Recovery Workshop: Lesson Thirty
Emotions vs Values
Values. By now you should be realizing that they are the primary tool for maintaining fulfillment and satisfaction in your life. They are also the primary tool for gaining control over a life that feels out of control (or feels like it may become so at any time). Unlike emotions, which change rapidly and are heavily influenced by perceptions (and yes, our perceptions are also influenced by our emotions), values are the foundation of stability in a person's life. They remain relatively consistent throughout the course of your life and in adults, only change through focused effort.
That's good and bad.
It's bad in the sense that you will have to make the effort to learn a new way of looking at what you have previously taken for granted — that being, your decision-making process. It's good in the fact that, once these new patterns are established, it will take another conscious effort to change them again. This durability aids those who are committed to a permanent recovery by ensuring that one misstep will not lead them to an instant and devastating crisis.
Most people struggling with compulsive behavior have learned to see their life in the here and now. Yes, they have memories of the past, and yes they can consider and plan for the future; but in dealing with their EMOTIONAL self, the only focus is on how they feel at the moment. And, it is this EMOTIONAL self that dictates their immediate actions. Before going any further, take a few moments to determine whether or not your current decision-making process is emotion-based or value based. Almost always, when it comes to compulsive behavior, you will see that it is emotion-based. The anxiety, the stress, the anticipation, the ache — all of those feelings you experience prior to compulsively acting out — they are all based on your current emotional state. Some of the exercises in today's lesson will actually help you to begin the process of changing to a value-based decision-making process.
Of course, just understanding this concept will do little in terms of the way that you manage your life — there is still effort to be made in identifying, exploring and prioritizing those values. But just understanding the difference between emotion-based and value-based decisions should trigger the beginning of a powerful change in the way that you perceive your role in managing your behavior.
Using Values to Manage Emotions
Imagine a world where there are no emotions. No happiness, no sadness, no anxiety, no love, no pleasure, no pain, no frustration, no urges...no addiction. Every single one of us simply going about our day, doing whatever it is we are supposed to do (whatever that may be in a world without emotion). Now, don't just read and move on. Take a few minutes to really imagine it. Imagine what your life would be like without emotions. Imagine what your soul would be like without emotions. Consider, without getting too philosophical...would you even have a soul? It should make you think. Without emotions, you and I would be nothing more than a physical body and the electrical impulses that produce the energy to run it. All thoughts would be functional. There would be no good or bad. No evil. No hatred. No love. In essence, we would be a machine. What makes us human is our emotions. What allows us to experience the wonders of life — as well as the sorrow — are our emotions. Without them, not one of us would ever struggle with even a single compulsive behavior. There would be no addiction. Life would be...wonderful? Of course, when we reverse that logic, the struggles we have in controlling our behavior can be reduced to the "simple" task of managing our emotions. When we learn to manage our emotions, we have learned to manage our behavior.
There are two types of emotions you need to be aware of in the addictive environment: value-based emotions and behavior-based emotions. Physiologically, they may be identical — I don't know, nor should you care. What you should care about is that you recognize their differences. Let's briefly discuss behavior-based emotions first.
Behavior-based emotions involve the emotions that are experienced as a result of triggering stimuli and the compulsive ritualistic behavior that follows. And so that we are clear, the "behavior" can be fantasy, masturbation, pursuing a romantic interest, stalking, smoking, drinking, gambling, eating or any other action that has the ability to alter one's emotions (which can be just about any behavior imaginable — given the right circumstances). Such stimuli/behavior elicit immediate emotional reactions that can overwhelm a person's value system and, over a sustained period, progressively destroy those values altogether.
Value-based emotions are considerably different. They are based not in the reaction to stimuli, but in the preparation for it. They are based in a foundational commitment to long-term growth and life management. They are based in having developed an open and honest line of communication with oneself. Consider a marathon runner who sprints out to the race lead in the first couple hundred yards. The sprinting causes him to briefly experience the pleasure of winning, but it is not a sustainable feeling. Soon, his body will wear down and all of the tools that he would have needed to win the race will no longer be useful. They will have lost their value. His entire race will be reduced to the single action of sprinting and resting...sprinting and resting. Addiction is similar. The behavior-based emotions are the sprint; the value-based emotions are the tools that will keep him in the race for the long haul.
Developing a Functional Understanding of Emotions
With a general understanding of behavior-based and value-based emotions, the questions that arise should be along the lines of, "Can emotions really be managed or merely experienced? How do people manage their emotions? How do they develop value-based emotions? Should behavior-based emotions be avoided?"
Thankfully, much of what is known about emotional management is universal, though frequently taken for granted. And so, all that matters in this lesson is that you achieve a working knowledge of emotions that will meet your needs. That you develop the ability to see emotions in the context of your life. This, as opposed to seeing them in general scientific terms. In later lessons, you will be expanding this functional awareness of your emotions by breaking down the compulsive urges that you experience and 'measuring' the intensity of the emotional flow throughout the compulsive event. This is a very powerful tool in developing a concrete tool for managing addiction; and more specifically, in isolating the addiction from your core identity.
