Shahroo Izadi is a psychologist, speaker, coach and author of The Kindness Method. Her latest book, The Last Diet, builds on her work specialising in addiction to help people change their habits for good. “What you want is the next choice you make to be a kind one,” she says. In this episode, Shahroo talks about the power of kindness with Club Soda’s Laura and Dru.
Is changing your drinking so wildly different from any other type of change?
I think one thing which is definitely worth saying is that alcohol does lower your resolve. When I help people to change their habits, invariably you’ll be following some sort of plan. And alcohol, as a drug, is very good at making you not care about plans, compared to helping someone to reduce their sugar intake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not underestimating the impact that sugar can have on you physiologically. But in terms of the impact it has on how much you care about following through the plan…
Even if you don’t find yourself with a problematic relationship with alcohol, now more than ever, people are noticing that it’s on a heavier rotation. If it’s a coping strategy for stress. And if you want to drink for the rest of your life, the likelihood is at some point you’re going to need to think about how you drink, why you drink and under what circumstances you want to be drinking.
I do see it as the same as any other habit. That’s where I’ve been able to draw parallels between my relationship with food. I’m not saying by any means that anyone has to drink, of course. And I see people thriving when they don’t. But I don’t want them to think that that’s the only option, and to feel disempowered.
Want to change?
People sometimes don’t want to change because they can’t imagine some occasions without alcohol. And alcohol is efficient at doing some things. We do feel less inhibited. So there isn’t any point in demonising it and saying that it doesn’t do those things. What I would say, though, is that it robs us of the opportunity to demonstrate our capacity to have interesting conversations. There may have been a time when alcohol was a solution to something, it was a social lubricant, it gave you confidence. But, it’s most likely that at this stage in adulthood, you know how to have a really nice time and to enjoy company. You just haven’t given yourself a chance to experiment doing it without alcohol.
A lot of the time people think change is such a daunting prospect. They think they’ll never socialise with alcohol again. So they might want to regulate booze. It’s about treating a lot of these [underlying] things first and foremost. Say to yourself, “I’m doing this just to show myself that I can, and then I’ll reassess after I’ve done it a few times in a row”. I think that’s a lot less daunting. We give alcohol a bit too much credit. Ask yourself, “Am I giving alcohol this credit? Would my body just self-regulate if I give gave it a chance?
Alcohol’s not the problem. It’s a solution. So think about the problem it is solving, or once solved. What else could solve that problem?
What, in addition to alcohol, could be solving your problems? Or could you make that problem less of a problem? Is that more the mission? Can you find ways to remedy stress and putting your focus there? Can you look for ways to reduce your experience of stress?
Stopping continual day ones
When we want to change a behaviour, we’re often fed up. We think that desire and knowledge of how to change is sufficient. We think, “I know what I need to do. And things have got really, really bad. So I’m going to do this as of tomorrow.” This is usually the Sunday night conversation we have with ourselves. Then Monday morning rolls around, and we realise that there are enormous internal and external forces working against us: the neural pathways we’ve already laid down, annoying people, not anticipating the rain.
Importantly, we don’t anticipate that our motivation will waver wildly.
One thing I think is really important is to create visual reminders of why you’re even doing this in the first place. Create a list of all the negatives of your behaviours. Maybe write a letter to yourself about why you’re doing this, and what you’re excited to gain. Or a list of your strengths and achievements. For those moments where you’re having the conversation of “I can’t do this, I’m too weak”, you have something to look at. That can make you think, “Oh, actually, if I could do all this, then I can absolutely ride this ride this craving”.
Use any reminder possible to be aware of your triggers. Create that space between trigger and response. Create a space between wanting to do something and actually doing it. Just seeing something written down in your own handwriting: a letter to yourself, a list of your strengths, even something that preempted that this was going to happen. Something that makes you remember, “I knew I’d be tested by this. This is the test I’ve been waiting for, in order to prove to myself that I’m the sort of person who can go to the pub and not drink. What do I need to do? I need to do that 15 to 20 times in a row. That’s the mission that I’m on.” Anything you can do to formalise that mission and externalise it is fantastic.
We also have this sort of euphoric recall that we talk about in addiction. You move away from the negatives, things start improving a little bit, and you start telling yourself, “you’re making too big a deal of it in the first place, and you were being dramatic.” Then invariably, you find yourself in the same position again, and the cycle continues.
Just compassionately and curiously acknowledge that you’re trying to do something difficult. And have those tools written, whatever they are, in your own words. In those moments when you find it difficult, and you will find it difficult, behaviour change is difficult, you’re able to rely on yourself more. You’re able to make a decision on the spot that you’ll be glad you made tomorrow, even if you hadn’t anticipated the test that is in front of you. I think that’s very empowering. That’s a transferable skill.
