Letting go of vices

The word vice is used rather casually in our society, occasionally describing a “specific form of evil-doing which offends the moral standards of the community,” but more often referring simply to a human frailty or weakness.

The word vice is used rather casually in our society, occasionally describing a “specific form of evil-doing which offends the moral standards of the community,” but more often referring simply to a human frailty or weakness.

by Kristin Cicciarelli — 

Recently, a lovely woman named “Susan” announced that although she is a contributing member to society, an excellent mother and a dedicated employee, she is also an alcoholic. She is not the kind of alcoholic depicted in Hollywood movies — the stumbling, nonfunctioning ne’er-do-well who drinks Jack Daniels for breakfast and is passed out by the time the Today Show credits roll.

Rather, Susan has come to terms with the fact that, on those rare occasions when she does imbibe alcohol, one innocent little drink invariably leads to many more. And even though Susan does not suffer from hangovers, she maintains that alcohol has been largely responsible for numerous bad experiences and decisions in her life. Falling-down drunk? No. Dependent on a substance that leads to suffering? Yes. Kudos to her for unearthing the root of her own personal vice.

The word vice is used rather casually in our society, occasionally describing a “specific form of evil-doing which offends the moral standards of the community,” but more often referring simply to a human frailty or weakness. We even tend to laugh at our vices, especially when they seem harmless, at least in relative terms.

A vice for chocolate, say, is so much better than a vice for illegal drugs. But, in truth, by their very nature, all vices cause at least some degree of suffering — the idea of a vice implies a loss of control. And nearly always, the loss of control (call it a lack of discipline, if you prefer) leads to feelings of guilt and worthlessness. We associate abstaining from the vice as good behavior, and indulging in it as bad.

Have you ever considered that the word vice also can be used to describe repetitive and destructive behavioral patterns? For example, we all probably know at least one person whose vice is to play the victim, refusing to accept responsibility for the often-disastrous events in his or her life. Or how about that sweet, soft-spoken coworker whose vice is to blindly accept blame for everyone else’s problems? Or the family member who constantly feels sorry for herself, tugging at your heartstrings until you step in to save her? This is known as the self-pity vice.

Have you ever seen a meeting in a church basement for “SPA” (Self-Pitiers Anonymous)? There probably are not any such meetings, yet self-pity can cripple us from fully living our lives, just as any other mind-numbing substance can. If we dig a bit under the surface, it’s fairly easy to understand why some people become chronic self-pitiers. Perhaps they have no social life or a loved one has died or they cannot seem to find true love.

Like any other vice, self-pity has a limited shelf-life, as far as its usefulness goes. Vices serve some sort of crazy purpose for us, at least for a while. They help us get through the really hard stuff — but, unfortunately, they also allow us to numb or deny our true feelings.

Interestingly, many who excel in self-pity actually turn away from the pity of others because it exposes their own weaknesses. Sure, the self-pitier may feel he or she is a loser, but who wants everyone else believing it, too? Unless, of course, the self-pitier has realized that pity from others sometimes has its own set of advantages — perhaps special privileges at school or work, extensions on assignments, and lots of hugs and attention. Self-pity comes partly from actual life events, and largely from a need to feel special, loved and connected to friends and family.

It is not uncommon to find that the more one tries to fight a personal vice, the more strongly he or she attaches to it. Ever tried giving up all sweets — forever? Even the most fiber-loving and sugar-wary among us would likely soon find themselves hiding in stairwells, stuffing themselves with cookie dough. However, when one consciously eases the guilt typically associated with a vice and relaxes into it, the fix received from indulging in the vice may soon dissipate.

Take self-pity. Rather than shaming yourself for indulging in the behavior — “My life is rotten but, hey, there are starving children out there; I am so selfish.” — try agreeing with your darkest thoughts. “It really is true. No one likes me. I will never have another friend and I will always be alone.” Go ahead — wallow in your self-pity. Throw yourself a full-on, over-the-top pity party extravaganza that rivals David Guest and Liza Minnelli’s wedding in its ridiculousness.

This may be a little scary at first; even though you may be quite adept in the practice of self-pity, allowing yourself to positively revel in it can feel like a never-ending downward spiral. Most likely, though, just the opposite will occur. You will soon grow very, very tired of your self-pitying behavior. It is simply no fun to fight with someone who refuses to fight back. Set a time limit for how long you will indulge in your full-on, head-spinning dose of self-pity (maybe a day, maybe a week). Chances are, in very little time you’ll be bored with the whole darn thing.

Now, certainly this is not to suggest that everyone with a vice or addiction go out right now and embark upon a maniacal binge. However, it is interesting to note that many addicts seem unable to give up their vices until they have hit absolute rock bottom. That is true with many of the crutches we use to prop ourselves up. Sometimes we develop the inner strength to give up our vices simply because we tire of them; we recognize that they no longer serve a useful purpose in our lives. Simply put, they begin to cause us more pain than pleasure.

When certain behaviors cause us, like Susan, to make bad decisions or hold us back, it is time to examine those behaviors. When our vices cause us more suffering than comfort, we must ask ourselves whether they are serving a useful purpose or whether it is time to let them go. In doing so, we make room for the possibility of living a truly authentic life.


Kristin Cicciarelli, M.A., is a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Ariz. She is a graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (Culinary School), is certified in Nutrition for the Foodservice Manager and has worked in the health food industry.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 24, Number 4, August/September 2005.

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