“Nobody wants to be a drug addict,” said Biftu Jillo when talking about her past addiction in the Brian Coyle Center – a private community helping people fight drug addiction. She then added, “Nobody goes up and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a drug addict when I grow up.'” And yet, addiction is a serious problem spanning across the whole world and causing pain to not just the addict, but also to everyone else this person is close to.1
Drug addiction is only part of the problem. There are, sadly, many more addictive properties that a lot of people are dependent on. Reportedly, almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment.2
And to be honest, I had my own moments of hard-to-escape dependencies. I was in the grip of a cruel sickness which systematically sabotaged my life. But more about that later…
Most of us know why people get addicted to alcohol or drugs. After all, there are a lot of public discussions about this and hopefully, your country is doing a good job at communicating with citizens why they shouldn’t seek comfort in addictive substances.
Nonetheless, regardless of our knowledge about how cigarettes and alcohol are hurting us, people keep smoking and drinking.
And the prime question here is why? Why does this happen in the first place? Why do people get addicted to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and even modern medicine that promises to make you thinner?
Here’s where shifting the burden to the intervenor enters. This is a systems archetype that often occurs when there is a problem.
The explanation of shifting the burden goes something like this:
Looking for an easy way to handle a situation, the victim – a person experiencing a problem – invites an intervenor for help. Plainly, this person hands the responsibility to a 3rd party – whether this will be another person, an item, or some sort of addictive habit. Over time, the person becomes less capable of handling the situation on his own. And when this happens, he convinces himself that he can’t live without the intervenor. The burden has shifted from him to the intervenor. Therefore, the intervenor becomes a central, but corrupting, part of the person’s life.
What is Shifting the Burden Archetype?
Imagine that you’re living in a country of famine and war. Internally, you want to feel good. Externally, though, there are few things that actually help you to feel good about where you are and what you do.
The gap between how you feel and how you want to feel is huge. At times, it seems almost impossible to reach a state of bliss. What do you do?
The answer to this question is no secret. In a study by NCBI Education, the authors state that the vast majority of Somali people excessively use khat – a highly addictive drug. The main reason? Stress, uncertainty, no sign of hope. There is no solid government in most parts of Somalia. No one to instill thriving culture. The country is mainly governed by local warlords. That’s why people are looking for a way to escape their current reality. A way to handle the high levels of war-zone stress. Therefore, they reach for solutions that help them close the gap as fast as possible.
In these cases, the drug use is not actually changing where you are physically. You are still in a very dangerous, uncertain, and hostile situation. Yet, it changes your perception of where you are. Numbing your senses and making where you are a more bearable place.
But what is really happening?
In reality, by using drugs to feel good, we simply divert our attention away from a better solution. With time, it becomes worse because the “medicine” has proven to bring you results quickly. Therefore, you’re no longer looking for other solutions because there is a huge delay between the application of these other solutions and the potential results. Or in other words, the burden shifts to the intervenor, and now every time you have the same problem – you feel miserable – you call the intervenor for “help”.
This is how it looks visually:
First, there is a problem. Or a place we wish we could be:
After a quick brainstorm session, we apply a symptomatic solution. Or in other words, a cure focused on tackling the symptom, what’s visible, not the root cause of the problem. The so-called band-aid solution, a temporary solution that doesn’t resolve the problem for good:
Since the solution is quick, easy, and often fun, we get used to it. This becomes a system. Something we repeatedly do – a bad habit. This is where the actual shifting the burden to the intervenor happens. In our heads, the following scenario plays when we face the same type of situation in the future, “Hey, it’s the dreadful feeling about how my life is useless, let’s numb it down by playing video games!”
But there are always consequences (often delayed). The negative effects of the symptomatic solutions are twofold. First, we become dependent on these quick fixes. For instance, the more you play video games, the more you’ll want to play video games in the future – same with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes. And as we all know, all of these things, when not controlled, can tremendously hurt our lives.
Secondly, which is even more troubling, we don’t consider an alternative. We don’t think about finding a fundamental solution that can solve our problems for good. That’s why there is also a delay in the graph related to the fundamental solution. For example, drug addicts don’t think that they have a problem until things get really out of control or someone helps them see how they are destroying their lives.
