Archive for February, 2013

Compromising your own behavior:

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio of this article.

(02/20/13)

This blog will cover a few different human tendencies, but they’re all intertwined and they aren’t strictly about getting or staying sober. My discussion here will be relevant to many things in life: a diet, a workout plan, your education, career moves, financial budgeting, planning for your retirement and relationships with people. The list can go on.

Let’s start with the first one. “You ain’t gonna do shit.” Me saying, “You ain’t gonna do shit” is not a confrontation to argue with you or meant to insult you. It is a phrase intended to extend a challenge. I say this phrase to myself all the time. It challenges me and requires me to seriously think about what I claim I will do. I am by no means close to perfect nor am I able to do everything I say I will. But this challenges me to do what I say I will do.

Hearing someone who’s sitting at bar or at a party reciting all of the things they are going to do can be very entertaining. “I’m gonna write a book. I’m gonna get a new job. I’m gonna run for Mayor. I’m gonna go on a diet, I’m gonna blah, blah, blah,.” You hear them and you think, “You ain’t gonna do shit.” And you’re right, because as they tell you what they’re going to do they order another Rum & Coke. They ain’t gonna do shit.

Even sane, clearheaded, sober people can fall prey to this. It is a strange way that the mind massages itself and massages our own ego. I’m not saying that people are liars. We may have the best intentions, even have plans in place to carry out what we say we will do. But until action is taken, nothing happens. So when you hear yourself making some outrageous (even not so outrageous) claims about what you will do, challenge yourself with the words, “You ain’t gonna do shit” and then prove yourself wrong. Prove to yourself that you WILL do what you say you will do.

I’m not so arrogant to think myself better than humanity. But I accept that 90% of people won’t do what they say they will do. This helps me to be charitable and loving (stop laughing). If I don’t expect you to do what you said you will do, I won’t be disappointed, I won’t feel I’m above that person and I can stop myself from feeling anger towards them. I am able to still love and care about the person. (It helps me avoid unintended revenge—I’ll talk about that shortly.) I can relax and consider that maybe there were circumstance that I’m unaware of that didn’t allow the person to fulfill their word.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing humanity. Talking a good talk is a natural human behavior. A lot of things sound pretty good when coming out of the talk-hole, “I’m going on a diet, I’m going back to school, I’m gonna be President.” Without uttering these intentions out loud you don’t have to live up to any claims. So vocalizing your intentions is important and it may be the first step towards you taking action.

You wanna scare the shit out of people? Do what you say you will do. If you say you’re going back to school then do it. If you say you’re going to be a better parent then work at it. If you say you’re going to finish a project then finish it. Start by fulfilling small promises and the big ones will follow. Again, I am by no means perfect. While I strive to be part of the 10%, I often fall short.

Some people you have to interact with either for business or personal reasons. You must decide to what limit you are willing to expose and invest your time, talent, money or emotions. Here’s where unintended revenge comes into play.

Have you ever been told something by someone and thought, “I don’t believe a fucking word you say. You have never done a single thing you said you would.” Just because you don’t trust them or don’t necessarily like them is no reason to compromise your own behavior or consistency. For example, I have plenty of people who never return my calls or emails. But when THEY need something, I guarantee I will hear from them, they’ll be calling every 5 minutes. I must then control my natural human emotion of “revenge.”  I must keep myself calm, hold off on my snide commentary and not allow myself to compromise my behavior. I will be civil, treat them with dignity and I will be man enough to say “no” if I don’t feel like doing something. But I will not exact my revenge by ignoring them. Usually after enough “no’s” from me they go away anyhow.

And you’re fooling yourself if you say, “I never exact revenge on anyone.” Somebody cuts you off in traffic or is rude to you at a store, you may unconsciously take it out on an innocent person like your spouse, child, coworker, anyone. You are exacting revenge.

Revenge has a path. Sometimes it’s obvious—he did me wrong so I will get even. Most times it follows an invisible path from the unconscious mind (you feel hurt by something someone said or did), then it goes to the subconscious mind (you do something in retaliation that you might not normally do), then it goes to the conscious mind (you tell yourself why your behavior was justifiable). “Oh, so now this fucker calls? He ignored how many of my calls? But now he wants to talk to me. Good luck if I call HIM back.” That’s revenge, and it may end up hurting you.

I’m not saying that you take or return every call or email. There’s only so much time in life. You have priorities and responsibilities which come first. You may be in the middle of doing something you said you would do. Use your judgment.

