Recovery Workshop: Lesson Nineteen
Understanding Addiction IV
Replacing Compulsive Rituals with Values-based Action
The underlying motivation to the majority of human behavior — some will argue that it drives all human behavior — involves the ultimate pursuit of pleasure. That every conscious behavior is predicated on the notion that ultimately, the decision to engage in that action will bring a greater expectation of pleasure to its actor than to not engage in that behavior. Debating the accuracy of such a philosophy is not for the faint of heart, but for this workshop we will broaden this observation to the following:
All human behavior is driven by the emotional stimulation it provides.
For some, this will mean the exact same thing. But for others, they will see a difference between pursuing pleasure and minimizing pain. Both interpretations are correct for our purpose.
In a nutshell (and open to much philosophical debate), all rational human action can be broken down into the desire to achieve a more pleasurable emotional state. This is not nearly as simple as the statement suggests. Quantifying emotional stimulation is a subjective task that ultimately, can only be performed by the person experiencing the emotions. For instance, the girl who burns herself — is it actual pleasure she derives from the pain? Is feeling pain 'more pleasurable' to her than feeling nothing? Is the long-term attention that she receives ultimately more stimulating than the short-term pain? Only she holds the potential to accurately interpret this. Or how about the mother who gives up her life for her child. Was that a purely altruistic gesture? Or was she, in fact, making decisions based on her highest values? As in, she values her child's life above her own. And so, to choose to save her own life at the expense of her child would actually cause her more pain than to simply give up her life. Perceived objectively, her actions created a more pleasant state than the alternative. And what about those who commit suicide? Are they seeking pleasure? In a sense, yes. They are seeking to end the pain they are experiencing and thus, achieve a more pleasurable state.
Side note: If you can think of any examples where actions you have taken contradict this principle, share them in the forum. Don't do this as an argument — because we are talking about perceptions, it's an argument that can never be won by either side. Instead, have fun with it. Why? Because every action you explore in such a way will bring you one step closer to ingraining the fundamental connection between your behavior and your emotions.
Achieving a More Pleasurable State by Minimizing an Unpleasant State
As anyone with an addiction knows, compulsive rituals are not just effective in producing a euphoric state. They are just as useful in avoiding and/or minimizing an uncomfortable state. Stress, for example. Boredom, another. A man sitting in a doctor's waiting room begins to fantasize about the receptionist behind the counter. This is done as much as a subconscious desire to eliminate the boredom as it is a conscious choice to stimulate pleasure. This is at the essence of how your addiction developed...this pattern of using such rituals as your primary emotional management tool. Done often enough, it becomes second nature. It becomes ingrained. It changes the way that you interact with the world. And eventually, it changes the way that you perceive that world.
What can I do?
Once you recognize that the motivation for every action you take can ultimately be traced back to the anticipated emotions elicited from that action (or non-action) — the awareness of your decision-making in relation to compulsive rituals should dramatically improve. The key word there is anticipated. You can't know with absolute certainty whether or not a particular action will produce the stimulation you expect — there are too many variables to consider (whether or not others will know about this action, the reactions of those who do find out, the consequences of the action, the complexity of the action, etc.). And so, you end up making your 'best guess' as to what the right action is — based on your own intuition, values and experience. For healthy individuals, these options are predicated on both short and long-term consequences — with long-term consequence taking precedent. There is a connection between those long-term consequences and their existing value structure. This is not often so for those with an addiction.
For someone with an addiction, it is the short-term consequences (the anticipated immediate emotional response) that serve as the primary factor in decision-making. In this, the role that emotions play in the addict's decision-making process have taken on too great a role. Their values have become so skewed that they base the majority of their decisions on pure emotional intensity — rather than on their values. For instance, they value their marriage but come across a situation where they can have an affair with a beautiful woman. A healthy person may still fantasize about what that affair might be like...even allow themselves to become stimulated at the thought. But their long-term values will take precedent in the decision-making process. The immature person will anticipate the intensity of the emotions they will experience in the here-and-now — and base their decisions accordingly.
What's worse, the sexual addict has already ingrained certain reactions (rituals) to certain situations that they have used again and again to stimulate a particular emotional response. Once ingrained, these reactions are experienced as compulsive in that...once a triggering event is experienced, there is an expectation to engage in the ritual in order to manage the emotions triggered. Earlier, we shared how no one can know with absolute certainty how a particular action may be experienced. This remains true, but with ingrained compulsive behavior, the action/response has been experienced so many times that it is about as close to certainty as you can get. Not the consequences of the action, mind you...but what is certain is the emotional stimulation derived from the action in the here and now. The temporary escape. The temporary euphoria. The temporary "whatever". People with addictions come to know that when they do this (add a compulsive ritual here)...they are certain to experience this (add the ingrained reaction here). And the more certain that becomes, the less relevant things like values and consequences become in the decision-making process.
