taking breaks

Eight years, baby

A couple of weeks ago my eighth year anniversary of quitting both sugar and caffeine rolled around. It’s not something I celebrate exactly — since, you know, I don’t eat cake or anything, but I do always pause and remember how bleeping hard it was.

It was hard because you really can’t think straight when horrible cravings are mixing with the initial and unpleasant physical symptoms (headaches, irritability, lack of energy, devastating brain fog).

And it was hard because of the lack of support from the people around me (“What’s wrong with you? What kind of crazy person would do that? Have some coffee and a piece of pie and we’ll talk about this. . .”).

And it was hard because I went about it so completely wrong (which is another story–remind me to tell you sometime because it’s a good one).

But the hardest thing about saying goodbye to any unwelcome, addictive or self-medicating behavior (whether it’s a drug that everyone would agree is a drug or one that is a drug just for you, or even just checking email a hundred times a day), is not the week you spend curled up fetal, crying on the floor. It’s the whole problem of not knowing what to do when you really need a break.

Guess what? Your habit is giving you something important

There are benefits from your habit. Sure, it’s hurting you and sure, you know it’s self-abuse and sure, you want to stop. It’s just that every habit comes with some good stuff and that’s what you need to pay attention to, because you’re going to want to replicate it when the habit is gone. Habits give you pauses from pain. Sweet, sweet pauses.

When I work with people who are becoming people who don’t smoke or don’t over-eat, one of the first things we do is map out a plan for the pauses:

What are you going to do when . . .

  • you have ten minutes to wait for something and nothing to do?
  • you are too angry to speak?
  • you have an unpleasant task ahead of you?
  • you’re feeling sad?
  • you feel the need to stop what you’re doing and process / reassess / tune out?

Smoking and eating “solve” all those problems, and not-smoking or not-eating don’t. It’s not enough to stop DOING THE THING. It doesn’t have anything to do with will power or determination or strength of character. It’s about your relationship to the situations that cause you discomfort. It’s about the stuff that happens in the pauses. This is true for all the things you want to stop doing.

Life is hard sometimes, and you’re going to need the pauses. You’re going to need the sweetness. And finding the new way to give yourself that kind of expansiveness is your big challenge.

Replacing the good stuff with … good stuff

Here is what happens when you’re in the habit cycle. Something uncomfortable happens (usually internal or external criticism or judgment of some sort). This causes pain, which triggers the craving. You then stop to satisfy it, which gives you a break from the pain. Then you throw in an added dose of guilt–which causes the cycle to repeat.

The pattern looks something like this:

criticism → pain → craving → break

The break or the pause is all about giving yourself attention. Which is why the most important thing you can work on when you want to change your habits is the ability to take breaks. To give yourself a break–both in the sense of taking a pause, and in the sense of not being so hard on yourself. You want to learn to ease off the judgment and the criticism, while still giving yourself the right to a little time-out.

Giving yourself attention means taking the break and being with yourself. You might have to do some quick self-talk or some tapping on pressure points, and you’ll want to have something to do with your hands (if you don’t know about things like palming, tapping and mudras, be sure to sign up for the teleclass). Practice feeling as though you deserve to STOP everything and have a break. Practice giving yourself sweetness. Emotional sweetness.

And, as I always say, no more sweetness than you can handle. If you absolutely can’t stand to be kind to yourself in a given moment, for heaven’s sake don’t force it.

It’s not very compassionate to require yourself to be compassionate. And even less so to guilt yourself for “not being able” to be kind. It’s okay, that’s just where you are right now. It’s temporary and it’s also not all that tragic.

You’ve carried this habit around with you for what, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, right? Another day of working on it is not going to be the end of the world.

It’s not about getting to the top of the mountain

Yep, there are always more mountains. You either spend your life struggling and shaking your fist at the unfairness of it all, or you decide you want to be the kind of person who is equally good at climbing and at stopping to rest. Or both . . .

We’re always working on something. It’s true that I’ve quit lots of things in my day, from cigarettes (one of the hardest) to both milder and more severe forms of self-abuse. And I’m still working on other things. Life is full of challenges.

That’s right. Lest you think I have achieved all, I haven’t. I still have my stuff to practice on and work through, including (but not limited to) mastering the art of writing a sentence without having to insert a parenthetical aside (no, seriously, desperate cry for help). But that’s okay. And there is time. There’s a process and there are pauses. Which is part of the practice of sweetness.


I hope it was clear to everyone, despite my somewhat flippant personal style, that changing habits is hard work. And I hope it’s equally clear that I’m not advocating that everyone quit coffee and sugar. It’s a “lifestyle choice”, it’s certainly not for everyone, and if something isn’t having a negative effect on you, don’t worry about it. To each his own and all that. I’m still on your team even if you want to keep all your habits!

The Fluent Self