The unconscious desire to exact unintentional revenge comes from unexpected occurrences. Somebody cuts you off in traffic, a cashier is rude, you get passed over for a promotion, you get a bad grade, you lose money, somebody turns you down for a date, whatever. You feel hurt and you can unconsciously start acting out your revenge. That’s when you may get shitty with your family, cut someone else off in traffic or steal something from work. You begin to compromise your behaviors and then justify them in your own mind. Hey, I’ve done it. This can weaken you to have a relapse. I’ve never relapsed, but when I was drinking I might have had an argument with my wife so I went and got extra drunk. Ooooh, I showed her didn’t I? Relapsing or going and getting drunk is no way to get revenge. You’re just hurting yourself.

Doing what you say you will do has a lot to do with “honor.” I have tried to explain “Honor among thieves” to a few people. Law enforcement has difficulty understanding this concept and so do some legitimate business people. I don’t want to incriminate myself so I will be vague. I have heard of business transactions that are sealed with a handshake. These criminals were good for their word and they would pay what was owed. It was pretty simple: If you didn’t pay your supplier, you were no longer supplied. If you owed the supplier a large sum of money and didn’t pay it back there may be a painful interest penalty. Word would get around pretty fast if someone was a con or a deadbeat. You were required to be a man of your word if you wished to continue in your profitable enterprise. As twisted as it sounds, this type of business relationship instilled honor among the participants.

Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t always go with honor and chivalry. Every career field has its crooks and cons. But that particular industry has an interesting way of policing itself. One must learn to be honorable and do what they say they will do if they wish to be successful. One can take those principles of honor and doing what you say you will do and carry them over into a public enterprises and into the exchanges with family, friends and people in general. I’ve seen it happen.

So what does this all mean? Refrain from making too many grandiose projections of what you will do. Be careful of what you promise, especially the little things. If you promise to call someone, then call them. If you promise to take care of something, then take care of it. If you’re unable to fulfill a promise, acknowledge it. Don’t go on with reasons, excuses and bullshit about why you didn’t do it or why it didn’t happen. Just say you didn’t do it or it didn’t happen. If the disappointed party wants to hear why, they will ask. Then you can recite your laundry list of bullshit.

Being human is not always easy. The desire to catch someone in their flaws is natural. When your flaws are pointed out, it’s normal to want to defend yourself by pointing out your accuser’s flaws. But this may lead you to unintentional revenge or compromising your own honor. “Nobody else does what they say they will, why should I?” Try to be part of the 10%. Do what you say you will do, refrain from exacting unintentional revenge on others and work towards being a person of honor. These behaviors will boost your self-respect and self-esteem. You don’t have to exhibit these qualities to be sober, but I believe they will help you stay that way and help you make the best out of your sobriety.

Self-fulfilling prophecies:

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this blog article.

(02/13/13)

Before you go buy the book “The Secret” I would like you step back for a moment and first view how pessimistic you are. You see, even if you visualize good things, put positive affirmations and pictures of your goals up on the refrigerator, if you have a pessimistic outlook, you will be unconsciously drawn towards fulfilling the downside. You will bring negativity and poor outcomes into reality through your own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Pessimism and a negative outlook are parallel to the positive principles of The Secret and Laws of Attraction. But negative attitudes can manifest negative results faster and more dramatically than positive affirmations bring positive results. And one small setback or disappointment can undermine all positive affirmations and recent positive experiences. That’s when pessimism rears its ugly head again. “See, I knew this was too good to last. I knew I was gonna get fucked in this deal somehow.” Then the loop of negative self-fulfilling prophecies starts all over. And with that pessimistic attitude comes depression.

There are easier ways to combat depression than through prescribed medications or therapy. There are ways to improve your life and enjoy your future more than by doing all the goal setting strategies I so heavily tout. Goals are important, yet the process of working at a goal should be what is relished. Sometimes medication is helpful and necessary for stabilizing chemical imbalances which may bring about clinical depression. But for the most part, your mood and attitude will be what determines your happiness. What you expect will often determine the experience. Not always, but very often.

Have you ever heard of the term: psychosomatic? This is another type of self-fulfilling prophecy. Psychosomatic means that you can think yourself into being ill, or at least feel as if you are suffering the symptoms of the illness you think you have. Now I’m sure that none of you have never fallen victim to psychosomatic illness. But you may have felt sick for someone else, or felt their pain. And if you dwelled on their illness or pain for an extended amount of time you can genuinely begin to feel pain yourself. If you stay focused on a pessimistic outlook for too long, you drop into a state where you feel you lack power and then you can slide into depression. This can create a self-learned cycle of sad, self-fulfilling prophecies.

