Are you having a tough time dealing with your emotions now that you’ve quit smoking? Did you used to stuff your feelings (anger, disappointment, loneliness, sadness) behind a cigarette when you were smoking (i.e., did you use smoking as a coping mechanism instead of dealing with uncomfortable emotions and/or situations head-on)?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I used to hide behind the smokescreen when I was faced with a situation I didn’t want to deal with, particularly arguments or disagreements in relationships. Situations like that usually ended up with me storming out and having a smoke to “calm down”, and once I quit, I had some challenges dealing with the power of my emotions.
It’s Not Just You
Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve come to realize that hiding behind the smokescreen is actually very common among smokers, and so are the challenges with the strength of our emotions once we quit. What really helped me deal with this (and has helped many other quitters I’ve recommended it to) was to learn to communicate assertively. Here’s what I mean:
There are basically three ways to respond to a difficult situation: passively, aggressively, or assertively (of course, since communication is such a complex thing, there are mixed styles, too — for instance, the “passive/aggressive” style — but I won’t get into those distinctions here; I’m not really qualified, and they don’t add much to the discussion).
The passive communication style says, “I don’t really matter, you’re the one that matters.” People who communicate in a passive (or passive/aggressive) style generally allow other people to have their way and stuff their feelings about it to avoid conflict.
When the passive communicator quits smoking, this style can easily trigger relapse: Once they’ve given in and stuffed their feelings once too often, they’re liable to blow up. Smoking a cigarette while seething with anger is a typical passive response for a smoker with this communication style. But what do they do with all the feelings they’ve been stuffing now that they don’t smoke any more?
The aggressive communication style says, “I’m the one that matters, not you.” People with an aggressive communication style rarely let other people have their way and they never give in without a fight.
When the aggressive communicator quits, their aggressive tendencies tend to get even more exaggerated, and the frustrations of dealing with craves can be very tough for them to handle, which tends to ratchet up the tension, which tends to make the craves worse, and you can see where this is heading.
The assertive communication style says “We both matter.” People who communicate assertively acknowledge the legitimacy of the other person’s position without giving up their own.
Practicing assertive communication can help you maintain your quit in two ways: first, it allows you to deal with your emotions openly, in the moment they’re happening, and second, it allows you to feel good about yourself at the same time.
A Few Examples
Here are some examples of the three styles: the difficult situation is your husband or wife (or other person you’re in a relationship with) says, “You’re so crabby since you quit smoking! Why don’t you just go back to it?”
- A passive response would be to hold your tongue and feel guilty about being so crabby that they said that. This response doesn’t help you deal with your feelings, and it does nothing for your self-esteem; you feel like you might as well go back to smoking, if that’s how they’re going to act.
- An aggressive response would be to get right in their face and say, “Get the hell away from me! It’s bad enough I’m trying to quit smoking, without having to put up with your bullshit, too!” This response may help you temporarily by allowing you to blow off some steam, but the damage it does to your relationship will probably increase the amount of tension in your life, and that won’t help matters. When enough tension builds up, your response may turn into lighting one up (to “show” them).
- An assertive response would be, “Sorry I’m being crabby; this quitting thing really gets to me sometimes. Give me some time; I’ll try to be better about it.” This response allows you to deal with your feelings while acknowledging your partner’s feelings, too, which is a win-win.
You Need to Practice It
Obviously, unless you’re already an assertive communicator when you quit, this style takes some getting used to, but it’s worth it. Try imagining some difficult situations you might encounter; what would be the assertive response for you? Practice it in your mind, and if you run into it in real life, you’ll be prepared to practice it there, too.
Let me know how it’s going.