It is Hard to Quit Smoking because It is Part of Your Self-Image!

Articles by R. Michael Stone, M.S. - Counselor


When a smoker reaches for their last cigarette when they can't get more in a timely manner, it creates anxiety. Some people think this is due to nicotine withdrawal but it's not. The person is anxious, not because they need a cigarette at the moment, but because they know they won't have one for their next cigarette break. This has nothing to do with physical needs because they still have that last cigarette in the pack to smoke. It is because the cigarette is part of the smoker's self-image. In this article, we will discuss how smoking becomes a part of an individual's self-image and how this is a key foundation of the Psychological Smoking Mechanism. This mechanism is why it is hard to quit smoking.
The Smoker Starts at an Early Age
The average age that a person starts smoking cigarettes is around fifteen. It is sometimes even younger and other times a little older but the time window is usually between the ages of 12 and 16. This time frame corresponds to puberty which is a very difficult and intense period in a person's life. The changes of puberty result in an Identity Crisis. The impact of puberty is so unpleasant, people tend to start forgetting about it as soon as it is over. How often do you fondly reminisce about the age of 14? If you are like most people, memories of the time between the ages of 12 and 16 are vague because they were so chaotic and unpleasant. Yet, it is the chaos and intensity of this time that creates the Psychological Smoking Mechanism and empowers it. So, it is important to review just what happens during puberty and the Identity Crisis.
Puberty and the Identity Crisis
The one experience that every human being shares in childhood is the Identity Crisis. It is universal no matter what country or culture. Yet, the full impact of this time is ignored. Many of the problems that manifest later in adulthood can be traced back to this time. Smoking is one such problem that is forged in the crucible of puberty. Why does puberty cause an Identity Crisis? It is the rapid change of the body in a short period of time after years of slow, steady growth. The body changes so rapidly, the mind doesn't have time to adjust. As everyone knows, we all start out very small. As adults, we look at infants and can't relate to ever having been that small. How many times have you looked at an infant and said to yourself, "I was once that small"? It just doesn't happen! We don't like to remind ourselves of being in such a helpless situation. Just think about how you feel if you happen to be around your mom when she starts reminiscing to her friends about when you were a baby! I have seen many a young adult turn bright red with embarrassment. When a baby is born, the development cycle is such that the infant starts out very small and grows rapidly, about an inch per month, the first year. The second year, the growth rate slows to about 1/2 inch per month and between age of three and puberty, the growth rate slows to about two inches per year. It is slow enough that we adjust to it without much difficulty. A fraction of an inch a month of growth is not very noticeable and although we are slowing getting larger, we adapt our self-image. Because we acclimate to the slow rate of change, we have an identity; we know who we are.
Who Is That in the Mirror?
Then, we enter puberty. It varies from person to person but usually starts between the ages of 12 - 14 although it can start earlier. The slow, predictable change that has gone on for 9 to 11 years is suddenly, and in some instances, shockingly speeded up. In a short period of time, many physical and emotional changes take place. When the growth spurts start, it is usually double what it was between age three and puberty although for some people it is even greater. In a matter of months, the body is noticeably bigger. The rate of growth speeds up to the point that the person can experience "growing pains" and in some cases, stretch marks. In addition to size change, the individual starts to develop sexually. Familiar body parts start to change. For boys in particular, the voice changes with embarrassing results. It seems as if each time the person looks in the mirror, they are different. After years of a known self-image, a stranger is staring back from the mirror! A stranger with a 5 o'clock shadow or, for the girls, a stranger with a rapidly increasing chest!
Emotional Chaos
In addition to this massive growth spurt, the person experiences emotions that are greatly amplified by the flood of hormones. Also at this time, new feelings of sexuality emerge. This intense amplification of emotions and physical sensations is overwhelming. It is almost too intense and results in some embarrassing situations for both boys and girls. A consequence is that every event has a greater emotional impact than it would under normal circumstances. The increased emotion causes positive events to be more positive and negative events to be more negative. Amplified emotion is what leads to the creation of the Psychological Smoking Mechanism.
The Twilight Zone - Between Childhood and Adulthood