I’m not saying that you go about life being oblivious to reality. Being broke sucks. Being in debt sucks. Living in a dangerous neighborhood sucks. Being in an abusive or unhappy relationship sucks. But if you remain pessimistic in your outlook and believe that you are powerless over your situation you will set the stage for your own self-fulfilling prophecy loop. You will stay stuck or stagnate and do nothing. And I can guarantee you that if you do nothing you will get nothing.

The power of expectation has been proven through thousands of product comparison studies. There have been numerous studies done with food, soda, cars, TVs, jelly, mustard—you name it and somebody has done a study on it. An interesting one is wine tasting comparisons. If you’re told you are about to taste a $200 bottle of wine and a $9 bottle of wine, the average person will think the $200 wine tastes better than the $9 wine, even when both samples are the same product in each bottle. There are clear distinctions between brands you like and don’t like and experiences you like and don’t like, but mood, attitude and expectations do have an influence on your behavior, your actions and thus the results of many outcomes—creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Everything can’t be controlled. No matter how much you try to control things, there will always be elements of uncertainty and unpredictability. Much in our life is a result of randomness and luck. You can stack the odds of good luck in your favor by controlling the small things and many of those small things make a big difference. You CAN control your outlook.

If you keep telling yourself you are helpless and powerless, what do YOU think will be your mood and attitude? You’re in essence setting yourself up to fail or establishing authorization to fail. “I’m weak and powerless. What else would you expect from me? I’m such a moron,” blah, blah, blah. Keep talking poorly about yourself you will feel poorly about yourself and you will bring about self-fulfilling prophecies.

The descriptive words you use about yourself and the world around you set your expectations. These words are what psychologists call your explanatory style. Your explanatory style—the words you use about yourself and the world—give life to either a pessimistic or optimistic outlook. Those words also give life to denial and depression. If you always blame someone else or some other condition (for good and bad), that fosters denial. Blaming someone else for the bad is unrealistic and not taking credit for your good (or crediting some mystical source for your good), minimizes your own self-worth. And a depressed person will often fault themselves for everything to the point where they feel they are stupid and helpless.

Acceptance of responsibility is different than blaming. Acceptance is a conscious acknowledgment and awareness of the words you use, the tone of your voice, the tenseness of your jar, your behavior, how often you smile and your outlook. When all you think about are dour outcomes, that’s what you’ll be looking for. And you won’t have to look far for them—they’ll find you.

Don’t get me wrong. You can’t just live in Pretendo Land. Just because you want something to be true that doesn’t mean it will become so. While it may appear to be true in your own mind, it may not be true in the real world. What’s weird is that sometimes you see people who are completely out of touch with reality, yet things go their way. This is usually because whether they realize it or not, they try harder than other people and they have not given in to helplessness. They have an attitude of feeling things will go their way and their attitude pushes them along into action. And a lot of times they succeed through pure luck. But they are looking at their life with a positive attitude.

I know a lot of this stuff sounds like what your grandma probably told you, well, maybe your grandma but my grandma was German and I couldn’t understand a word she said. Anyway, using negative words to describe yourself and your world around you will propel a dour outlook which leads to seeing dour predictions. Then your mind unconsciously goes to work to help you achieve self-fulfilling prophecies. Simply by stopping a pessimistic and dour outlook may change everything, or at least be the start of improving your life. Why not give it a try? What’s the worst that can happen? It may help you feel better for a while.

Practicing being normal:

Monday, February 11th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this blog article.

(02/11/13)

The average adult (none of us think we’re average by the way), will talk about their social experiences. When they do, this is a great opportunity to practice acting normal. I talk with all sorts of people, and most of them have no idea that I’m a non-drinker. I talk with people at the Post Office, grocery store or gym. They talk about their weekend, how they went to a party or a show. They may (or may not mention) drinking as part of their socializing. If they do mention drinking I don’t make any comments about it. It’s their life. I have witnessed nice conversations turn sour as soon as someone says, “Well I don’t drink so I don’t go to those kinds of events.” This is often said with a condescending tone or superiority. Why say something like that?

