Are you READY to quit your addiction?

THE simplest answer to the question “When do people change?” is “When they want to.” No amount of science, therapy, and brain scans is ever going to change this truth. This module shows how critical motivation is in overcoming addiction, and reviews the best methods for energizing you to change, even when dealing with the most severe addictions.

Placing so much importance on motivation in changing addictions is controversial. In order to appreciate the role of motivation, we need to get past some of the standard treatment techniques that you have heard about that not only are unnecessary, but can actually do more harm than good.

In place of these unhelpful ideas, you will learn therapy techniques that have been shown to be the most effective for combating addictions. These therapies offer significant pointers for self-cure as well. They can help you not only to motivate others, but to focus your own motivation to change and to convert it into action.

The Role of Motivation in Change

AA considers willpower to be utterly ineffective. The idea that people have the commitment and power to be able to change on their own (without the help of AA, a “higher power,” and other AA members) is anathema to the group. According to Frank Keating, the governor of Oklahoma and an avid supporter of AA, “what 66 years of AA experience has confirmed was that willpower, desire, and intellectual knowledge won’t keep a drunk sober.” 1 Yet what is it, if not willpower or motivation, that makes some people join, stay with, and succeed in AA?

Wanting, seeking, and believing that you can change do not necessarily translate into immediate success. The fact that Uncle Ozzie could do it in one shot does not mean that you will do it that way. It is much more common for people to make several attempts before successfully quitting their addictions. Indeed, this persistence is a sign that you really want to quit.

It is true that repeated failures are demoralizing and may signify that you need to try something new. It can also mean that you have simply not been in the right place in your life to change, and that you need to do more groundwork. The Life Process Program© can begin to lay that groundwork while you participate in the program.

While these setbacks can be discouraging, don’t get down on yourself for your inability to instantly transform into the person that you want to become. Addictions have roots deep in your lifestyle, outlook, and personality, and beating them will naturally take a concerted, complex effort. Demoralization is much more harmful to the recovery process than being over optimistic. In fact, pessimism is hurting you at least as much as what AA terms “denial” (believing that you are doing better than you actually are).

Stages of Change

The motivation to change takes different forms, depending on where you are in your addiction cycle. Some people have to be introduced to the idea that they need to change. Others have spent a lifetime fighting to change. One widely used scheme for organizing the stages of change was devised by psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente:2

Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Quitting

  1. Precontemplation—you haven’t thought about changing
  2. Contemplation—you have begun to muse that your life might be better if you did change
  3. Preparation—you make a decision and start planning to change
  4. Action—you take steps toward changing
  5. Maintenance—you have had some success and now need to keep it in place

According to my uncle Ozzie, he was actually at the pre-contemplation stage—he had never actively thought about quitting—and he jumped to quitting. If you are working through this program, you have probably already decided

you want to change, and are at least at stage 2 of Prochaska and DiClemente’s list. Alternately, someone who is still at stage 1 may need to be made aware they should want to change. Different motivational techniques may be helpful at different stages of the change process.

Stories of Sudden Change

Some people, like Uncle Ozzie, are capable of the most remarkable, instantaneous transformations. Since they have never before tried to change, they can readily believe that their efforts will be successful. Such stories of sudden change abound in AA groups. AA calls these stories “hitting bottom,” after which, according to AA lore, the person joins AA and succeeds. And that’s just great. But there are actually more stories like this where people quit without AA, treatment, or any other official therapeutic activity. Here is one such story from a woman interviewed by a researcher who studied individuals who quit a drinking problem without treatment or AA:

[In the house’s] hallway was a fan of some sort. I had to use the head, so I proceeded to squat down on the fan to use it as a commode . . . What really shocked me, what made me continually think about it, was that supposedly my daughter . . . was up and saw me in that condition.3

What does hitting bottom mean? Peeing in a vent where your daughter might see is certainly bad, but there are plenty of people who have done worse and kept right on drinking. These stories are essentially value statements, expressing that “I did something so bad in terms of what is most important to me that I just had to change.”

Here is another story from the same study. A pregnant woman was drinking a beer in the morning in order to ward off a hangover:

I was drinking it, I felt the baby quiver and I poured the rest of [the] beer out and I said, “God forgive me, I’ll never drink another drop,” and from that day to this, I haven’t.4

This story shows just how subtle and personal hitting bottom can be. It is also a story about the power of motherhood. Feeling that it is important to be a good parent is a value that drives many women to quit addictions while pregnant—even if after giving birth, as one woman told me, she resumed her heroin addiction.

Fathers, perhaps more so recently, are also frequently driven to quit addictions by images of parenthood. One man who had grown quite overweight in his forties slipped while carrying his small child. He was convinced he had endangered his son because of his obesity, and he immediately went on a diet and exercise program, losing almost fifty pounds. One psychologist described a man who was picking up his children in the rain but stopped to get cigarettes first. The psychologist concluded: “The view of himself as a father who would ‘actually leave the kids in the rain while he ran after cigarettes’ was . . . humiliating, and he quit smoking.”5

Professional goals can also provide the motivation to fight addiction. One man described to me how he kept drinking even after he started attending AA meetings regularly. While on a business trip, he waited until after successfully completing a sale to go to the hotel bar. As he was about to take his first drink, he spied someone he had been negotiating with and whom he admired. This man seemed to be eyeing him disapprovingly. The first man got up, left the bar, and quit drinking for good.

Of course, this other man probably wasn’t even thinking about the drinker, who he certainly didn’t know was an alcoholic. But, reflected in this admired person’s eyes, the alcoholic saw himself in a light he could not tolerate. Only with this image in mind could he finally give up the booze. Also, notice that in this story, as a member of AA, the man had already been trying to quit drinking. In fact, when people claim such miraculous moments, they usually represent the end of a process of at least contemplation. They may even take place after several failed efforts to quit.

AA hitting-bottom stories are about moments when people decide to enter treatment or join AA or a similar group. Many of these individuals actually enter treatment—and have such moments—repeatedly, before they finally decide to stop the cycle. Think of all of the celebrities you’ve heard of who experience several “awakenings” and relapses into addiction before finally cleaning up their lives.

Unlike the AA rock-bottom stories, which focus on the decision to seek external help through AA, the examples I have provided are about becoming committed to change and pursuing the path that is most likely to succeed. This might involve entering treatment or a support group; it might mean changing on your own; or it might mean joining up at LPP.

For some people, such moments can mean quitting treatment as a precursor to success. Consider the following letter from a reader:

Dear Stanton:

Just a little note to let you know that six years ago I coincidentally came across your book whilst in the middle of my ninth or tenth try with outpatient alcoholism treatment. This was in addition to the nine or ten detoxes and four or five thirty-day rehabs I’d gone through.

Well, I started reading your book and your insights caused such a massive change in paradigm to the point that I have never drunk since. I owe a lot to you for taking the time to publish such a breath of fresh air in the field of alcoholism. Reading your books had given me the ability to look at the treatment I was going through from the outside looking in, rather than being caught up in the closed loop of inside looking out.


Don’s resolve and his ability to change were crystallized through the opposite of the AA approach. He suddenly decided that it was his responsibility to change, that it was up to nobody but himself, and that he had the power to do it. When he placed this burden squarely on his own shoulders, it made the task more manageable for him.



Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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