system will autocorrect when you drive off the assigned path, so too can you make a course correction if you fall back into an old behavior pattern, however short or long in duration. One sip is better than one beer, one beer is better than dusting off the whole 12 pack and so on. We need not use one slip to justify continued slips. An old quote I enjoy: Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can!