For the adolescent, puberty is a nightmare. They don't look like themselves, they don't feel like themselves, they have feelings they never had before, they have body features they didn't have before, their voice is not the same, they are taller, favorite clothes and shoes are outgrown quickly, and many other changes. Adults are no help because they take the attitude that everyone goes through this experience. This response is due to the repression of their own puberty experiences. Believe me, the typical adult attitude towards the changes of puberty is no consolation to a young person whose world has been turned upside down! In addition to amplified emotions and sensations, there is the added burden of shaving for both boys and girls, and of course for girls, bras and tampons. The carefree life of the child is shattered. To add to the stress, school has become much more complicated by requiring the student to change rooms many times per day with different teachers for each class and harder courses. Gone is the security of a single classroom with a familiar teacher and a small group of peers that you got to know by being around them all day.
Misery Loves Company
Since adults seem to dismiss the changes of puberty as trivial, an adolescent in the chaos of puberty looks to people who can relate to what is happening to them. They turn to their peers, who are also experiencing the same things, so they don't feel alone in this massive assault on the childhood self-image. The common realization each adolescent shares is that the old identity doesn't work anymore. No longer a child but not considered an adult either. The only security the adolescent sees is being an adult but, they aren't mentally or emotionally there yet. So, the peer solution is an attempt to force the title of adult. This is done by attempting to copy behaviors that are considered adult only. The two most common choices of adult behavior are the forbidden ones of drinking alcohol and smoking.
Smoking is Hard, Getting Drunk is Not
Of the two "adult" behaviors that the adolescent chooses to declare adulthood, the one with the most prestige and peer approval is smoking. This is because the hardest thing about drinking alcohol is getting it; anyone can drink and get drunk. However, smoking is different. Smoking is very hard to do. A person has to go through a learning process to suppress the normal body protective mechanism. It is a miserable time but the motivation is driven by the amplified emotion of puberty and desperation to define an identity as an adult. Intense emotions give more power to the motivation and allows them to force themselves through the miserable, time consuming process of learning to smoke. Obviously, not everyone has the force of will to do so but a large percentage who choose smoking persist and learn to smoke. When the adolescent succeeds in being able to smoke, they are the envy of their peers, most of whom cannot smoke. They join the small, elite group of smokers and are considered accomplished. And why not, after all they have mastered a very difficult task; learned Mind over Matter to suppress the normal body protective reaction. They have created the Psychological Smoking Mechanism.
Smoking and Self-Confidence
Peer approval, the small club of smokers, the daring rebellion of breaking the rules by violating the law, and the perceived rebellious independence (who hasn't looked on with admiration at the smokers plotting a cigarette break in the high school bathroom between 3rd and 4th period?), are very important to the adolescent. The ability to smoke cigarettes gives them prestige that they see the majority of their peers do not have. This is one of the building blocks of the Psychological Smoking Mechanism: smoking makes me special and admired. Unfortunately, the young smoker gives power to the cigarette and feels that without it, they would not, and this is probably correct, have the attention that smoking gives them from both adults and peers. Smoking has become a part of their self-image because it gives them confidence. This confidence usually leads to other successes which in turn, are attributed to smoking when in reality, it is the confidence that led to success, not smoking; they just don't realize it.
A person usually learns to smoke during the changes of puberty when they are trying to establish an adult identity. They are not a child but not yet an adult so they seek what they consider adult activities to declare themselves an adult. Among their peers, smoking has the highest status because it is hard to do and most young people won't or cannot do it. This results in admiration and prestige from their peers and adult attention that they would likely not have otherwise. Smoking gives the young person confidence which in turn allows their natural abilities to produce success in other areas. The cigarette is given the credit when in reality, it is their confidence in themselves that produce the additional success. Due to this misconception, the young person believes the ability to smoke cigarettes has given them things they wouldn't have otherwise and without smoking, they would not have the other successes. This is a key foundation of the Psychological Smoking Mechanism. Removing the impact of these beliefs is an important step towards becoming a non-smoker.

Copyright 2010, R. Michael Stone 

It is Hard to Quit Smoking because It is Part of Your Self-Image!
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