Changing the Role that Addiction Plays in Your Life
This ability to manage their emotional state with relative certainty takes on a progressive role in managing their life as a whole. Long-term emotional management skills (such as value development and consequence assessment) are replaced by a greater and greater reliance on the here and now. On immediate gratification. At its extreme, people pursue their addiction openly and unabashedly — believing that such hedonism will allow them to best avoid suffering. And in the short-term, they may very well be right. It's similar to coming across an institutionalized person who delusionally believed him or herself to be God — and thus, felt ultimately fulfilled. If they were not harming anyone, and not harming themselves...and it could be assured that they would maintain this delusion until their death...it is ethical to give them the medication that would force them back into a world that offered them little joy and/or fulfillment? In the extreme addict, they make the decision to manage their life through addiction. To manage it solely in the here and now. To base their lives on delusion. Should we force them to recover?
The answer doesn't matter. The only answer that matters is how YOU want to live YOUR life. If you want to use delusion, fantasy and escape to avoid living parts of your life...that is your prerogative. On the other hand, if you want to challenge yourself to master your life, then you will need to master the values that make up the life you are striving to live. That means learning how to rely on those values to help you manage good times and bad.
Over the next few months, challenge yourself to master this connection between your behavior and your emotions. The next time you are sitting in your car fantasizing about the driver next to you...make a conscious assessment of why you are fantasizing. Connect to the emotions you are feeling. Recognize that you are breaking what would otherwise be a boring, non-stimulating event by artificially introducing the ritual of sexual fantasy into the experience. Because you are a student of your own life at the moment, seek out two or three such events a day to assess. It doesn't matter if they are related to sexual behavior or not. You are looking to deepen your awareness of how you make decisions to engage in the actions that you do. As you will see, most of these actions occur in your subconscious and so, you will find yourself assessing them AFTER they have begun. That's okay. Eventually though, to achieve emotional maturity — and certainly to end your addiction — you will need to bring them into your consciousness.
Compulsive Motives are Simple
There is nothing mysterious about sexually compulsive behavior. It is quite logical and rational — though it often involves irrational and/or illogical choices. A life managed through compulsive behavior can often been reduced to our old friend: immediate gratification. You experience pleasure now at the expense of potential pain later. You avoid pain now (through deceit, let's say) at the expense of potentially amplified pain later.
This is the level of emotional management engaged in by most addicts. Addiction allows you to manage your life in a very basic way: do what makes you feel good (or, less bad) now. This is why one of the key areas of recovery is to redevelop your life management skills. To do so, you must learn the value of values. You must learn to use your own values in things like decision-making, goal setting and prioritization. You must learn to develop complexity in your emotional maturity.
The ability to manage your emotions can be accomplished in several ways. The healthiest way is through a pursuit of value-based actions — values that are either universal (socially-accepted) or unique (personal); or it can be accomplished artificially through the manipulation of the body's response mechanisms. One is permanent, providing long-term emotional stability and personal growth; the other is temporary, providing short-term emotional stability and long-term chaos/emotional imbalance. Obviously, the first involves health; the other addiction.
"But what are the values I should base my decisions on? Who determines how much value each should hold?"
Well, you do.
It is your responsibility to determine what type of person you want to be and what type of life you want to live. You make these decisions based on what in life is important to you. In the context of recovery, begin by thinking of your values as those things which, when you are experiencing them, provide you with a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and a sense of purpose. You feel good associating yourself with these traits. Also, think of values as those same traits that, when you are acting in a way that contradicts them, provide you with feelings of failure, frustration, guilt and/or shame. Some of the more common values include: your family; your career; your education; your pets; your home; your car; even your sexuality. Your values can be anything that is important to you and your feeling good about yourself. Or, as was mentioned, trigger feeling bad about yourself when acting in a way that is inconsistent with those values.
Lesson 19 Exercise:
There is no written exercise associated with this lesson. Instead, there is only a call to deepen your awareness of how you go about deriving stimulation in your day-to-day life. For the rest of today...and for all of tomorrow...become 'hyper-aware' of the healthy and unhealthy rituals that you engage in — as you are engaging in them.
Because you will not be held externally accountable for what you are being asked to do, it will be easy to chalk this up as a 'break' from having to do anything further with this lesson. That would be a very big mistake. Your success will be defined by the skill you will develop in personal awareness. So please, do exactly as you're being asked here: become hyper-aware of all rituals you engage in over the next few days. Do not limit this awareness to sexually compulsive rituals... or even to compulsive rituals. Explore all of your actions for their 'ritualistic' nature. Brushing your teeth. Eating. Driving to work. Become conscious of your thoughts/feelings as you complete these rituals.
Feel free to share any insights in your recovery thread, but you do not have to.