What we actually need is System B, not System A as shown in the picture. But we want and focus on the easy and attractive System A. The reason? Well, as the saying goes, good things take time. But since we don’t want to wait to get results, we focus on the easy solutions – i.e., instant gratification.3 Sadly, as just explained, the easy fixes are addictive and unable to solve the problem for good. They are only a diversion.
To explain why we tend to satisfy ourselves with easy fixes, that at some point corrupt our very existence, let’s look at some real-life examples:
Shifting The Burden Examples
It’s not only drug use. There are countless other examples where instead of taking responsibility and doing the right thing to solve a problem, we assign the solution to a drug, a person, a specific habit, or even a thing. We focus on solving the surface problem instead of resolving the deeper, harder problem.
Here are a couple of examples:
- Problem and symptomatic solution: People want to lose weight. TV commercials explain how “magic pills” can help them become thinner without having to exercise. Since it’s much easier to take the pills and don’t do the work, people become attached to this mechanism. Side effect: To stay thin, however, you need to keep taking the pills which will eventually cause other complications. Fundamental solution: Exercise and eat better food.
- Problem and symptomatic solution: Regularly, you’re facing difficult calculations at work (or at school). You get yourself a calculator and use it every time you need to multiply or divide. Side effect: Over time, every time there is a mathematical equation, you need your calculator to solve it because your mind is now used to the easy solution. Fundamental solution: Use your brain to do arithmetic.
- Problem and symptomatic solution: Every now and then you feel bored at work. To brighten up, you check social media. Side effect: This habit takes over every time there is a gap in your schedule, or you feel unmotivated. Fundamental solution: Look for ways to make your work more exciting (or create your own job).
- Problem and symptomatic solution: An advertising agency is having problems with their website – mainly related to the amount of traffic they are getting. They turn to a consultant to help them with the traffic. Side effect: Now, the firm is dependent on this consultant who holds the secret of how to get more traffic. Fundamental solution: Train employees to solve these problems within the company.
- Problem and symptomatic solution: Your kid is misbehaving. You use punishment to “handle” the situation. Side effect: In the future, you not only use more this violent method to educate your kid, but you also teach him that violence is OK. Fundamental solution: Explain to your kid, calmly with words and in a proper environment, what is OK and what is not OK.
- Problem and symptomatic solution: A new version of your favorite smartphone was just released. A growing temptation raises. You want the gadget, but you’re short on cash. But all the cool kids have the phone now! You take a loan to purchase it. Side effect: You take loans every time you want something regardless of your current financial situation. Fundamental solution: Save cash and only purchase stuff when you have enough saved (or don’t get a new phone (or whatever) because your current phone is working).
- Problem and symptomatic solution: Learning new skills (programming, data analysis, project management, design, etc.) is becoming more important these days. To become more competitive, you enroll in classes by famous gurus that promise to make you a heavy-weight champion in programming in just a few months. Side effects: The urge to become successful fast makes you purchase all kinds of courses full of quick hacks but preventing you from understanding the fundamentals. You are stuck in the “learning phase” and “purchasing more courses phase” without making significant progress. Fundamental solution: Take the needed time to learn the skills without rushing it.
- Problem and symptomatic solution: The job you do is crucial for the success of the company. Your boss calls you every time when there is a specific problem. Eventually, your boss calls you all the time because you are the only one capable of solving a specific set of problems. Side effect: You burnout. Fundamental solution: Train others so they can do the work you do.
See, the more you do the quick “solution”, the more you become dependent on it. The intervenor becomes part of your life and deludes you that there is no other option.
But it’s not always bad. There are situations where we need to take pills to heal (when we have a headache after a full day in front of the computer, for example). Or, where we need to hire a consultant to help us with something in our organization.
As explained above, we can outsource all the work related to our website to someone. This will solve the problem for now. But what if this person decides to leave? Or probably worse, decides to raise his prices because he realized that you don’t have other options? Or another case is if we systematically take pills to balance our weight until the side effects become apparent and painful.
And these are just some examples of why shifting the burden is something important. Something I think everyone should get.
Why Understanding Shifting The Burden Is Important?
We all “shift the burden” at some point in our lives.
We call the plumber to take care of the plumbing when there is an issue. We go to a doctor, or probably a therapist, when we consistently can’t sleep at night because grim thoughts consume our brain. And, we send our kids to school, so they can learn about the world from people we don’t really know, which will ultimately make them respected members of society.
A lot of times, a band-aid solution is just fine.
