In days gone by, an excuse arose: “the devil made me do it.” The idea behind this phrase is that there are always nefarious spirits lurking about, whispering in our ears and encouraging us to do things that are against our self-interest. Temptation, in this worldview, is the manifestation of these invisible whisperers knowing what drives us and then having the ability to manipulate our thoughts toward agreeing with them.
This concept was not new by the time it arose in the Americas. Blaming our temptations on devils had been around throughout the middle ages, particularly stemming back to the Biblical account of Jesus being tempted by Satan while in the desert. Before that, the ancient Greeks had their Sirens, and the ancient Persians had their Ahriman. If a person were to give into temptation, it was due to heeding the bad advice of an invisible, destructive entity.
Beginning around the mid-19th century, spiritual ideas about the origin of temptation began to give way to rational explanations. In our current age of science, the idea that there are outside forces planting ideas and desires within us has been largely dismissed. Instead, our experiences, thoughts, and emotions are believed to prompt us to act in certain ways. The field of cognitive psychology works from such a perspective by helping people restructure their thoughts toward reducing impulses to act in self-destructive ways.
Whether you ascribe to the old-school belief of evil spirits, the scientific belief of brain patterns, or a hybrid of the two, none can deny that the experience of temptation is real. The task, then, is to find ways of resisting the suggestions of temptation and to learn how to replace any destructive tendencies with habits that bring life, peace, and prosperity after addiction treatment.
Temptation Stemming From Emotions
The easiest spot for a temptation to hit is from the emotional side. Emotions can be considered as the unwitting partner of our cognitive self. Emotions tend to arise without any conscious thought given to the experience and can result in our thinking or doing things that we had no intention of thinking or doing beforehand. For a person driven by emotions, the temptation can be a blindside.
In many cases, for the temptation to be effective, the emotion which arises will be negative. Feelings of anger, fear, or sadness will crop up, followed by the urge to escape the feeling through engaging in our addictions. There may be thoughts of resisting in the back of the mind, but those thoughts are drowned out by the wave of negative emotions which carries a person down into the abyss of substance abuse.
There is also the less frequent occurrence of temptations riding in on positive emotions. Those who suffer from bouts of mania know this pattern well. A manic person knows to avoid bad habits while feeling low, but feeling good creates a sense of invincibility. A person in this state may believe they will escape unharmed if allowing an indulgence or two during the good times.
Temptation Stemming From Thoughts
For a person unaware of their thought patterns, temptation originating from this source can seem just as confounding. Typically, the road toward temptation will start with a small thought, which will then connect to several other counterproductive thoughts. Before one knows it, the thought pattern has snowballed into the bad decision to use a substance.
For thoughts to lead us down such a road, there must first be a lack of vision for the future. When you began your road to sobriety, your mind was filled with ideas about where your sober feet would be taking you in life. You could see the potential of your sober future with clarity, and your decisions were informed by your focus on goals. Hope was in the driver’s seat.
As the day-to-day journey of life goes on, it can become easy to lose sight of that distant horizon. Our thoughts may turn toward a focus on our shortcomings or may begin to center on how far we have left to go. We can be tempted to escape from the unpleasant idea that we still have a lot of work to do or the thoughts that we won’t ever be able to make it. We can be tempted with thoughts of isolation from our friends if we don’t use it or with thoughts that we deserve a “break” from our hard work.
Before a force can be properly resisted, it needs to be identified. From a cognitive behavioral perspective in psychology, the emotions and thoughts that precede our destructive behaviors are known as antecedents. It is currently common to call these identified antecedents by the term triggers. Most of the work in cognitive psychology involves identifying the triggers custom to each individual. Triggers are the situations, thoughts, or emotions in which the temptation to self-destruct hides itself. In the case of addiction, it is the condition under which the decision to use a substance is made.
To best resist temptation, your task is to recognize, categorize, and then dismiss these triggers before acting on them. Interestingly, there is recently a resurgence in the idea that we are better off considering that these triggered temptations are not fully ours to claim. It turns out that there is an age-old benefit to separating ourselves from the idea that our selves are initiating the destructive tendency.
The field of cognitive diffusion works to blend the older concepts of outside, invisible influence with the benefit of modern psychology. Within this emerging perspective, we gain power over our temptations by giving them an identity separate from ourselves. Separating ourselves from our temptations – and even giving the destructive ideas a name of their own – can work toward empowering us to resist them.
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Last medically reviewed October 16, 2022