When I talk with people about my weekend, my work or my travels, I talk about the subject at hand. I don’t close or qualify my statements with, “Oh, and by the way, I don’t drink.” Whether I drink or not has nothing to do with my day job and many of the other normal things I do in life. If I talk about a comedy show that I recently saw, a concert I was recently at or a movie that I just watched, that’s what I talk about. There’s no reason to include mention of my non-drinker status. I’m not embarrassed about it, I just don’t need to talk about it all the time. There’s an appropriate time to talk about sobriety—such as here in my blog on sobriety. If you met me on the street you would never know I’m a non-drinker.

A lot of newly sober people become anxious, nervous and concerned about going out in public. They’re not necessarily worried that they’ll crack, they’re worried about what their friends or other people will think. I was guilty of this myself. But I quickly overcame this false concern when I did some social psychology research and then experienced it myself.

The Barry Manilow T-Shirt experiment:

In 1996 Thomas Gilovich performed an experiment at Cornell University. He had college students put on T-Shirts with Barry Manilow on the front and then sent them around to various other classrooms. The instructors were in on the experiment, so they made sure that the Barry Manilow T-Shirt wearing student was clearly seen by all the other students in the class.

The students who wore the T-Shirt were interviewed after they went to a couple different classrooms. They felt that everyone must have noticed them and thought they were a dork. When asked to give a percentage they responded, “50% or more noticed my dorky T-Shirt.”

The researcher then entered the classrooms and asked the students if they recalled the person who was just there. About 25% remembered seeing someone in a Barry Manilow T-Shirt. (Remember that the student was actually put in the spotlight but only 25% noticed.)

The same experiment was performed but in this situation the students wore “cool” T-Shirts with either Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Marley or Martin Luther King Jr. on the front. Once again the interrupting student was put in the spotlight. The attending students were then asked if they noticed what the person was wearing. Less than 10% of them remembered the cool T-Shirt.

There have been many other experiments similar to this studying how attentive people are towards other people and their surroundings. The percentages are fairly consistent even when something extraordinary is thrown into the equation. These are experiments that actually put the subject into the spotlight and most people still don’t notice it.

So, taking these percentages into account, you can presume that most people won’t notice you in a public setting. (This also tells us that you’re more likely to get noticed if you dress like a dork than dress cool.) This also means that there will be a small amount of people who will notice you and push a drink on you. Some will do it because they want to be what they believe as being a good host. Others will push it on you because they see you with an empty hand and think you must need a drink. Others will push it on you because they’re already drunk and think everyone else should be drunk too.

You are under NO OBLIGATION to explain yourself. You just say, “No thanks, I’m good.” Most people will then offer an alternative or say, “Okay, but let me know if you need anything.”

A drunk on the other hand will keep pushing. At that point I either walk away or stop responding. If I’m stuck with them at my table or whatever the temporary situation might be, I just agree with them. “What, are you a fag? C’mon have a shot.” “Ya, I’m a faggot. I can’t drink shots like you.” “Awww you pussy.” “Yup, that’s right. I am.” I won’t get drawn in and I don’t want to engage. And the last thing I’ll talk with them about is sobriety. One of us will leave eventually.

So here’s where I’m going with this. If you attend a Wedding reception, picnic, company event or go to any social gathering where alcohol is served, you are under NO OBLIGATION to drink or to explain why you don’t drink. Most people don’t give a shit anyway. Don’t worry what they think, because they’re NOT thinking of you, they’re thinking of themselves.

Consider this: If you’re all wrapped up in your own world thinking about yourself and worried what people will think about you, ummm, isn’t there a good chance that everyone else is busy doing the same thing—thinking about themselves—figuring that everyone else is watching them and thinking about them?

You’re not being watched and scrutinized as much as you think you are.

There is a proper time and place to talk about politics, religion, to tell dirty jokes and the same goes for talking about sobriety. You are under NO OBLIGATION to tell someone that you don’t drink or why you don’t drink. Is this hiding from reality or not being proud of your sobriety? I don’t believe so. I think it’s just acting normal. In the scheme of things, most people are interested in themselves and not you. I remind myself of this all the time. When someone wants to talk with me about sobriety, they’re not interested in me or my story; they’re interested in what I have to say that will help them. That’s not a criticism of humanity, that’s an acceptance of reality. And with that acceptance, we can be of benefit to one another.

So don’t worry about what other people will think if you’re not drinking. More than likely they will never notice. Unless you’re playing the guitar wearing only underpants in Times Square, most people won’t notice you. That’s just how it is. In many ways that’s a good thing because you don’t have to worry about what people will think of you. People won’t notice or care whether you’re drinking or not—unless you point it out to them. So don’t point it out to them and just be normal.