The real problem occurs when your dependence on a certain solution threatens your health and therefore your life.
Personally, I’ve single-handedly created a “system trap” a couple of times in my life.
You know, when you’re 20tie and partying seems like the only way you can have fun.
What I did when I was younger was to convince myself that I can’t have a good time unless I’m out and drinking.
The structure looked something like this:
- Problem: Feeling dull and lonely.
- Symptomatic solution: Go out, drink, and have fun.
- Side effects: Addiction and an embedded belief that I can only have fun when I drink.
- Fundamental solution: Find a meaningful goal to devote to.
After some time, I realized that I was looking simply at the surface problem. I acted based on what’s visible – feeling dull – instead of understanding why I was always feeling dull in the first place.
My problem wasn’t that I wanted to have fun. What pushed me to become dependent on a careless lifestyle was a desire to be seen, respected, among other people, have a meaningful goal that can inspire me to get up in the morning. All things that you can have without drinking till you pass out.
But, like everyone else, I found a comforting intervenor that provided me with the quickest possible solution.
And I know what I did it now.
I mean, we are terrible at waiting. We want things to happen as fast as possible. We are addicted to instant gratification. That’s why social media networks, video games, junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are so popular and widely used. They trigger the right switches in our brain and make us feel good without any delay.
These things, are the so-called intervenor.
When we find ourselves close to despair, we shift the responsibility to items that can bring us immediate results – close the gap as fast as possible. A lot of times, sadly, without even realizing that these items can cause huge complications along the way.
We not only become too attached to a specific poison (whether this will be a bad habit or an illegal substance). Not only do these harmful “solutions” divert our minds from thinking about alternatives. But they also make it harder for us to apply a fundamental solution.
Think about it. If you’ve been smoking for 20 years, it will be extremely hard, almost impossible to quit. Smoking is simply part of who you are. Part of your identity.
That’s why I believe that shifting the burden is the most insidious archetype. Something we need to understand and correct.
Because it all seems so innocent at first. So pure. But then it drowns us.
We start with outsourcing problems until the subsequent problems become bigger than the issue we were trying to handle in the first place.
How To Solve Shifting The Burden?
Breaking addiction is painful. You experience not only physical pain, but also emotional instability.
What makes it hard is not only that you’re used to a particular bad behavior. Most people can’t withdraw from a specific damaging habit because they don’t realize that they are acting irresponsibly.
People think that, “Hey, taking pills to lose weight is not so bad. I mean, these are tested and actually recommended by doctors. You see, it’s all mentioned in the label.”
The problem is not in the act of taking the pills, the real problem is in the head of the person taking the pills. The conviction that doing this is totally fine.
Gradually, your dependence on this “cure” pollutes your body which causes a series of other complications.
To escape the insidious grip of the intervenor, a person should confront his current reckless behavior. Gain a new perspective of the situation and form a new belief. And after that, take the right, but hard approach. The approach that was initially avoided.
Here’s what happened to me…
After more than 7 years of wild partying, I’ll rather read a book now.
Not that I don’t enjoy a night with my friends. I do. But now I don’t feel an inner urge to drink to feel good. Or, get social validation from others to keep functioning. That’s how I actually stopped using social media.
However, this wasn’t something that occurred in my brain in a snap of a finger. It was a process. After years of mistakes, spending money on things I don’t need, blaming others for my misfortunes, at some point, I got hit by a mental slap that made me realized that, “Hey, it’s not cool to drink all night and don’t have a penny in your bank account. Others are not to blame for your financial situation. Get yourself together and do something about it.”
So I did. And to be honest, reading books was a tremendous help.
They acted as a supportive friend. A guide that showed me that life is hard. That there are obstacles. But by continuously investing in yourself, you can do what you want. I know, it sounds cliche-ish, but that’s the underlying concept of all self-help books.
The way I see things now is dead simple: You’re responsible for how your life will unfold.
- You’re short on cash? Don’t take loans, learn new skills to get paid more.
- You’re feeling lonely and want others to tell you now magnificently amazing you are? Don’t post half-naked photos on Instagram. Create something meaningful that can actually help others.
I know, painfully obvious. And yet, not everyone thinks like this.
Sure, there is also this thing called luck (including bad luck) that either helps or distances us further away from our goals. But trying to summon luck or blame the universe (or algorithms) for not getting enough likes on your latest social media post won’t do you any good.
