Day 15 – Cravings: Taming and Retraining your Internal critic and Internal Saboteur


We have already spoken a bit about how our internal self-talk can be a possible pitfall. Negative self-talk can be critical, or try to persuade you to give into cravings and sabotage your good process. Both critical and sabotaging self-talk is likely to undermine your ability to remain booze-free for the month – and stick to your drinking goals beyond your Sober Sprint / MOB too.

The good news is that we can learn to be more supportive and helpful in the way we talk to ourselves. Like any habit change, this won’t come naturally and might feel a bit odd at first – but negative self-talk needs considerable re-training and taming because it is often something we do instinctively or unconsciously.

The Stages of Conscious and Unconscious (In)Competence

competent-model

I know that the word ‘incompetent’ is often used offensively, but if you can put that aside, what this model means is that:

First, we just aren’t aware of what we don’t know

For instance, if you are not yet aware of your internal self-talk (thoughts), you might experience a craving and then give into that craving, without noticing what happened in between getting the craving and acting upon it. We often have internal debates going on in our head whilst we are deciding how to act.

The internal saboteur might say: “I’ve gone two weeks without a drink, that’s good enough, what’s wrong with having one now?”.

The internal critic might say: “Oh, I’m just eating more now I’m not drinking – either way I’m fat. What’s the point?”

Often this can happen in seconds so it’s no wonder that we don’t have a conscious awareness of it some or most of of the time.  

Next, we become aware of what we don’t know

If you are able to reflect upon and analyse what happened in the process of having and then giving in to a craving you will often be able to identify that before you acted on the craving, you had some thoughts or self-talk, maybe even a debate between positive and negative self talk took place.

Internal saboteur: “I’ve gone two weeks without a drink, that’s good enough, what’s wrong with having one now?”.

Sensible self: “But my plan is to do a full month, I think I’ll be annoyed with myself if I don’t achieve that”.

Internal saboteur: “But you can always do this another month, right now isn’t a great time to be doing it actually.”

At this point you have identified that you might need some new skills, to help you overcome cravings by dealing with your inner critic or your inner saboteur.

We start consciously learning and practicing the new skill

Once we realise that we need to learn a new skill, we can then start to learn and practice it. It takes effort, and can feel a bit unnatural, like playing the piano the first few times (or in my case the first 200).

An important part of cognitive-behavioural therapy is becoming more aware of how our thoughts and feeling influence our behaviour. Clients are often asked to keep a thought diary as a homework exercise and if they don’t do this part of the work, and learn to identify thoughts and feelings at home as well as in the one-hour therapy session, it can be quite difficult to get the full benefit from CBT.

The same applies to the MOB. Just reading about techniques and strategies is not the same as using them. You won’t magically reduce your cravings or drinking habits by reading, but by doing, practicing and refining. Maybe we start out a bit crudely or naively at first, but over time and repeated use, techniques and strategies do start to feel easier and part of our daily life.

A thought diary technique that can help you respond more appropriately to your internal critic or saboteur or negative thoughts will involve:

1. Stopping and noticing a craving before acting upon it.
2. Ask: What am I feeling right now?
3. Ask: How strong is my craving on a scale of 1-100?
4. Ask: What am I thinking right now? E.g., thoughts, self-talk, internal debates.
5. Challenge thoughts – look for evidence, logic and helpfulness of the thought.
6. Develop more logical and helpful thoughts and repeat them to yourself.
7. Review how strong your craving is now? Scale of 1-100.

For instance, if you notice your internal critic saying: “Oh, I’m just eating more now I’m not drinking – either way I’m fat. What’s the point?”.

There are so many ways you can challenge this thought (note these are exactly the kinds of questions I would ask my clients):

  • Where is the evidence that there is ‘no point’ in doing a Sober Sprint / MOB if you are not losing weight?
  • Are there NO other good reasons or benefits for doing a Sober Sprint / MOB?
  • Didn’t you read during the Sober Sprint / MOB that it can be natural at first to crave sugars and carbs when you cut out alcohol?
  • Is it logical to give up your Sober Sprint / MOB just because you are not losing weight and eating a bit more?
  • Will starting drinking again help you feel happier with your body?
  • How would you feel about your relationship with alcohol if you abandoned your Sober Sprint / MOB?
  • How would you feel about yourself?
  • Were you always 100% happy with your weight before the Sober Sprint / MOB?

Answering these questions will help you think more rationally and logically so that you will be better able to resist the internal thoughts and self-talk that were behind the urge or craving.  

You can download a worked example of the cravings thought-diary and a blank one here.

The new skills becomes less effort and more automatic

With practice anything becomes more instinctive, habitual, automatic. But practice hours do have to be put in to become skilled at anything. If we were already gifted and talented craving-supressors we would possibly not be doing a Sober Sprint / MOB in the first place! As novices or non-experts, we have to start doing simple drills.  

You might be groaning with the number of steps in the above technique. Do I HAVE to do this every time I have a craving? Isn’t there a simpler way?

Of course, if you don’t want to you don’t have to do this every time you have a craving. But if we want to stop being ‘slaves to the present moment’, then I would say that stopping before acting on the craving to question what you are thinking, to name your feelings, and consider how likely it is that you will act on the craving are important steps.

This will interrupt the automatic process of responding to a craving with a drink so you have the opportunity to think twice whether this is a decision you want to make. By noticing what you are feeling you can maybe find another way to deal with it, and by noticing what you are thinking you can choose to think something different.

You might already have really good coping strategies for dealing with cravings, so definitely keep on using them if they work.

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