I like what I like:

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this blog article.

(02/09/13)

So you like what you like. Is that bad? Who cares why you like it. What’s more important is whether what you like is harmful to your life, the lives of the people you care about and whether you’re going to let your likes take control of you. Thinking about whether to take action is more important than thinking about why you like what you like.

For instance, people say to me, “Living sober doesn’t suck. How can you say that? It’s the greatest thing I ever did.”  I think, and sometimes come right out and say, “Are you telling me that or are you telling yourself that? Besides, I’m not arguing with you, if YOU think it’s wonderful, that’s great.” For ME, it sucks. I would like to be drinking. Would I like to be doing a mountain of blow? Fuck ya’. But just because I would “like to” doesn’t mean I will take action on it. There is no question that my life is much more trouble free and fun—in different ways—than when I was drinking. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. And not allowing myself to do what I would like can suck.

Let’s see, how do you think most people would HONESTLY answer this question?

Which would you rather do? Be responsible, express self-control, make sacrifices, forego fun now so you can enjoy some uncertain fun at some uncertain point in the future—OR—would you rather go get fucked up, party, act wild, not worry about the consequences and have a great time?

My guess is that most people (I said most not all), would quietly say in their mind, “I wanna get fucked up, that’s fun” but out loud they will say, “Well I want to do the right thing and stay sober.” I’m not inferring that they are lying or that you should just do whatever you like. There will be ramifications. You consciously know that if you impulsively act on your likes and start drinking the shit’s gonna hit the fan.

I believe that too much time and mental energy is spent trying to either figure out or explain your likes. It’s your likes that make YOU uniquely YOU.

We are all attracted to certain body styles, colors and flavors. This includes cars, clothes, people and food. If you try to explain why it is that you like something using words you’ll conjure up all sorts of reasons or rationalizations. Who gives a fuck? You like what you like. It’s not worth spending the mental energy on figuring out “why” you like it.

I don’t believe that you need to think about or apologize for liking what you like. In fact, I believe that when you honestly accept that you like something you can get a better grasp of your own self-control over that certain like and make better decisions about it. I prefer to spend my mental energy thinking about whether my actions will be in my best interest if I pursue something I happen to like. Will it be in the interest of my health, my relationships, my friendships, my finances, etc.?

Let’s say that you happen to like big, hairy, Italian men, but your husband is a bald Norwegian. Are you going to leave him for some guy named Antonio? Probably not a good idea. You can still love your husband for who he is and what HE is. You can have a fabulous life together. You can genuinely enjoy him. But that doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to not like seeing a handsome, hairy, Italian man. You like what you like. You just don’t have to act on your impulses.

It’s similar to trying to figure out or understand why you like a certain music type or band. What if one of your buddies sees a Michael Bolton CD in your car and he says, “Are you serious? You listen to Michael Bolton? What the fuck dude?” You could explain (lie), and say that it’s a friend’s CD. Or you might rationalize it with, “I like the way he structures his music and his voice complements the tones nicely. And there’s always a good story behind his lyrics. And besides, chicks dig him.” Or you could say, “How the fuck do I know why I like his music, I just do. And besides, chicks dig him.”

I like fast cars. Do I like Ferraris and Maseratis? Actually no I don’t. But I do like BMWs, some Porches and Lotus. But I have to drive what I can afford. I can look at what I like, but if my likes begin to control my life, then I need to stop looking at those cars and get back to the reality of what I can afford. I don’t feel that I’m less of a person because I don’t own a Lotus—but maybe I will someday? It’s one of my goals, because I like fast cars.

If you didn’t like drinking you wouldn’t have done it. “No, that’s not true Mark. I hated drinking.” I beg to differ. You hated what you became and the consequences of drinking, but you wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t like it. So what—it’s done. I liked getting drunk, doing cocaine and watching strippers, but I’m not going to drink, do cocaine or go to a titty bar and pay strippers. But I won’t deny that I like those things and I don’t need to know why I like those things—I’m just not going to act on my impulses and go do them.

Again, I feel it’s more important to think about, “Will doing what I like or pursuing what I happen to like be in my own safest, healthiest and wisest self-interest?” If it’s something you like—for whatever reason—and it’s not harmful to other people or your own best self-interest, then go for it.

I’m going to share a secret with you. You will never know why you like certain things. You may understand your preferences between things, but liking raspberries over blueberries or Michael Bolton over Metallica is hidden deep within your unconscious mind and you will never know why. But that’s what makes YOU uniquely YOU.

