What Dumbo Can Teach Us About Habits and Addictions

“I’m scared to stop smoking.” Edna said.

As a psychotherapist specializing in habit control, I’d heard that statement from many clients. Edna (not her real name) had come to my office for an initial consultation, as part of my smoking cessation program. Like many people who want to part with a harmful habit or addiction, she felt ambivalent. Every addiction, regardless of its consequences, brings elements of comfort, satisfaction, or pleasure.

“What are you scared of specifically?”

“Well, smoking has always been my source of strength. It got me through the tough times. When my father died, and I had to comfort my mother emotionally, and pay the bills, and arrange the funeral – I smoked. When I worked overtime to meet deadlines, I smoked in order to keep going. I’ve stopped smoking many times, but when life gets rough, that’s when I smoke. Otherwise, I could not get through the tough times. This is what scares me. How can I part with my source of strength?”

“Have you ever heard the story of Dumbo the Elephant?” I asked. “It was a Disney animated movie – a lovely and touching story.”

She said she had not. So I told her about it. I’m sure my version doesn’t do justice to the Disney movie, but here it is.

Dumbo was a baby elephant born in the circus. His mother loved him dearly, but all the other elephants laughed at him because of his big ears. His ears were so large, the circus owner removed him from his mother to put him with the clown troop. Dumbo was sad and lonely, separated from his mother.

With those over-sized ears, the clowns thought Dumbo would be a great addition to their antics they performed for the many circus-goers. They decided that Dumbo’s feat would be to jump from a high platform into a pool of water, making a big splash, drenching all the clowns. Dumbo was terrified of the prospect and sadder than ever.

One day a group of mischievous crows befriended Dumbo and learned of his plight. One of them plucked a feather from his tail and gave it to Dumbo. He told Dumbo the feather would give him the ability to fly. The crows later laughed among themselves at the joke. They knew a feather could not make an elephant fly.

The day came when Dumbo had to climb the high platform. In quivering terror, he walked to the edge of the platform and held the feather tightly at the end of his trunk. Whether he leaped or was pushed, I don’t remember. When Dumbo left the platform, lo and behold, he did fly! His large ears spread out like the wings of a glider! He was airborne! He soared above the crowd! Everyone was amazed! Dumbo became the starring act of the circus! No one made fun of him after that!

So Dumbo continued to perform his amazing act, always holding on to the feather. Then one day he accidentally dropped the feather. He felt a rush of fear – fear that he would plummet to the ground. Instead, he stayed aloft. How? It wasn’t the feather – it was his own ears that made it possible for Dumbo to fly.

Edna smiled. Unlike those of really great storytellers, my metaphors are highly transparent. “So maybe it wasn’t cigarettes that got me through those tough times – is that what you’re saying? Maybe cigarettes are just a crutch?”

“Maybe the strength you demonstrated comes from within – not from cigarettes. Maybe you would have done the same things, even without cigarettes.”

She kept smiling. “Thanks for that story. It gives me something to think about.”

In psychotherapy, metaphors afford a neat, non-confrontational way to deliver a different point of view that can shift a client’s thinking in a new direction. Of course, there was one flaw in my story that Edna missed. Dumbo was not addicted to his feather in the way she was addicted to nicotine.

For Dumbo, the feather had a placebo effect. Believing in the purported power of the feather, he accomplished a feat that seemed impossible. Placebos set up an expectation that allows people to tap into some unrecognized ability within themselves – often the ability to heal an illness or relieve pain.

Cigarettes did the same for Edna – and for many people who smoke. In fact, in his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey noted that addictive substances and behaviors give people and an “artificial sense of self-worth, power, control, security, intimacy, or accomplishment.” We give addictive substances more credit than they deserve – while underestimating our own capabilities.

Our addictions seem to rescue us in moments of difficulty because that’s the nature of addiction. The first thing we want when we feel afraid or overwhelmed is to find relief or comfort – no matter how temporary – and no matter the long-term costs. Addictive substances work especially well when they are convenient, within reach, and deliver that relief quickly. So we reach for the drink or the cigarette or the donut. With that moment of comfort or relief, we may find the clarity and courage to proceed. Fortunately, we can accomplish the same result in safer and healthier ways.

The problem with addiction, as Covey also noted, is that addictions eventually exacerbate the problems and feelings they are sought to remedy. Eventually the consequences of addiction, themselves, become the crisis, the threat, the vulnerability. Recovery and sobriety require that we find within ourselves the strength to get through the tough times. I choose to believe that, as Dumbo demonstrated, we all possess the potential to do so.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.