Letting go of gambling ….why is it so hard -even when holding on hurts more?

This topic really felt relevant for me to write about, as I have been up against this topic myself last week. A few weeks back I was told on short notice that I would no longer be able to run my gambling support group for the homeless- a group that I have invested heavily in during the last 8 years.   When I say invested heavily- I am not necessarily talking about time spent running the group. It was just one hour per week, albeit over 8 years that add up. But I referring more to the about emotion. This group has been an eye opener, a learning curve, a remarkable community and an extremely worthwhile venture. I have reflected on the learning and on the sad stories presented to me far and beyond the hour spent with the group. Their often cruel but honest humour, and ability to laugh at tragedy may seem ‘twisted’ but is an often necessary response to the deep end of human suffering. Needless to say I have derived great joy from helping these men and women, achieve change. For some that change has been at the level of seeing a smile on their face. For some it has been a new suitcase to replace an old bin-liner. And for others it has been the mere commitment of showing up for this one hour per week when everything else has felt chaotic and out of sync. Many have even made real progress in reducing or quitting their gambling, and have made it into accommodation. There was little doubt that we all struggled with this final goodbye after so many years but we were at least all in agreement;  when good things come to an end they don’t need to go on forever in a practical sense. They will live forever in our hearts as fond memories.  We all agreed that it has been a lot of difficult but good times in the group – and we all accepted that it was ending and that a goodbye was necessary.  

This is what I would call a ‘clean’ letting go.  Not sure there is anything called a ‘dirty’ letting go – but I will spend the rest of this article looking at what it looks like when letting go is necessary; but the circumstances are less straightforward.  This is often the case when you have invested yourself wholeheartedly, but the sense of reward and reciprocity has not been present, not consistent or in some cases not there at all. Somehow things are not adding up, it feels unfair and/or unresolved.  Gambling tends to be an activity that produces all of the above, but there are of course other life circumstances too, not least the area of relationships. In both gambling and less healthy relationships, the common denominator is often the case of one person’s one-sided ‘chasing’ and clinging . You have invested (be it time, money, energy, emotion or all them ) but unlike in my personal example about ending the group, here we are talking about those times when there has not been returns on that investment. It leaves you feeling bereft and desperate, obsessed and confused. Like you have been ‘cheated’ or are at a loss. Often even though you have yourself watched the process unfold. This is the daily experience of a gambler. You are trying harder and harder, in spite of accumulated losses. In these situations- letting go is the most logically obvious- but the absolute hardest thing to to do!

Let’s explore some of the reasons why this happens…..

# you feel that you have invested a lot….and that consequently you are owed returns on your investment. Read the below…does it sound familiar?  

‘ but if I walk away now- what did I get for all of that money, time and ‘effort’ that I put in. And what about all the losses – how would I recover them if I don’t even give myself a shot at winning…? Better give it another go in case this is the time that I will strike lucky’

Our human nature often contributes to a couple of inaccurate assumptions. We often assume we should have control over situations and our life (which taking a step back we can immediately conclude we don’t have). We also often assume that there should be a sense of justice to situations. If I do X then he/she/it should do Y’.  If I am kind to someone, they should be kind to me or I had so much bad luck yesterday - today I will be lucky. We might feel that things we do for others should be reciprocated. In gambling this translates to an expectation of a particular outcome that is being ‘earned’ as you are putting money and time towards the activity.  ‘this machine is definitely due now’ ‘it has to pay out soon, I’ve stood here pumping in money for hours….  

It is no news that there is a HUGE illusion of control at play in gambling disorders. In fact this constitutes one of the biggest drivers of the addiction both early days in the addiction and often throughout recovery as well.   ‘If only I pursue my gambling like this – then I will be the winner…’ 

One of the underlying processes that make gambling highly addictive is the concept of intermittent reinforcement schedules. This forms part of the underlying gambling psychology and is why gambling is addictive to human beings.  If you are curious you can look it up, and if not we will come back to that topic another time in this blog. Briefly; intermittent reinforcement schedules refers rewards for a behaviour that is delivered on unpredictable and often random intervals, and sometimes in varying strength. This is known to foster great compliance and high motivation to continue engaging in a behaviour.