So back to, “How can you say living sober sucks? It does not!” Well, for me, it sucks, but living drunk sucks a lot more. So I exert my power over alcohol and I don’t drink it—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. And the same can go for you. I feel people spend far too much mental energy and time trying to know why they drank. Maybe you just liked it? I feel that it’s more important to spend time thinking about what you are going to do about your likes. If you like something that’s destructive and harmful; what will you do to make sure you don’t participate in it? What else can you do with your time instead of drinking, doing drugs, or whatever destructive hobby you like? If there’s something you like that isn’t destructive, what are you going to do to make it happen or get more enjoyment out of it? You don’t have to apologize for liking what you like, but you can decide if your likes are in your best interest and you can control whether you act on the things you like. The choice is up to you.

Polishing Turds:

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Click here to listen to the audio version of this blog article.

(02/06/13)

Polishing a turd. That’s what I call it, but psychologists refer to it as mental accounting. Mental accounting is the act of mindfully separating bad behaviors, poor decisions and faulty outcomes into mental categories (or accounts) where they can be validated as being a good behavior, a fine decision, an inconsequential outcome or entirely someone else’s fault. That’s a pretty heady explanation which is why I call it “polishing a turd.” You take a piece of shit, polish it and try to tell yourself that it’s a gem. Well it’s not a gem. No matter what you do to it, it’s not going to become a Topaz, it’s just a shiny turd. But for the sake of this article, I will refer to this as mental accounting.

We are hit with peer pressure to do something or to buy something. There is an image you want to project of yourself. You want to put out a confident air that you are competent and that you have the luxury to do whatever you want. You don’t want to be viewed as poor or not very well off. You want to look financially stable and be accepted, admired and respected by people. I would wager that most people desire to be viewed in these ways. “I’m not that superficial Mark.” I didn’t say you are superficial, I said most people desire to be viewed in these lights because protecting and projecting a positive self-image is natural. But these desires oftentimes lead us to do unhealthy things or foolishly spend our money using mental accounting.

To put the brakes on mental accounting you just need to stop once in a while and say “no.” It really is okay to say:

  • “I’m sorry. No, I’m not going to do that. But thank you for the invite”
  • “I’m sorry, No, I can’t afford that. But thank you for the offer.”

It’s not always that easy or fun to say, “I can’t do that” or “I can’t afford that.” You may actually feel embarrassed to say those words. It’s okay to feel that way, but the bottom line is that sometimes you just need to say, “No.”

What happens is that our friends (or a salesman), will try to pressure us by saying “Oh sure you can” and then they give us what sound like good reasons. That’s when we might tip our own scales by using mental accounting and agree to do whatever it is we had just said “no” to. It doesn’t have to be a friend or salesman, we do it to ourselves. I’m guilty of talking myself into all sorts of crazy shit. But I’ve gotten a bit better at asking myself, “Am I using mental accounting here?”

If I want to do something crazy, dangerous or financially foolish, I prefer to admit that it’s crazy, dangerous or financially foolish and not pretend that it’s “logical” or that it falls into some special accounting category. I would rather acknowledge that what I’m about to do isn’t very smart, but I want to do it anyway. I don’t have to conjure up bullshit reasons to explain it to someone else or to myself. So if you are going to do something impulsive or spend money foolishly, at least admit to yourself that it’s impulsive or foolish. That way, you may stop yourself from doing it or at least you’ll be better prepared for unpleasant outcomes if they happen and you won’t be able to blame someone else.

Mental accounting in its rawest form is simply lying to myself so that I can make a poor decision mentally appear like a logical decision or that it’s a decision that really doesn’t matter. Our mind uses mental accounting to play tricks on us. I’ll give examples of how this happens with money and with destructive drinking and drug use. After you hear my examples, think if you fall victim to your own versions of mental accounting.

Let’s use Las Vegas as our first money example. Have you ever heard anyone (maybe yourself) say, “I really didn’t lose any money, I was playing with the casino’s money.” Really? If you were ahead by $500 and the casino manager walked up to your table and took that money from you and said, “You won’t mind. That’s the casino’s money” I’m sure you wouldn’t be real happy. If you happen to be up $500 and you walk away from the table and go cash in your chips, that’s YOUR money—not the casino’s money. But saying, “I was playing with their money” is mental accounting.

“I would have spent that money anyway” is another form of mental accounting. Yes, you may have spent that money anyway, but it might have been spent or saved and then applied towards something more important or more meaningful.

