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Bargaining with ourselves: What’s really at stake?

By: Aimee Oliveri (clinical psychologist) & Dr Anastasia Hronis (clinical psychologist)

In our daily lives, we often make “deals” with ourselves, especially when faced with temptation. Whether it's saying we'll start our diet on Monday after indulging over the weekend, or justifying a drink after a tough week, these negotiations are familiar. But these bargaining tactics aren't just limited to everyday choices; they also play a significant role in gambling, leading to lapses in control, reinforcing addiction, and making it harder to quit. In this blog post, we'll delve into the risks of bargaining in gambling and explore strategies to overcome it, increasing our chances of reducing gambling habits.

What is bargaining?

Bargaining in gambling is essentially a negotiation process with ourselves. A person will rationalise and justify their gambling behaviour, even when it contradicts their broader intentions or goals, and despite knowing the consequences.

In gambling, bargaining shows up in different ways, like:

  • Planning a future lapse: “If I gamble on the weekend, I’ll get it out of my system.”
  • Dismissing behaviour: “If I gamble with my mates, it doesn’t really count.”
  • Justifying a small initial bet as harmless: "I'll just put 20 dollars in the machine.”
  • Viewing gambling as a reward for hard work or stress: "I deserve to gamble."
  • Believing that gambling activity is harmless as long as it goes unnoticed: "If I wait until everyone is asleep, no one will know.”
  • Using difficult circumstances as a reason to engage in gambling: "It's been a hard week."

Recognising these bargaining tactics is crucial. Knowing if we are falling into the trap of bargaining with ourselves can help us prevent lapses and relapses.

Why do we bargain?

People often resort to bargaining as a coping mechanism, especially during moments of vulnerability or when their willpower is tested. This tendency stems from several factors:

  • Vulnerability: Bargaining frequently occurs when people feel emotionally drained, stressed, or overwhelmed, seeking solace or relief from their circumstances.
  • Self-Deception: In moments of intense desire or craving, people may lose sight of their goals and the consequences of their actions, often convincing themselves that their bargains are reasonable and justifiable.
  • Need for Control: Bargaining provides people with a sense of control over challenging situations, allowing them to negotiate terms that provide temporary comfort or satisfaction.
  • Emotional Rationalisation: Emotions can cloud judgment, leading people to prioritise immediate gratification over long-term consequences.
  • The foot-in-the-door tactic: Bargaining allows us to feel like we are still meeting our goals because we usually start small before gradually escalating.

In essence, bargaining serves as a psychological defence mechanism, allowing people to navigate challenging circumstances by offering a ‘short term relief’ and mitigating feelings of discomfort or uncertainty.

Consequences of bargaining

Bargaining in gambling perpetuates a cycle of self-deception and denial, making it harder to overcome gambling addiction. Some of the consequences include:

  • Lapse/Relapse: Engaging in bargaining behaviours increases the likelihood of lapses or relapses in efforts to control or quit gambling. The temporary satisfaction gained from bargaining often leads us back into the cycle of addictive behaviour, undoing progress made towards recovery.
  • Difficulty Quitting: Bargaining reinforces the belief that gambling is a manageable or justifiable behaviour, making it harder for individuals to commit to quitting altogether. This perpetuates a sense of ambivalence towards change and prolongs the struggle to break free from addictive patterns.
  • Strengthening Addiction: By falling into the trap of bargaining, people reinforce the neural pathways in the brain associated with addictive behaviour. Each instance of bargaining further ingrains the habit of gambling as a coping mechanism, strengthening the grip of addiction and making it increasingly challenging to resist urges in the future.
  • Emotional Toll: Bargaining often results in feelings of guilt, shame, or regret, especially when people realise they have succumbed to their gambling urges despite their best intentions. These negative emotions can contribute to a cycle of self-blame and low self-esteem, further perpetuating the cycle of addiction.
  • Financial Consequences: Bargaining often leads to impulsive gambling decisions, resulting in financial losses and exacerbating existing financial problems. The temporary relief or excitement derived from gambling may overshadow the long-term consequences of financial instability and debt accumulation.

Strategies for overcoming bargaining:

Overcoming bargaining can be tough, but it's achievable with the right approach. If you're grappling with bargaining in gambling, try out the following strategies:

  • Write Down Your Goals and Keep Them Handy: Having a clear record of your goals serves as a constant reminder of what you truly want to achieve, helping you stay focused and motivated.
  • Challenge Each Point of Bargaining: When faced with bargaining thoughts, confront them head-on by challenging their validity. Write down the bargains you make and counter them with the reality of your experiences. For instance, if the bargain is, "I'll get it out of my system," remind yourself of past instances where this approach failed to yield the desired results, reinforcing the importance of resisting such temptations.
  • Change Your Environment to Make Gambling Harder: Take proactive steps to create an environment that discourages impulsive gambling. Make accessing money more difficult during vulnerable moments by setting up barriers or limits on your financial resources. This could involve leaving credit cards at home, setting up spending alerts, or enlisting the help of a trusted friend or family member to hold onto your funds temporarily. By making gambling less convenient, you reduce the likelihood of following the bargaining impulses.

For more support on this topic or any gambling issue you might want to talk about, call Gambler’s Help 1800 858 858.

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