# many gamblers are competitive…

hence the feeling of loosing or feeling ‘defeated’ leads to wanting to gamble even more to get a chance to ‘get back’ at the industry for taking your money, time and energy.

# the illusion of control…

(referred to above) one of the well known cognitive distortions that problem gamblers present with. Essentially this is when you fool yourself to believe that if only you applied different formulas/strategies to your gambling, you will probably strike lucky… This type of thinking fuels further chasing and on a purely psychological level it can lead to intense obsessing and ‘clinging’ to the idea of winning.

# if you stop there is often an immediate and overwhelming sense of loss since there is no longer a hope of recover any of your losses  -

this feeling will pass however can understandably be very strong right at the beginning when you try to quit. It may become easy to misinterpret this negative mood state as a signal that stopping is not the right thing to do, and before you live to experience the sweet relief that comes with properly letting go – you go back to cause more damage to yourself

# The gambling may have acted as a surrogate (although a bad one) for emotional coping skills, lift from boredom and escape from difficult problems and feelings.

No matter what role the gambling has played for you or how attached you feel please DO KNOW that whatever excuse your mind is giving you - the fact is that you would not be in the position that you are with gambling if it was a working formula. Put mind over matter quickly before this addiction drags you further down a hole- and ACT quickly even if a large part of you is struggling against. 

# it feels unresolved and unjust.. In human relationships – which ones are harder to move on from? Those that ended with a mutual agreement and understanding that things weren’t working out- and which typically include closure and validation on both sides that things were great but did not work out. Or is it those that left you thinking ‘what the what…??’ how did that happen? Things were great – we were fine? … Well that’s right. It is the latter.  Why? Because the brain does not compute acceptance well when there is no sense of understanding and logic. It is trying hard to ‘come to terms’ with a situation that has not in any way provided you with closure. Hence it tends to become a bit like a broken record, that keeps rehashing things that did not did not happen in an endless, ruminative fashion. The intent of the brain here is generally good- it is trying to generate a better understanding or solution to the problem - but as you would notice if you step back and tune into the rumination, you will soon realise that this type of thinking is unlikely to generate either one. Instead it brings your mood down and leads to more of the same type of unhelpful thinking…

The bitter end of bad relationships often mimics ‘the end’ of gambling to a T.  It is very hard to quit when you feel like you were ‘cut short’ or ‘things were going great’ – suddenly you started losing and you just cannot believe it is possible. If we try and categorize the thinking here on the dimension of denial/acceptance – the further up the ‘denial end’ (i.e., ‘this cant be happening’ ‘ I should not be losing’–) the harder it is likely to feel like you are having a clean break from the gambling. The sooner you accept that things are what they are, like it or understand it or not- the sooner can you start to move away from the gambling as  a source of comfort for the wounds it created for you to begin with.


One of the really hard things in gambling recovery is to accept that whatever you do, did and will do in the future; you do NOT have control anymore. If you win - you go back for more and keep going until all is lost, if you lose you will chase until you are in debt etc

In summary; Focus on the loss of control and try to disengage in the excuse-making as much as possible. It is like eating a delicious peace of food that has started to rot , it no longer matters if you once loved it or it tastes great. If it’s rotten - it's rotten! The option of carving away the rotten bits and eating the rest (as many gamblers suggest they can do when they can ‘just’ do a bit, ‘just go until they start losing’) is completely unrealistic. The rot has spread throughout the entire piece of food whether you can see it with your eyes or not – and will make you ill. It is no longer fit for consumption and you must stop ingesting it to feel better again!


. The only way to win is to quit!!  It is hard to take this leap of faith as you won’t necessarily know how you will feel in the future. To take this step, you kind of have to trust that things will pan out better for you if you stop. Many other problem gamblers will tell you; you will soon start feeling better and can then put your energy to other things that will sustain you better long term. Good luck!

Annika X