Mental accounting is a trick we play on ourselves to explain why we’re broke before our next paycheck. “Well if I wouldn’t have had to buy new tires for my car I would have money right now.” If you own a car you know that it drinks gas and eats tires. If you saved a couple of bucks from each paycheck, oh, say the same amount you would spend in a bar, you’d probably have the money for tires, gas, rent and food.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend your money. That’s why we work—to earn money so we can use it for living. You might make just enough to get by and not able to save anything. But if you can afford to drink or do drugs you can afford to pay your bills, get out of debt and begin saving for your future. Unless you don’t want to, the choice is yours.

Let me ask you two questions:

  • #1: Could you stash away 5% of what you get paid into a savings account or mutual fund?
  • #2: Could you find a way to cut expenses and still survive if you got a 5% pay reduction?

If you answered “no” to #1 but answered “yes” to #2 then you can accomplish #1. Mental accounting can be used to work in your favor as well.

When it comes to drinking and drugs there are plenty of mental accounting tricks that we play with ourselves. “Sure, I might drink a lot, but I’m not as bad as Joe.” See the trick you’re playing on yourself? How do you know you’re not as bad as Joe? Maybe you’re worse? And besides, you don’t have to live Joe’s life. Joe might be quite happy knowing he drinks more than he should for his own good. But the comparison is mental accounting.

“At least I’ve never been arrested for drunk driving.” What, do you want an award because you’ve never been caught? You’re just not trying hard enough. Don’t worry, you’ll get caught. “I only had a beer or two.” Was it one? Was it two? Maybe it was 15? It’s easy to tell people, “I only had a couple.” That may work with mental accounting for yourself and your friends but it won’t work on a breathalyzer.

Telling yourself (or defending yourself to someone else by saying), “I’m not as bad as she is” or “I only had a couple” or “I only drink beer” or “It wouldn’t have been a problem if… that guy hadn’t pulled out in front of me… I wouldn’t have gotten pulled over… I would have stopped after we did those shots… whatever” This is all mental accounting to put facts into different categories.

Just as every dollar equals a dollar, regardless if you earned it at work, won it playing Blackjack or found it in a pair of pants you hadn’t worn in years—every drink is a drink. It doesn’t matter which mental slot or account you put it in.

My point here is to remind you that it’s okay to say, “NO.” Secondarily I would ask you to think if you fall victim to your own versions of mental accounting. Catching yourself doing mental accounting may help you avoid costly and harmful mistakes or at least make fewer bad decisions in the future. And if you want to do something impulsive or financially foolish, at least acknowledge that that’s what it is, it may stop you from doing it.

Don’t spend your life polishing turds because all you’re going to end up with is a bucket full of shiny turds.

How I learned to make the best of my sobriety:

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Click here to listen to audio version of this article.

(02/04/13)

I have learned more about controlling my substance overuse and making the best out of my sobriety by studying general psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics and through my involvement in the financial industry than I have ever learned by reading books written by Addictionologists, recovery experts and yes, even The Big Book. Why is this? Let me explain.

What I’ve noticed is that substance abuse counseling (and most meetings), typically focuses on the past. Why did or do you drink? What are your flawed behaviors? What wreckage did you cause? Who must you apologize to? Why don’t you admit that you’re powerless?

Behavioral economics and financial psychology focuses its study on what decisions people are making now and what they are deciding to do now that will affect their future. What’s interesting is that research shows that most of the decisions people make are based upon emotional impulses, regardless of how logical the individual thinks those decisions are. This is because reactive and reflexive behavior comes quickly and easily to the mind. For instance, if everybody’s selling their Netflix stock, then I have to sell mine too. If everybody is buying Apple, I have to buy it too. Or iPhone sales go crazy because everyone else has one and it’s the cool thing to have, then I have to have one. Then next month Android sales go crazy because it’s the newer thing. These are examples of reflexive behavior.

Reflective thought and rational behavior is a slower process that often requires looking at and weighing out disconfirming realities. That can be uncomfortable. I would rather see things as how I want them to be rather than how they actually are. But isn’t seeing truth and viewing current realities relevant to sobriety? Isn’t looking forward instead of looking backward how we evolve and make the best out of sobriety? Asking yourself questions like, “What will I do with my sober future? How can I make the best out of this? How can I enjoy what I want to become? How can I enjoy the process of getting there?” Aren’t those questions more important and beneficial to you in your sobriety?

