The Real Story Behind Why You Can’t Quit Smoking

At any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of people trying to quit smoking. Likewise, there are countless numbers of people who are giving in to the temptation to start smoking again after going a few hours, days, weeks, or even months of not lighting up. I’m guessing that millions of people attempt to quit smoking every year, and every year, the urge to start up again is just too powerful to ignore.

If you’re a smoker, you might be expecting to read about typical things like the argument that smoking is/isn’t a true addiction. You might expect to hear all about “tried and true” methods for quitting smoking…that you’ve tried many times and have never worked for you. Maybe you’re prepared to hear yet another lecture about how bad smoking is for you or how you smoke because you’re stressed out. Well, I’m not going to blow that smoke in your face.

I’m here to tell you a different story. I’m here to show you the stuff beneath the surface that nobody sees but that I believe is actually the real story behind why smokers fail to quit smoking.  At the surface, it could be a story about you, about how and why you started smoking and about how and why you use smoking to deal with stress and now you can’t quit even though you’ve tried so many times.

But my story has an unexpected twist. If you take all the common stories about smoking that you hear, and that you’ve experienced (if you’re a smoker), and turn them backward and look at them from a completely different angle, it will reveal some secrets about why you smoke and how the most common reason given for smoking is actually hiding the truth that you may be avoiding…the real reason you smoke.

“My Name is Lenny, and I’m a Smoker”

Lenny stood at the podium, taking his turn. “I started smoking when I was in high school. Um…that was over 25 years ago and I’m still smoking.” Lenny rolled his eyes because he knew all the statistics about how smoking increases the risk of cancer, stroke, heart disease, causes high blood pressure, and many other health problems. He heard that smoking can cause premature aging of the skin. And he definitely knew how stupid it was to buy cigarettes every week when he was struggling to pay his bills. He was well aware of the mountain of reasons why he shouldn’t be smoking. Yet in spite of it all, he couldn’t overcome the addiction, the effect it had on him, and the urge…that overpowering urge. The words seemed so stupid and even pointless to say out loud, but he wanted to quit and was willing to try this support group as a last resort.

“I started smoking because all of the ‘cool kids’ were smoking and I wanted to be cool. When I got out of high school, I realized how dumb I was for ever starting, but I haven’t been able to quit. Now, I smoke because I have a lot of stress in my life and…I guess that’s how I cope with it. But I really do want to quit, I just don’t think I can.”

The Conflict of Quitting

If you’re like most smokers who have tried unsuccessfully to quit, you’ve experienced the inner conflict that always surrounds thoughts of quitting. On the one hand, you do want to quit. But hidden deep inside you, there is a part of you that’s fighting hard against quitting. This classic conflict is the reason you have trouble buying into any method, process, or system that’s “guaranteed” to help you quit smoking. The stronger part of you doesn’t really want to quit. You’ve built up so many parts of your life around the act of smoking because it’s one of the most reliable, comfortable, and familiar ways you know for dealing with the stresses of your life.

It’s a love/hate relationship that you have with smoking, but more than that, it’s a crutch you’re never fully prepared to give up. Just like when you were a kid and a monster came lurking around your bedroom at night. Your protector…your noble security blanket was always at hand and ready to comfort and protect you against any fears every time you felt vulnerable.

If you ask 20 smokers why they smoke, you’ll likely hear stress listed as the most common reason. While stress may not be why you started, it plays a big role in why you can’t quit. But just because stress is listed as the primary reason, that doesn’t mean it actually is. “Stress” has become such a grossly overused, catch-all term for many unidentified emotional triggers that are lurking behind the “stress” label.  And these unidentified emotional triggers are the real cause of why you smoke.

The Many Faces of Stress

I almost hesitate to bring up the word “emotions”, but if we’re talking about stress, emotions are right there with it. I’m not saying anything new to suggest that we all have triggers that cause certain behavior. It’s like the way that Lenny’s co-worker is always pushing his buttons, causing him to walk away frustrated and angry over some little detail on every project. And his boss is always obsessing about delivering projects on time, yet he never sets solid deadlines to help keep everyone on track. Consequently, Lenny chain-smokes through every break at work. Obviously, work is a trigger for Lenny.