So, what’s the way out? How can you prevent yourself from shifting the burden?
There is no easy way to say it, but the solution to your problems shouldn’t involve inviting undercover problems. For instance, doom scrolling when you’re feeling lonely. Eating burgers when you want to fix your weight. Day trading when you want to make more money.
It’s becoming a responsible human being. Understand that taking the short-term solution is always costly. Lifting weights daily is needed if you want to build muscles. Saving money instead of wasting them is the “secret” to financial freedom. Getting up early and writing is required if you want to start a side business by blogging while working full-time.
Of course, we all know this, whether we admit it or not.
We all know that exercising is better than eating hamburgers 3 times a day.
But how to actually convince yourself to lift weights in the first place?
What personally worked for me is building strong foundations.
Something like a fallback system.
In the book The Body Keeps the Score, the author framed it perfectly. To become strong enough for the difficulties that life throws at us, we should gain interdependence.
Plainly, you gain skills and experience. You gain knowledge. Even muscles by exercising. The point is to improve your body and mind. The stronger you are, both physically and mentally, the less you’ll need external sources to handle an incoming problem or feel good. You become self-sufficient.
Even when there is a challenge ahead, you know that you can count on you to resolve this. You don’t collapse in the face of danger and seek alcohol or drugs. You say things like, “I’m strong enough to handle the situation!”
Personally, this is how things looked for me…
I was going out and drinking, not because I wanted to have fun. I wanted to avoid the responsibility of adult life. Instead of facing the reality – that I need to gain experience, work hard, save money – I created a false reality. A place where everything I did was supposed to delude me from the hard tasks requiring my immediate attention. I didn’t have the confidence to tackle the obstacles. That’s why I found comfort in alcohol and partying.
This realization helped me build inner strength. Which gave me back control of my life.
I displaced the bad habits. I started regularly working out. I devoted myself to learning. I started a long-term project (this site) that gives me a sense of purpose. I realized that I don’t need to get likes on social media to feel good. What really helps me is being resourceful. Reasonable. Rational. This eventually helped me become a caring parent and hopefully a good husband.
Of course, I’m far from perfect. And as you can probably sense – far from being fun. But I’m much better than before.
Or if I can frame it in one word, I’ve built the interdependence Bessel van der Kolk talks about in his book. Now, when there is a problem, I don’t crash and go seek for quick solutions – although I do have a tendency to eat sweets when my brain is foggy. I know that I can solve the situation even if it will take time. With the help of others or alone. The idea is that my self-esteem is strong enough to help me get up even I’m knocked on the floor.
Diversion: On some occasions. We may be the intervenor. For instance, when a friend is too attached to your presence that he can’t function without you. Not that it’s bad to have someone close to you who is counting on you for help. But this can be a problem at some point. This person can shift all of his responsibilities to you and thus convince himself that he’s incapable of handling situations on his own. If this is the case, your goal, as a friend, is to help this person gain the skills, and the confidence he needs, to handle the future obstacles on his own.
Some Closing Thoughts
Alcoholism is not just about the consumption of liquids, in reality, it’s people trying to fill a hole.
The point of the exercise is to understand what are you avoiding. What are you covering by involving yourself in destructive habits? Who is the intervenor and why you’re shifting the responsibility?
Usually, we say that we don’t have a problem. That we’re not acting irresponsibly. We say these things because our brain is simply trying to protect us.
But the more we’re avoiding the problem, the more this problem will consume us. The longer we wait, the harder the withdrawal process will be.
And lastly, I wanted to say that we all shift the burden. We outsource some of our responsibilities. And that’s OK. We can’t do everything. But there are certain tasks that we shouldn’t try to patch with quick solutions or avoid doing. We have to identify them and face them. That’s how we grow.
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- Ibrahim, Mukhtar. “‘Monster in our community’: East African youth break the silence over addiction.” MPRNews.
- Yerby, Nathan. “Statistics on Addiction in America.” Addiction Center.
- We are prone to choose to have fun now instead of waiting for better alternatives in the future. If we gain the skill to prioritize our long-term goals over the immediate ones we’ll hugely improve our lives. For this, you can check my guide on how to overcome instant gratification.
- In the book Thinking in Systems, Donella H. Meadows explains system traps as loops that produce problems over a long period of time. Think addiction or not properly code website.