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Do Little Habits Keep Us From Better Lives?

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Ela is an addict, but she's not the kind of addict you're used to hearing about. She's addicted to shoes.

"I have over 100 pairs of shoes -- I have 118 pairs," the 38-year-old said in a video she made for Good Morning America . "And what I do is I scatter them so it doesn't look like I have a lot. So I can hide them from my husband. For me, I tend to buy shoes when I'm upset or when I want to feel better about myself."

Her mother dealt with bad days by buying shoes, too, she says. Ela, who doesn't want her last name used, has what has been dubbed a soft addiction: seemingly harmless habits that escalate into overwhelming obsessions -- like shopping, exercising and beautifying.

If you zone out while watching TV, surf the Internet aimlessly, or follow every report on Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, you may have fallen prey to what life coach Judith Wright calls a soft addiction. And, yes, you need to get a life.

Wright, the author of There Must Be More Than This: Finding More Life, Love and Meaning By Overcoming Your Soft Addictions , says that "soft addictions" can be habits, compulsive behaviors, or recurring moods or thought patterns.

"Soft addictions are everyday activities, seemingly harmless habits, like overshopping or gossiping, that we use to numb our feelings, mute our consciousness and keep us from having greater satisfaction in life," Wright said. "We develop them because we're uncomfortable with being with ourselves and feeling our feelings. So we need to numb and distract ourselves."

They are the little things we do that satisfy some surface desire, but when you consider the time they take up, they keep us from achieving richer lives, robbing us of time that could be better spent improving our lives or building relationships.

Singles Are Scariest Cases

People of any age can develop soft addictions, but they are scariest when they occur in single people, Wright says.

"They fill their emptiness with over-working and then try to overcompensate by working out at the gym or getting a massage," she said. "So, it becomes this routine, mechanized life of work and recovery, work and recovery. This is the hamster on the wheel and they can't connect with other people. It looks like they're living a full life, but they're not."

In personal ads, people often advertise their soft addictions, by saying something like they like movies, she says.

A recent Harris poll of 1,010 people found that such activities are common, with 91 percent of respondents admitting to soft addictions. Nearly half, 48 percent, admit to procrastination as their No. 1 soft addiction. In the poll, 32 percent of women say they overeat, 23 percent of women admit to impulse shopping and 34 percent of women claim to watch too much television.

Addiction vs. Harmless Habit

Unlike the activities associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders, the activities do not rule your life. But they do leave a mark.

"If you're doing something and you're learning something and you're growing from it, then it's a passion," Wright said. However, if you're doing it and you're numbed by the experience, you're zoned out, feel distracted, buzzed, a little high and forgetful, then it's a soft addiction."

To differentiate between a soft addiction and normal behavior, consider your motivation, Wright says. Are you watching television to relax, or do you watch it to learn something, and expand your mind?

"People, let's say, will buy shoes and not remember what they bought," she said. "Or, if you're spending a lot of time surfing the Internet for a term paper, that's OK. But if you spend hours going in and out of chat rooms, that's a soft addiction."

If you are zoning out while you are doing it, the goal of your activity is numbness, and it's a problem. Other times, people do certain activities in order to avoid intense emotions that they don't know how to deal with, such as sadness or anger.

A 32-year-old librarian, Holly, the obsession is with coloring her hair. She colors her hair every six or seven months to match her clothes or buys clothes to match hair color It sounds like a harmless thing to do, but for her the reasons behind it are painful.

"Coloring my hair to match my clothing or buying clothes more specifically to match my hair color," she says. "And the reason I do it is to get attention. I don't feel as though I'm ... enough so I do it so to be seen and to get noticed."

For Christina, a 51-year-old mom, her soft addiction is watching the same movies over and over again.She watches 10 hours on the weekends, and five or six hours during the week, falling asleep on the couch.

The habit began in high school, and at one point, she thought she might become a film critic. But now she realizes she uses the movies as comfort and to hide from her problems, instead of seeking comfort from her families.

"I have about five or six movies that I'd say I watch some of them over about 30 times," she said. "One I've watched at least 50 times. The thing that I want most is to feel connected to my husband and my daughter. I guess I feel a lot of regret that there are a lot of moments that I've missed hours and hours of my life, that I missed out on that I could have been closer to them."

Shedding Soft Addictions

All three women are on the road to healing by having attended soft addiction workshops given by Wright.

Her key pieces of advice: Assess your life, and use what she calls "the math of more" to enrich your life.

"Admit you have addictions, identify them and make a break with denial," Wright said. "You have to tell yourself the truth about your life and ask 'Am I going to fill my life with soft addictions, or am I going to have my life count and feel my feelings and not sleepwalk through life anymore?'"

Those with soft addictions should add more nourishing activities to their lives, and they will automatically subtract the addictive ones.

"Instead of buying shoes, call a friend and tell them what's in your heart instead of on your feet," Wright said. "If you are with your friends, you're less likely to sit in front of the TV watching re-runs of Friends ."

Ela still buys shoes, but now will buy two pair instead of four at a time, realizing it's not the way to escape from her problems. She doesn't keep her shoes secret from her husband anymore. They talk things out and she's closer to him, she said.

Holly still dyes her hair, but is working to place more value on her inner worth, rather than what she looks like, she says.

Christina says she spends more time with her family, choosing a dinner date with her husband or a talk with her daughter over movies. She looks at the big picture of her life, and wants to like what she sees.

"I don't want to be on my deathbed and only have people saying about me, 'she spent a lot of time watching movies,'" Christina said.

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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