Sometimes, when Lenny is out with his wife, they run into his old friend, Craig. But when he can, he tries to avoid Craig because he just doesn’t like how attentive he is toward his wife. And every time they run into Craig, Lenny and his wife always end up fighting later on. Often, after an argument, Lenny will hang out with his next-door neighbor and have a couple of smokes to settle his nerves. Lenny blames Craig for causing problems in his marriage. If he could just avoid Craig, things would be better between him and his wife. Craig is definitely a trigger.

Lenny is a good guy, really. But all the issues at work and the problems between him and his wife keep him pretty stressed. Add to that the burden of constantly having to bail his brother out of one financial jam after another, which is making a mess of his own finances. And lately, Lenny is having trouble sleeping because he’s worried about how he’s going to fix this. It’s not uncommon for Lenny to get out of bed in the middle of the night to have a cigarette to relax and help him think about how to solve his financial issues. He often wonders if he should take on a second job. Another option is to ask for a raise, which could be risky. His favorite solution is to hit the lottery, but there’s a fat chance of that happening. Either way, it’s pretty clear that Lenny’s finances are a pretty serious trigger of stress for him.

The Big Smoke Screen

If you’re a smoker, maybe you can identify with Lenny. We all have triggers in our lives that may cause some serious stress. Smokers deal with that stress by smoking. Period! Right? But let’s take a more careful look at Lenny’s triggers.

First, Lenny’s job is a trigger and it’s causing a great deal of stress, right? But maybe that’s not it at all. Lenny gets frustrated with his co-worker and his boss. He loves his job, but hates putting up with his co-worker, and his boss is no walk in the park, either. Lenny’s real issue isn’t his job, it’s his inability to address the issues he has with two specific people at work.

But it’s not like he has to just accept things as they are. Lenny always has the option of expressing his frustration to his co-worker and trying to find a better way to deal with issues when they arise. But he’s not real comfortable with the idea of a confrontation (as he sees it), so he avoids it altogether.  As far as his boss goes, Lenny could easily set his own deadlines and distribute them to his team. His boss wouldn’t mind. But Lenny is afraid to take a little initiative. He typically avoids doing anything that will get him noticed because he’s afraid of making mistakes.

What about Lenny’s friend Craig? Deep down inside, it really makes Lenny feel uncomfortable when his wife gets flattered by a complement from any guy, not just Craig. It causes Lenny to wonder if he’s not good enough for her or if she secretly wants to be with someone else. Is his wife flirting back with the guys they run into while they’re out? It’s hard to tell, but seeing her reaction makes Lenny feel very uncomfortable. So Lenny’s issue really isn’t with Craig at all. There are obviously some trust issues between Lenny and his wife that he needs to face. Perhaps it’s only his low self esteem that’s driving his anger toward Craig…or both. Either way, Lenny is unwilling to look at what’s really going on in his thoughts. So Craig becomes the easy target and cause of Lenny’s “stress”.

As for Lenny’s finances, you could probably guess by now that he needs to talk to his brother about being more responsible with money, because he can’t afford to keep constantly bailing him out. Lenny needs to start focusing on repairing his own finances before it’s too late. In spite of this, his finances aren’t the real trigger. Lenny lets his brother take advantage of him, but he’s afraid to say anything about it. So it’s Lenny’s fear of standing up for himself that’s the real trigger.

Real Triggers and Real Progress

I’m not going to suggest that dealing with such personal issues is easy because it’s not. But unless you stop automatically labeling all triggers as “stress”, and until you stop pinning the cause on the wrong triggers, you’ll continue to be manipulated by conditions that you can change, not to mention that they’ll just get worse and worse over time.

To put it another way, every time you have car trouble, you wouldn’t automatically get an oil change. You would try to figure out what the specific trouble is so you can fix the right issue. Otherwise, the issue will eventually start causing even more problems.

Having to deal with uncomfortable emotions or unresolved issues is never easy. But let’s face it, if you’re trying to quit smoking, it will probably take forever if you’re not willing to look at the real triggers lurking in the shadows of your life. So try to look behind the obvious. Try to find what’s really making it so difficult to quit smoking. If you start dealing with the real triggers behind the urge to smoke it might actually be possible to quit…finally.



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