Kindness is key
Looking at what’s good about our behaviour actually gives us way more insights. Focusing on what’s right about our behaviours, and what’s right about us, is a far better approach. What we tend to do is beat ourselves up, and say horrible things about ourselves. We think that we’re the worst. We think that focusing on just the bad stuff will suffice. But then we beat ourselves up. Aside from that, if you’re using alcohol as a comfort, as a coping strategy for things like stress and anxiety, you don’t want to be beating yourself up all day.
You need relief from that. I just don’t think there’s any value in not being nice to yourself, or not being compassionate or understanding about your habits. Like you would if you were speaking to a child. That doesn’t mean you give the child whatever he wants, whenever it wants. How can you show kindness to yourself? I think the answer lies in realising that the advice we give other people, our loved ones, is not easy advice. It’s the advice that’s in their best interest long term.
Whenever people ask me, “What’s the criteria for kindness?” this is what I tend to say.
Kindness is taking the same advice you would give a loved one. Kindness is making the choice you’re least likely to regret. Kindness is putting a value on the way you treat yourself, regardless of who is watching. Think about the wisest person you know, what do you think they would tell you to do? And usually, it’s a difficult decision, but it is the one that’s in your best interest tomorrow.
Moving on from failure
I think a lot of people have this all or nothing mentality. Either I’ve done it perfectly or there isn’t any point. It’s worth also remembering that if you decided you weren’t going to drink anything, and then you ended up having one drink, it’s the conversation you have with yourself that dictates what happens next.
There’s this Miles Davis quote that I always go back to which is: “It isn’t the wrong note you play that messes up that piece. It’s the note you play straight afterwards.”
There’s something incredibly empowering about knowing that you can talk yourself back out of something. Just because you’ve had a deviation or a lapse doesn’t mean that it then has to turn into an all or nothing spiralling of “I’m so bad.” It could be reframed as you practising the skill of having one drink. There is an opportunity there. When you find yourself thinking, “Why did I do that? I wish I hadn’t done that,” what you want is the next choice you make to be a kind one. Just commit to that. Just commit to saying, “The next choice I make is one that’s aligned with me being on track.” And see what happens.
What you want is the next choice you make to be a kind one. Just commit to that. Just commit to saying the next choice I make is one that’s aligned with me being on track and see what happens.
Sometimes that all or nothing thinking at the beginning can work in our favour, if you don’t want to ruin your new good streak. But think about the advice you’d give someone else if they came to you. And they said, “Look, I want to do Monday through Saturday, but I only managed Monday through Thursday. And it’s Friday now. So obviously, I just have to drink everything and beat myself up about it. That’s the only option, right?” You would be like, “No, no, it isn’t, you could just treat this as a blip. And no one’s forcing you to do anything. You’re amazing to have got through Monday to Wednesday. That’s progress, not perfection.”
This is such a different narrative to the way that we talk to ourselves when we fall off track with things. Practise when you hear yourself being horrible to yourself. I sometimes I say it aloud to give it some real weight: “Seriously, you think this is what you deserve for having a go at something? You would never speak to someone else like this.” Aside from the fact that we don’t deserve to be spoken to that way, it is completely unhelpful. When it comes to reigning in spiralling behaviour and nonsensical behaviour that we would never recommend anyone else engaged in. Not only if they were in the pursuit of a particular goal to do with drinking, for example, but if they were just in the pursuit of not being bullied.
We need to acknowledge that change is really hard. I can’t bear it when some people who work in wellbeing say, “It’s easy, you’ve got everything you need, you’ve got this!” Aside from the fact that it’s very ableist and entitled and privileged, it’s also not true. Building good behaviours is really hard. There are no hard and fast rules like, “This is how many days it takes to change this behaviour.” I’m sorry, but it’s very different if your behaviour is picking more flowers every day or not injecting opioids into your groin. We shouldn’t be grouping these behaviours together as if like you can change all your habits the same way.
Every day, you have to get up and repeat a new behaviour in the real world. It’s hard. So you’re far better off focusing on your capacity to do difficult things, than thinking that you’re going to create a plan that’s going to create the path of least resistance for you every day. I don’t see that being realistic.
Lapsing and bespoke plans
I used to really struggle with anxiety. There are various tools that I’ve used for my book and counselling and various other things – breathwork and meditation – that have helped enormously. I was anxious when I would get a certain type of email that wasn’t totally friendly, or I thought people were talking about me, or I thought there were just all sorts of things that made me anxious. Any conflict.
A couple of weeks ago, I had half a day where I just felt really, really anxious. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Instead of feeling like it’s come back, I thought, “Hold on. Sure. You’ve had half a day. And you know, it will pass and you know how to deal with it. Three years ago this was your everyday reality. This is how you live now, this is what you called normal.”
It’s a dangerous game to play so don’t do it on purpose, but sometimes those little lapses are a good reminder of what we’re not dealing with everyday anymore.
