- Robert Schwebel, Ph.D.
Permission to Indulge? Self-Talk During COVID-19
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
Posted April 27th, 2020 on psychologytoday.com.
Tips on how to recognize and resist temptation to exceed your own limits.
With the current crisis and upheaval in our lives, there are many “good excuses” to exceed personal limits you set for yourself on drinking, using drugs, or any other indulgent and possibly addictive behaviors. The same can be said about diets and emotional or binge eating. If you’ve set limits for yourself, your success will depend in part upon your ability to resist “relapse self-talk” that tempts you to abandon your goals. You’ll face the same challenging self-talk you encountered pre-pandemic, but now amplified by current circumstances that can be used to justify exceeding your limits.
Below are six categories of relapse self-talk that you might encounter and tips on how to fight back. Your challenge is to identify your own relapse self-talk, analyze its strategy to undermine success, and counter with powerful self-talk that keeps you on track.
(1) Mindless Permission (Don’t think)
"Go ahead, drink (smoke, play video games, binge eat, gamble).”
“You’ll feel good.”
“It’s party time.”
This self-talk is a tactic of the “right now” brain that wants whatever pleasure is available in the moment, without regard to your “smart brain” that actually thinks about the consequences. It gives you permission to overstep your limits. You could summarize its message as “Don’t think.”
Mindless permission sneaks up on you and diminishes your resolve. To avoid this pitfall, you must remain vigilant and actively watch for it. You might find that giving it a name helps. I call it the green light trick. It says: “Go ahead.” But, you really need to counterpunch by saying: “No. Stop! Think.” Then, you ponder the questions:
Why am I saying I should go ahead?
What justifies going against my wise and thoughtful decision to abstain (or stay within my own pre-set limits)?
You can protect yourself from mindless permission by slowing things down (Stop) and mindful awareness (Think). Here’s an example of prudent and thoughtful self-talk:
“Hey, I don’t need any mindless encouragement to do something that would be harmful to me. I’m going to resist temptation and stick with my goals because they are important to me. I’d rather bask in the glory of my current success than mindlessly cave in to urges.”
(2) Reward Yourself (Indulge)
“You deserve it.”
“You’ve earned it.”
“It’s time to celebrate your success.”
This self-talk implies that drug use (or other potentially problematic behaviors) in excess of your own limits is a reward, something positive to which you are entitled. You've weathered a storm, responded very well to difficult circumstances, and now deserve a reward for your effort. That’s all well and fine. But then the issue becomes: What is an appropriate reward? Is a giant milkshake the appropriate reward for eating a salad? Is a six-pack of beer the proper reward for a week of abstinence from alcohol?
Surely you’re not respecting your own limits when you reward restraint from drinking (or drugging, or binge eating, or whatever) with permission to indulge in exactly what you previously decided not to do.
Here’s an example of self-talk that acknowledges your success, yet respects your decisions:
“Yes I deserve a reward, but not by doing something that breaks my own rules. I’m not going to fall into that trap. I’ll give myself a different type of reward and keep focusing on my long-term goal. There’s lots of work ahead.”
(3) “I’m Here for You” (Your Friend)
“Eat these donuts. You’ll feel better.”
“Smoke this joint. It’ll calm you down.”
“Keep gaming. It’ll take your mind off things.”
This self-talk presents itself as your pal, a problem-solving partner, here to help you through tough times. It sounds like a caring and kind offer of relief in response to stress and troubles. Sometimes, it even comes across as a necessity, as in “You know you need it.” This is tricky because you certainly would like to find relief form your distress. But this relapse self-talk offers relief by urging you to do something you have previously decided not to do. It undermines your success. It’s not what a good friend would recommend. You don’t benefit from it and certainly don’t need it.
In anticipation of this self-talk, it’s important to think about and list all the resources you have at your disposal to get relief – ways to distract yourself, have fun, get support, or engage in meaningful activities, etc. – without resorting to a behavior that violates a standard you set for yourself. Then, you can keep your list handy.
Here’s an example of self-talk that stands up to this “pal” who is “here for you” and shows how to be a true friend to yourself:
“No, you’re not really here for me. Sure it would be nice to get some relief, but not at the cost of undermining my own thoughtful decisions. You underestimate my resourcefulness. You’re not my pal. I can weather the storm, and I can also find other ways to get relief.”
(4) The Exception (Bad Today, but Good Tomorrow)
“Tomorrow I’ll be back on the wagon.”
“Tomorrow I’ll eat healthy.”
“Tomorrow I’ll abstain from gaming.”
This self-talk is about being dishonest to yourself by making an exception. It gives you permission to indulge yourself right now and temporarily “suspend” any limits you have set. It’s based on the premise (bogus assumption/wishful thinking) that your “future self” guiding your behavior tomorrow will be different from your “present self.” Thing is, you’ll be the same person tomorrow. You’re just kicking the can down the road, with one exception after another.
Here’s an example of “no exception” self-talk:
“You can’t fool me with promises about tomorrow. That’s not cutting myself slack. That’s jumping ship. It’s nonsense and a formula for failure. I’m not making exceptions. I’m sticking with my decision right now, today! I am going to succeed.”
(5) You Can’t (Powerless)
“You have no control”
“There’s no point in trying. You’re hooked”
“Admit it. You can’t do it.”
This self-talk exploits a sense of powerlessness; the idea that you lack control over your own behavior. It asserts that your desires and impulses overwhelm your ability to control yourself. While putting you down as weak, this self-talk conveniently absolves you of any responsibility because, after all, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Here’s an example of “Yes, I can” self-talk that recognizes your own personal power:
“You underestimate me. I have much more resolve, power, and inner strength than you think I have. I absolutely am capable of resisting this temptation. I, and I alone, have the power to stick with my decision and I fully intend to do so.”
(6) Circumstances Justify It (Not My Fault)
“Poor you. Look at all that’s going on.”
“Don’t deny yourself now, when you need it most.”
“You’re bored. There’s nothing else to do.”
This self-talk should definitely be expected during a time of crisis. It exploits vulnerability and offers the perfect cover story: “It’s not you. It’s the circumstances.” You made your decision to establish limits for yourself without anticipating the current circumstances, so your decision no longer holds.
This is perhaps the most reasonable relapse self-talk. Things have changed. Stress is up. Outlets for pleasure have been diminished. So, maybe it is time to review why you set your limits (a wise thing to do regardless of circumstances). You can determine if you are using the current situation as an excuse to bail out or whether you are thoughtfully abandoning your plan and making a new one. If you conclude it’s still in your interest to abstain or abide by limits you set for yourself, then you’ll need supportive self-talk that says so:
“My decision is important to me. I gave up the immediate benefits of alcohol (or a drug or a particular behavior) in order to have a better life. That is still what I value more than immediate pleasure or relief from pain. So, I must stick with my limits, even now under difficult circumstances.”
Epilogue: Sink or Swim
As you can see, relapse self-talk is out to get you and now has the perfect cover with COVID-19. But, you don’t have to fall for it. You can take your power, resist temptation, and stay within the bounds of the limits you have set for yourself.