Universal Truths About Emotions
I. Value-based emotions promote stability
Think of value-based emotions as those feelings that are generated from a collective bundle of related thoughts that all have a central theme — like family, religion, health or education. Themes that are important to establishing your identity. Such emotions are often consistent and stable. Think of emotions produced through spontaneous reaction to stimuli as erratic and fleeting. When your actions are consistent with your established values, positive emotions are produced. When your actions conflict with these values, negative emotions are produced. When your actions are based on spontaneous reaction, instability and chaos results. The trick to managing the two in unison is to remember that behavior-based emotions can produce overwhelming changes in the here and now. Value-based emotions produce powerful, sustained emotions over time. There is a healthy time for both.
II. All emotions have a range of intensity
While we may experience our own emotions in a completely unique fashion, the universal truth is that all of our emotions — from a human perspective — are finite. Their scope is limited. They each have a potential range of intensity from neutral to extreme — with the extreme experience of any one individual being strikingly similar to the extreme experience of another. "But how can you be sure?" Well, you can't. Just as you can't be certain that the red that you see is the same color that I see. And so, you must rely on common sense and rational thought to connect the dots. That, and the fact that you only need concern yourself with your particular emotional range. You only need to understand that YOUR range is finite.
As you develop a deepening self-awareness, you will gain valuable experience in managing the extremes of your emotional intensity and will come to feel comfortable in situations which previously triggered intense fear and anxiety.
III. Values are the Foundation for Health
Similar to the concept of having no emotions is the concept of living without values. In such a world, we would all become victims to instant gratification — in all its forms. We would do whatever it was that made us feel good in the moment, without concern for tomorrow. But we do not live in such a world. We do experience values — all of us. No matter how neglected or diminished a role they play in our lives, they exist just the same. This is important to understand because without a foundation of values, value-based emotions cannot exist. Without value-based emotions, value-based decisions cannot be made.
That is why you are learning the difference between behavior-based and value-based emotions. That is why you will be learning how to mechanically measure your emotions in a compulsive event and to use value-based emotions to guide your decision-making process. You are learning to alter your pattern of behavior from immediate gratification, behavior-based reactions, to value-based emotions that produce long-term stability. The ironic part of this relearning process is that eventually, you will actually experience more "immediate gratification" by not acting out, than you did by acting compulsively. This will come as your dependence on your value system grows and you begin to generate more powerful, persistent emotions. But, such a state is a skill that needs to be learned. And learning such a skill takes practice. It can't just be intellectualized; it must be performed. Over and over and over again until your decision-making skills are ingrained as naturally and completely as your compulsive reactions are now (or once were).
Values and Addiction
If you have struggled with addiction for many years, your foundation of values will most likely be small and relatively meaningless to you. This disconnection with your value system is a natural consequence of addiction and not something that is unique to you. Each value that you do possess (and many that you have lost touch with) began their development in your childhood. In healthy people, childhood values are acknowledged and nurtured by those who are closest to them. Their values are validated and respected. Further, they are often discussed and additional information is provided to help further the development of those values. In those who develop addictions, these values often become violated and stunted. But, they are not destroyed. All values can be rebuilt...and in long-term addiction recovery, this is a necessity.
As an example of a common value that is destroyed in sexual addiction, let's take the value of developing/maintaining healthy sexual boundaries. In a healthy person, sexual boundaries are taught by family members, friends and even by strangers. These values are taught by anyone who DOES NOT take advantage of the person. DOES NOT rape them, molest them, pressure them into objectifying their bodies, etc. In turn, these people learn to explore their own sexuality in a safe environment. They are free to ask questions, make mistakes, learn in a safe, nurturing way. They grow up to value their sexuality in a healthy way. They develop satisfying, pleasurable emotions surrounding their sexuality. Their sexuality becomes a value that they cherish.
Now consider a young girl who was molested by her father. Her progress towards a healthy sexual value system was disrupted. What should have been a progression towards a happy, healthy sexual life was now a value associated with negative emotions such as rage, disgust, confusion, etc. This disruption created a conflict between her values and her emotions and eventually, she grew up not valuing her own sexuality. Or did so, but with much emotional conflict. And thus begins a growing conflict between her values and emotions which, if not resolved, could potentially begin the cycle of addiction and/or other unhealthy behavior.
For practical sake, embrace that all values are learned. Consider the list of values you created earlier in this workshop. Each one has the ability to produce positive emotions. While some of these values may also be intrinsic needs (like survival, social interaction and even sex), the importance they hold to each of us as individuals has been learned. Our ability to comfort ourselves and provide emotional stability — comes from our ability to manage our emotions. Our ability to manage our emotions — comes from our ability to understand and commit to our values. This is imperative because without a base of such values, we are destined to manage our lives through spontaneous, chaotic, behavior-based emotions that hold little regard for long-term fulfillment.
As for living in a world without emotions — that is not our reality. Our reality includes the ability to feel, thankfully, and with this ability comes the responsibility for understanding and managing those feelings. You can manage them through behaviors (like masturbation, eating or alcohol) or through values. The choice — and it is a choice — will always be up to you.
Lesson 30 Exercise:
For the rest of today and all of tomorrow, focus on one specific developmental skill: deepening your awareness of the connection between your emotions and your values. Like a student studying for a midterm, concentrate on how your emotions influence your actions; how your values influence your decisions; how your emotions influence your values, etc. Don't do this from memory...anyone can do that. Take tomorrow to assess your emotions/values as if you were in a laboratory. There is no need to write down your observations anywhere. Simply do it.