Ultimately, doing difficult things is easier when we feel good. When we feel supported. When we feel worthy. Impulse control, things that take resilience, urge surfing, these are hard to do especially in the initial stages of change. I do not believe that coming from a place of empty is going put you in a good position. If you’re trying to stick to a plan that you know is in your best interest, but at the beginning there’s friction, there’s pushback, internally and externally, then the more positivity you can consume from every angle the better. Hard and fast rules don’t empower us to create bespoke plans, and they alienate a lot of people.
Do the mind maps. If you can’t do a mind map, do it on your phone. Dictate it, say it aloud, write on your napkin, write it on your face, I don’t care. Just do something.
Self-help books and kindness
I read the self-help books and I want to be like those people. I want get up at dawn. I want to do a four hour day. I want to make a shrine. But I’m just not that person. It would be such a shame if I didn’t take the bits of that approach that applied to me, and felt like I had the autonomy to have fit into the landscape of my life, as opposed to the other way around. If we don’t do that, then we also think it’s our fault when these things don’t work.
Kindness is what helps you get to your goal in the long term and stay there. To some extent, it’s also about doing the things to maintain a goal straight away, as opposed to thinking that there’s going to be this activation phase, and then the momentum is going to create this maintenance phase, when you’re now a whole other person.
Think: “If you waved a magic wand, whether it’s food or booze or whatever, and you’d gone through the difficult bit, how would you stay changed? What would you require? What kind of support would you require? What would the landscape of your life needs to look like, in order to be hospitable to accommodate this new habit long term without you having to graft?” Start doing that. The white-knuckling is a false economy.
Showing yourself kindness about food
One of the first things you hear about when people go to in-patient detoxes and long term rehab is that they come out and they put on an enormous amount of weight. It’s actually a wonderful celebration of the fact that they’re taking care of themselves, and nourishing themselves differently.
The other thing is to remember that when you look at the way that your behaviour serves you, it’s possible you were comfort drinking. And now you’re comfort eating. And your need for comfort is very valid. So it’s understandable.
I think people are very quick to tell themselves they’ve got addictive personalities. But they do that before they’ve acknowledged that it’s very often because they haven’t looked at what that behaviour was doing for them, how it was serving them. And they thought that just taking it away would be enough. You have to treat it like a friendship. This has been your friend that has helped you to do certain things. Now you’re saying goodbye to this friend. It’s going to be hard. And it’s going to put up a fight. And there’s going to be a gap where it was you’re going to want to fill. It’s understandable that you’d want another thing that makes you feel good.
I think all of these things can be seen as an invitation to check in with how you treat your body in general. You want to first look at booze. Then look at food, then look at water, then look at exercise, then look at fresh air, then look at music, then look at joy, then look at whatever it is in your behaviours that you want to change. You’ll become more adaptable and able to change behaviours with more ease, whether it’s professional or personal, throughout your life. Create more opportunities to make yourself feel nourished and worthy. As a by-product, habit change becomes a lot easier.
With food, I think that’s certainly the case. Maybe think for the next week, “Everything I put in my body is going to be based on what I would want my child to consume”. Notice the gap between the choices you make. Because actually, you end up doing things that you wouldn’t have thought. It isn’t about food and exercise. It starts becoming less about whether you take the stairs, whether you’re more boundaried, whether you’re drinking enough water, whether you’ve had any fruit that day. And it becomes a lot more about the sort of person you want to be, than stopping that bad thing and saying you’re bad.
Motivation and kindness
Keeping motivated is about focusing on what you’re moving towards, as opposed to what you’ve moved away from. Because it’s likely that the initial negatives have gone away: the waking up feeling groggy, the fogginess, perhaps a bit of the fear in the morning, whatever it is that people are getting rid of. It’s worth thinking, “Okay, if I carry on like this for another, however long, what benefits like am I going to see?” Then what are the positives?
What can be really helpful is doing a hypothetical change exercise. In six months time, if I continue down this path, how are the different aspects of my life going to be positively impacted by it? And if I don’t, what are things likely to look like? What you’ll probably find is that if you don’t continue, you are likely to lapse back into old patterns. Before you know it, you’re having to do Dry January again. That’s unfortunately what happens when we don’t think about how we’re going to re-enter this, and how we’re going to maintain momentum
For the people who want to continue not drinking, the people who want to re-enter drinking, I highly recommend that you remember that you have not created a new way. Learning not to drink does not teach you to drink differently. It’s very helpful. And it’s a good break. It’s better to do than not to do for all sorts of self-esteem reasons and health reasons. We can become really disillusioned and really demoralised when we think that because we’ve stopped doing something altogether, we’ve learned how to do it differently. Then people think, “Oh, what was the point of that?” Then all the all or nothing thinking comes again, and you don’t give yourself the credit you deserve for the effort that you’ve put in.
You haven’t acknowledged that you’re talking about two very different skills. This is not a weakness on your part. You’re just using alcohol right now as the example of the first habit you’re going to try kindness on. After that, extend it to other things. If this isn’t about demonising alcohol. It’s about seeing a really good opportunity to show yourself how capable you are before you move on to the next thing to show yourself.