I’m not suggesting that you ignore past behaviors or the consequences of them. I feel it’s imperative to accept what conditions currently are and think about what you must do to improve them. Forward thinking does not have to be delusional for it to be emotionally uplifting. Constant reflection on the bad can unsettle you, adversely affect your mood and make you reflexively react in your own worst interest.

I’ll use another financial example. If you own stocks, mutual funds or have a 401(k) through your employer, and you daily or weekly check on your holdings, you may get sick or upset by watching the fluctuations, this can affect your daily mood. You may end up (as many people do), changing funds or selling stocks out of fear or reflex. You know who makes money off of that? Those evil Wall Street guys. But they didn’t force you to sell or switch—you did it on your own. They understand emotional behavior and they make a shitload of money off of it. If the financial industry isn’t your career field, don’t look at it every day. Check your shit when the statements come in the mail. It’s good to reevaluate your investments periodically but that’s an entirely different subject matter. My point here is that constantly viewing and reviewing all of your mistakes will make you feel like shit and it will weaken you.

There is value in reviewing your past, accepting and acknowledging consequences of past actions and behaviors. But healing isn’t accomplished by constantly regurgitating the past and continuously reminding yourself of how awful and flawed you are. Healing is accomplished through deciding what actions need to be taken to improve your future, and then performing them.

Here’s an example of acceptance and forward progress: Let’s say you just found out that you have high blood pressure. You should review what behaviors, activities or dietary habits may have brought it on. But once you’ve reflected on the past you want to look ahead and see what you must change or stop and adapt new behaviors that will improve your future health.

When I look at my own books (not to blow my own horn—but hey, somebody’s got to blow it), I noticed that I don’t spend a lot of time trying to dig deep and find the hidden or underlying reasons someone drinks. Who cares? It’s obvious that you drink (or drank) too much or you wouldn’t be reading it. I found that I focus on ideas that help with future plans and moving your life in a more positive direction. I hadn’t realized that this was my style until I began doing comparisons. Now this is not to infer that I’m brilliant. But it appears to me that the best way to move along through sobriety is gaining an acceptance of reality. What you do once these realities are accepted is up to you. These realities consist of the following:

  • Okay, I admit that I drink too much for my own good.
  • Okay, I will stop.
  • Alright, now what do I do with my time?
  • How can I make sobriety rewarding for me and the people I care about?

In behavioral economics—which is basically the science of studying people’s decisions—it shows that people want to make correct and wise decisions, but they often don’t. This doesn’t mean that people are stupid. It just means that people believe they are making rational decisions based on reality, but emotion is usually at the base of their decision, and then the decision is mentally validated as rational.

This takes me back to what I’ve learned about sobriety and “traditional recovery models.”  Talented doctors (and nurses for that matter), know that there are different treatments for different people who suffer from the same malady. Some people respond better to certain procedures and medications than others. For instance, if you have hip surgery and the doctor prescribes codeine for your pain, yet codeine upsets your stomach and makes you sick, a talented doctor will authorize or suggest an alternative. The doctor won’t say, “You have to take this pain medication. Everyone else does. If you don’t take this codeine you will not heal.”

“Oh that’s ridiculous Mark, a doctor wouldn’t say that and what does that have to do with sobriety?” Just think about it. Haven’t you ever heard someone say, “You have to work and follow the steps or you will fail. Everyone else does it this way and the only way it will work is if you do it this way too.” That’s an example of behavioral economics. People pushing an ideology and then other people responding to the influence of the ideology pusher.

The steps are an 80 year old system. They’ve been around for quite a while. So you’re not chasing the latest fad by following them. But it is still often court ordered or pushed on people and then followed as a result of behavioral economics—everyone else does it and you will fail if you don’t.

I’m sure some of the hardcore AA’ers are pretty upset with me right now. I’m not saying that YOU shouldn’t follow the program. If YOU like it and it’s working for you, then continue. My page and my philosophies and my books are for those who are willing to consider all the alternatives that are available and then make their own choice.

At some point in life you have to make your own decisions. Why not start making some of them NOW? The sooner you get started and the more you practice the better you will become at making decisions. One thing to remember about decisions. Even a wise decision doesn’t always turn out for the best. So don’t always base the correctness of a decision on its outcome. Consider whether your decision was made with good intent, thoughtful planning and why the decision was made.

In conclusion. I feel it’s worth the time and mental effort to think through your decisions and spend more mental energy planning ahead than reliving the past. A decision today does not change what happened yesterday, but today’s decision may help correct what took place yesterday and put you in a healthier and happier place in the future.