There are so many situations where people ask me ‘How much is too much?’ In other words, at what point does something become an addiction? If a person consumes X number of drinks (or cigarettes, or slices of bacon, or whatever) in one day, is it worse than having, say, X minus 1 of those things?
The problem with this kind of nitpicking is that it incorrectly assumes that the definition of an addiction is quantitative (just numbers), not qualitative (taken in context). The same applies to labels like “obsessive compulsive.” To an extremely messy person, someone with even minimal cleaning habits will probably appear to be a clean freak. To someone who cleans once a week, somebody who insists on cleaning every day is compulsive.
Behaviors can’t be labeled with numbers only. The person’s cognitive (thinking) and emotional context is an important factor. Numbers only become important if the person with the problem treats everything as a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. This sort of person lacks rational distinctions. In other words, he might be able to intellectually tell the difference between two situations, but on the emotional level EVERYTHING is urgent.
Let’s go back to the cleaning example. If Joe just dusted yesterday, and there’s already a little dust on the table, he has a reaction, “It must be cleaned now.” A more reasonable person might say, “I just dusted yesterday. I’ll have to remember to dust this table next time I get around to it.” The reasonable person makes the rational distinction that a little dust is not a disaster, while the obsessive person sees no objective difference between a little bit of dust and a lot of dust, and both must be treated with the same urgency.
It’s not all that different with alcohol. The person without a drinking problem will say, ‘I’ve had two drinks. I might think I want a third, but I really don’t, and I’ll be sorry tomorrow if I do.” This person is making a rational distinction between the outcome of having one or two, versus three or more. Sounds like common sense to me. The excessive drinker, on the other hand, will think, “Oh, I want another.” And another. There’s no objectivity, no context, no reference to facts. One, two, six, nine — it’s really all the same.
Rational distinctions are key to understanding the difference between a mentally reasonable person and one who isn’t so reasonable, i.e., one who is prone to addictive or excessive behaviors. Contrary to what you might hear from the ‘experts’ on daytime TV talk shows, these are cognitive issues — matters of thinking — more than behavioral or physical matters. Conventional wisdom has latched onto the mistaken idea that everything is either behavioral or medical. This sounds so scientific and objective that it must be in the nature of finding a cause. But the fact is that many of these are due to faulty thinking. You have to look to your mind, not a scalpel or a pill, to better understand whatever behavioral or emotional problems you might have.
The person who makes rational distinctions does so for his own sake. If he curbs his drinking because of that, he is not making a sacrifice. In fact, he’s reducing the risk of problems, while not taking anything away from enjoying himself in such a way that requires conscious awareness.
It works the same way with the cleaning example. The person who makes rational distinctions between a dust emergency and simply dealing with it in due time frees himself to concentrate on other things. There’s a time and place for everything, and context will always matter. In one context, the house needs cleaning and the time to take care of that is now. In another context, the house may not be perfect, but it’s clean enough and it’s better to pursue other things. While there may be different outcomes from each, all of this clearly serves the interest of the self, and doesn’t involve sacrifice of any kind.
When it comes to excessive behaviors, the issue isn’t only, ‘How much is too much?’ The issue is also how one thinks, based on his or her particular context.