Bad Habit or Addiction? Ask Yourself This

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

For one person, a glass of wine every day after work is a habit. Yet for another, an addiction. How can that be? What is the difference between the two people, and the way they are using that glass of wine?

How do we know, when it comes to our repetitive behaviours, if it’s time to raise the red flag and admit we have a problem?

How to know if it's a bad habit or an addiction

Here are 5 good questions when it comes to habit vs addiction.

1. How is your behaviour affecting your life and the lives of those around you?

Biting our nails is a habit that can give us sore fingers and make us hide our hands. But it doesn’t directly affect our quality of life. We still maintain a job, make it to appointments. And while our nail biting might annoy those around us, they don't suffer over it.

An addiction, on the other hand, negatively affects our health, and our ability to keep our daily life in order, from our job, finances, scheduling, and self care. And it really affects our relationships. Other people feel let down or shut out by us. We might even lash out at others, hurting them physically.

2. How open are you about the behaviour in question?

A habit can be embarrassing, but it's not a big deal if people know. We might even joke about it with friends and family, or let them tease us. "Yes, I got paid today, we all know I'm hitting the mall for a shopping spree!".

An addiction, however? We don’t want it mentioned and often hide it. Nobody knows we blow more than half our pay check on clothes we never wear. In fact, we tell others we are saving for a mortgage.

And watch out for the biggest trick of all here -- hiding your addiction from even yourself. 'Forgetting' you went shopping, hiding things you buy at the back of the closet, never opening credit card statements, and telling yourself there is no problem.

3. How do you feel about the behaviour?

A habit can leave us feeling annoyed with ourselves, or frustrated. But we know it's a habit and we don't judge ourselves.

An addiction makes us feel really uncomfortable inside, no matter how many times we insist there isn't a problem and that we have things under control. And beneath that discomfort lies one thing - shame. We are ashamed of the habit, ashamed of who we are because of the habit, and ashamed we can't stop.

3. What is the reason you are using the behaviour?

Some habits can be related to anxiety, such as hair pulling. But often they are something we learned in childhood, took up, and never stopped, such as watching our parents always having one cigarette every day after work and now doing so ourselves.

Addictions are behaviours we use to do one thing - avoid. We are trying to, admit it or not, avoid overwhelming thoughts, feelings, and pain.

So if you eat a lot because you come from a family where you were taught to never leave food on your plate, it’s a habit. If you eat the entire contents of the fridge every time you feel sad of your self-esteem is low? You probably have an eating addiction or an eating disorder.

4. How easy is it to stop the behaviour?

Habits can be hard to stop. But with a bit of focussed attention and the support of loved ones, we can. We might think about the habit, but, eventually, we can even forget about the habit entirely. Those shopping sprees on nice clothes lose their hold when we start seeing our savings grow and look at buying a house.

An addiction is close to impossible to stop all by ourselves, and difficult even if friends and family help. It often requires professional support to quit. So if that shopping spree habit is something you can’t stop, even when you are at danger of bankruptcy, and your partner has left you over it? Or worse, you tell everyone you did stop, but then secretly start doing it again? Then you are in addiction territory.

A quick summary of habit vs addiction

Habits are behaviours we depend on. They can be bothersome, but don’t control our lives. We are honest about them, and they don’t control us. With a bit of focussed effort and support we can stop them.

Addictions are behaviours we use as a survival tactic against mental, emotional, and even physical pain. We are ashamed of our behaviour, and hide it from others or even ourselves. The behaviour negatively affects our health, relationships, and day to day life, but we are powerless to stop it.

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