Smoking and Shame
Does the Symonds Method make smokers feel ashamed?
Smokers, if they’re honest with themselves, are already ashamed by their apparent inability to stop poisoning themselves with tobacco fumes – a great misfortune.
I recently received a message from a smoker in Australia that was rather critical of my approach to helping smokers become non-smokers again. I am even accused of lying.
This is what she said (slightly paraphrased for clarity):
I think that your black and white view of smoking isn’t particularly helpful to nicotine addicts. I am now on day one of quitting. I quit for three months last year and before that I hadn’t smoked for 3½ years until I relapsed in 2020. I do genuinely enjoy smoking. Yes, perhaps it’s because I have trained myself over the years due to the fact that I was around it all my life as one of my parents was a smoker. I enjoy the stimulant effect of nicotine being delivered to my system.
Denying its pleasure doesn’t help me quit. You wouldn’t tell a heroin addict that heroin is unenjoyable would you? There are obviously pleasures associated with being high on heroin. Why is nicotine so different?
I understand the very basic model of addiction you’re putting forward: you think that acknowledging that any part of smoking is enjoyable to people will encourage them to keep smoking.
I have never found lying about something particularly helpful in changing the behaviour. Lying about my alcohol use never helped me. Telling myself that alcohol isn’t in fact pleasurable and leads to relaxation, didn’t help me give up drinking. Why would anyone deny that it’s pleasurable? What is not pleasurable are hangovers, the embarrassment of having too much, and knowing how it is damaging your body.
This simplistic, naive view of addiction doesn’t do anyone favours. It simply makes them feel far more ashamed which makes people less likely to quit.
I replied as follows:
You take issue with my stance that smoking isn’t pleasurable. This is an important point that I discuss in sessions with smokers who want to stop but find it too difficult on their own and ask me for help.
Perhaps you could tell me, what, exactly, is pleasurable about smoking. Is it the smell, the taste, a feeling of relaxation and stress relief, or what?
In my experience, the claimed pleasure of smoking is mainly or entirely the relief of the mild discomfort of the withdrawal symptoms and this is perceived as pleasurable by the smoker. I help smokers to demonstrate this to themselves.
I think you misunderstand my approach if you think it involves making people feel ashamed. I certainly don’t do this and it’s not my business to persuade anyone they ought to stop smoking: if they don’t want to stop, then I can only wish them luck.
Perhaps not surprisingly, so far I have heard nothing further from this good lady.
It’s true that the style of my blogs is mildly satirical, such as one in which I quote Oscar Wilde:
You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?
Elsewhere I point out that smokers may rationalise their perceived inability to stop by saying they enjoy smoking. This is what I call the ‘I can’t stop and therefore I don’t want to stop’ syndrome. And in another blog I say:
Emphasising the idea that smoking stimulates pleasurable dopamine release and this is why it is so hard to quit, does smokers a disservice. How many smokers are there who, after stubbing out a cigarette, exclaim, ‘By golly that was marvellous! I must do it again.’?
Are we non-smokers missing something?
To say I lie about smoking being pleasurable is untrue. I take what smokers tell me very seriously and we enter into a dialogue in order to help them develop a new attitude to smoking such that they won’t want to do it anymore. This is nothing whatever to do with denying what they say. Even if smokers believe they gain some genuine pleasure from smoking, then that is a sacrifice they will need to make in order to return to the happy state of being non-smokers. And I most certainly have no intention of making smokers feel ashamed.
It’s interesting that my correspondent thinks being high on heroin is pleasurable. Is this why heroin addicts feel compelled to keep putting this poison into their bodies? Or is it rather to escape the hell of heroin withdrawal?
I do hope this good lady remains a non-smoker if that is her wish. But if she slips again, will she contact me? I doubt it.
Text © Gabriel Symonds
Credit: photo by Drocpsu on Creative Commons. It show the sculpture The Fall of Man on the Cedarville University campus.