Dec 10, 2013

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Starr’s Theory of Why Quitting Smoking Can Be So Hard

Starr’s Theory of Why Quitting Smoking Can Be So Hard

My Grandmother smoked a lot of cigarettes – I mean a lot. More than any one person I have seen. Every two weeks she would buy six cartons of Viceroy 100’s (that means they are even longer). If you do the math that is over four packs a day. My Mom also smoked when I was younger, but got hypnotized when I was around 10 and succeeded in her quitting (my Grandma, on the other hand, did the same thing on the same day and walked right out and lit up). Needless to say, I was surrounded by smokers for the majority of my young life, as well as being immersed in it after moving in with my Grandma at the age of twelve. And even though I swore I would never smoke, by the time I was 17 I found myself feeling cool with my Marlboro Red in hand. The thought of quitting smoking and its challenge didn’t even cross my mind.

Why Smoke?

I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior, and I enjoy spending time in wonder about the origins of our desires and reactions. Maybe that is why coaching is such a natural fit for me, for I really am interested in what makes people tick. So when a friend’s sister presented me with her theory on why people are so drawn to smoking in the first place, I loved it – and to this day it makes sense. She explained to me that humans have always had a desire to interact with and experience the world around them. Her theory of why the history of humanity has included some form of smoking has to do with our difficulty in interacting with the element of fire. All the other elements can be entangled with or felt; air blows around us and gets pulled into our body with every breath, earth is beneath our feet and becomes the stuff of our lives, and water nourishes us and cleanses us. Fire, on the other hand, harms us when we directly contact it. We may be able to eat things cooked in fire or use weapons forged with it, but we aren’t physically interacting with the heat itself. Smoking seems to be the closest way to bring the essence of fire into contact with our bodies. This was her explanation to me and I have carried it with me all these years. It made sense of something I had previously been confused by: why are people so drawn to smoking? Now, it seemed, I knew.

This theory, however, only partly explains the next step in the process: quitting. Yes, our ancestors smoked, but the tobacco they smoked came directly from the earth, not a factory. Plus, their smoking wasn’t mainly recreational, it was primarily ceremonial/spiritual; tobacco wasn’t consumed as a way to escape life, but to enhance it. In modern times, with all of the dangers we know of cigarettes, it seems it would be unwise to continue smoking as a regular daily routine. Yet so many people struggle with what they consider nicotine addiction. Currently the global market for smoking cessation medicines is valued at over $2 Billion and continues to grow, which doesn’t even account for other techniques people are using. As an ex-smoker myself, I begin to ask: is nicotine really that addictive?


A Fresh Look

Well, here is what you have all been waiting for (except those of you who know me personally and have heard this one), my very own theory regarding the appeal of continuing to smoke and why quitting smoking is so darn tough for some of us. You see, I believe it is primarily a social/psychological issue rather than a physical/psychosomatic one. In our world of isolation and continuously increased superficial encounters, smoking serves as a subtle-yet-powerful way for us to feel connected to others in a seemingly disconnected world. I’ll have to build a bit of a foundation here, so be patient.

I bet most of the humans on the planet feel varying degrees of isolation, separation, disconnection, and judgment. Whether or not we show it, I guarantee no one gets out of this life without feeling at some point like there is something wrong with us, or that we don’t belong. Before civilization there were tribes, which is how our bodies and brains have evolved; to be a part of a group and to depend on that group for survival. Science has discovered the herd mentality or mob mentality of humans in many areas of our behavior. All of these add up to a hard-wired desire to both connect with other people as well as feel a sense of belonging with them.

Well, in a strange and unconscious way, smoking appears to me to be the only thing in our global society that helps the disconnected feel connected with very little information; often just a glance. Nothing else so visible crosses all perceived lines of gender, race, sexual preference, culture or class. Just imagine a lonely person walking down a busy city street who sees a fellow smoker… all of a sudden they have found someone they immediately know they have something in common with, no matter the other apparent differences. It also becomes a natural ice-breaker: “Excuse me, do you have a light?” Now imagine asking that person, who already feels so alone, to give up identifying as a smoker, too. How do they connect with strangers? How do they feel belonging in such a face-paced and superficial world? Of course there are a number of answers to those questions that don’t involve a cigarette, but I bet they aren’t nearly as easy as walking to the corner store and paying $5.

As long as we continue to maintain a society that values money over life and being right over being happy, I believe smoking will continue to be attractive to our subconscious as a daily habit. Because societies that value those things are more likely to create people who haven’t learned how to value themselves – who have a hard time feeling like they belong – and smoking can be a tiny band-aid on that gaping wound. It wasn’t until I did a lot of inner work with my feelings of unworthiness and separation that I was able to put down the cigarettes and not pick them back up again. That was almost a decade ago.


Moving Forward

So what can we do? Well, if you are a smoker who has struggled or is struggling with quitting, start looking at your beliefs around belonging and stop beating yourself up about your current choices. Create other ways in your life that you can feel like a wanted part of a group and that you have something to offer. Volunteer somewhere or join a spiritual community. Create a monthly meet-up at your house or decide to help your friend clean out her garage. Only spend time with people who treat you well and are worthy of your exquisite company. Anything to help you feel like you are a part of a whole and that your presence is appreciated. Once your heart’s yearning for belonging is fulfilled through other means, cigarettes won’t seem as attractive, especially not every 30 minutes.

If you are in relationship with a smoker, cut them some slack. Recognize that giving them crap about their choice is more likely to increase feelings of isolation, which causes their subconscious to want to fix that feeling by doing something that helps them to feel like they belong: smoking! Plus, everyone – no matter how much we love them or they love us – needs to make choices for themselves, not because someone in their life is harassing them to do so under the guise of “love.” True love is acceptance, not commandment. If you are irritated by another’s behavior, take responsibility for your own irritation instead of making it their job to make you more comfortable. Invite compassion for yourself and the smoker into the situation in whatever way you can.

In general, we can all assist all the smokers by continuing to build a better, more healthy and compassionate world one act at a time. We can hold up those who have fallen, and leave no one behind – even the ones we disagree with. Because for people who are full of self-love and a sense of belonging, the gaping hole once filled with nicotine (or other drugs, workaholism, gambling, caffeine, sugar, sex, or a number of other addictions) no longer requires artificial filler.

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  1. I’ve always thought that smoking (much like drinking for some) has such a social draw. I love how you translate it into focusing on a sense of belonging.

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