Recovery Workshop: Lesson Fifty-Four
Decision-Making: Assessing the Consequences
When deally managed, every decision that you make should be based on all the knowledge you have ingrained from birth to the exact moment when that decision is to be made. The ability to engage in such lifelong learning is the essence of what makes us capable of immeasurable growth and phenomenal achievement. And, it is the basis for indescribable pain and emotional struggle. We identify with ourselves through what we have learned over the course of our lives. Every decision that we have made, every stimulus we have responded to, every trauma that we have endured has had an effect on the person we have developed into — whether we are conscious of that effect or not. Now, the great majority of these decisions are ultimately so insignificant in the scope of our lives, that to call on each as a decision is being made would be both impractical and impossible. Efficiently, we have a means of packaging the most important knowledge that we have learned to date into easily identifiable, easily accessible constructs: our values. And while we have often discussed values in a general context, we have never really discussed in any depth what they actually are or how they can be used in practical situations. Well, this is where they are most often used: in the process of decision-making. And more specifically, as a means of generating healthy emotional stimulation from the consequences of those decisions.
In a healthy person, the majority of personal development takes place by making decisions and then learning from the consequences of those decisions — healthy and unhealthy alike. In such a person, the connection between the choices they make and the life they lead becomes evident. They understand that to take responsibility for their life — in its entirety; they must take responsibility for each decision they make — in their entirety. This includes their reactions to such major life events as divorce, abuse, financial discord, pregnancy, death, etc.; as well as their reactions to the minor life events, like cheating on a test, having a friend steal their boyfriend or the car's radiator springing a leak. Healthy people recognize that while they cannot control everything that happens to them, they can control their reactions to those events — and it is this ability that allows them to derive ongoing emotional stimulation. Such an intrinsic approach often leads to the same emotional intensity/experiences as the addict (e.g. pain, joy, accomplishment, failure, etc.), with one major difference: they perceive such events in reality. They accept that they are a part of the experience. The sadness, the fear, the jubilation, the uncertainty...it is all experienced as normal. And they have learned to manage such experiences in healthy ways. If not, then they learn from the poor choices and move on. There is one core, their inner self in which all learning takes place.
An addict experiences life in a much different way. In an addict's life, this connection with who they are and the actions they take has never been fully developed. Rather than associating their identity with the decisions they have made throughout their life, they instead have learned to protect that identity by rationalizing, justifying and masking. These are not usually intentional responses, but have evolved over years and even decades. For many, such protection initially developed in response to overwhelming situations in childhood that they had little or no control over: abuse, parental domination, hyper-religious morality, abandonment. And so, they learned to adapt to such an environment by sheltering their true identity from the world...adapting a 'dual-identity' existence: the inner self — which is where the most intense feelings exist and where boundaries and values are all but non-existent; and their social self — where the majority of intellectual values and boundaries reside. The patterns of addiction and emotional learning take place in the inner self, while judgment and consequence is experienced in the social self.
With this understanding, it becomes necessary to eliminate the existence of such a dual identity if the pattern of addiction is to be eliminated. Specifically, the fusion of the social core into the inner core. To build a healthy foundation for life, all life experiences must eventually be connected with the development and maintenance of an individual's inner core. To do this efficiently, you must learn the process of learning. Throughout the workshop, numerous references have been made regarding the ability for healthy people to derive positive stimulation from deciding NOT to engage in compulsive behavior. From deciding NOT to go surfing for porn. From deciding NOT to have an affair. From deciding NOT to have sex just because the opportunity is there. And while many of you may have had a hard time with this concept, as you have experienced mainly negative emotions when choosing NOT to engage in such behavior, this is where you begin to learn that ability.
Recognizing the POSITIVE Consequences of Value-Based Decisions
Growth requires that you learn from your decisions...but the potential for learning does not flow in one direction. That is, life does not have to be a giant game of trial and error — where you learn only from your mistakes. The most effective learning stems from an evaluation of both positive and negative life experiences. In addiction, the majority of core learning is reduced to the immediate emotional reactions that are experienced after engaging in a behavior. As the primary emotional reactions from behavior involving — say, masturbation or porn — are consistently experienced as positive — the behavior itself is ingrained as positive. Once this emotional pattern has been ingrained, willfully NOT engaging in it will result in a negative emotional experience. Consider a man who has engaged in masturbation every night for five years. And every night for five years, his masturbation has created a positive emotional reaction. But then he gets married and this pattern begins to negatively effect the intimacy of the relationship and so he makes the decision to quit. Or, his wife forces him to quit. NOT masturbating will be an unpleasant experience for him. And unless he is able to manage this emotional discomfort, it will continue to build until it forces behavior that he doesn't want to engage in: secret masturbation, lies, guilt, etc. Which will provide temporary relief, but more intense long-term discomfort.
This pattern will be expanded upon in the example that follows, but for now, understand that the way of effectively eliminating such patterns is to change the emotional associations that are attached to that particular behavior. And this is done not by forced abstinence or will-power, but by recognizing and learning from the positive consequences associated with not engaging in the behavior. The following example — based loosely on an actual event that I experienced post-addiction — provides a look at the different thought processes involved with an addict basing their decisions on immediate emotional needs versus a healthy person using their value system to make decisions — and the resulting POSITIVE development that ensues.
As I was traveling one summer, the opportunity for me to have an affair presented itself. I was quite attracted to the person and knew that, should we have engaged in the affair, the chances were excellent that we would have gotten away with it. The person who requested the affair knew that I was married and let it be known that she was looking for nothing more than to share a single night together — no strings attached. She was attracted to me and wanted nothing more than to share a stolen moment in the course of our lives.
How I Would Have Responded
Twenty years ago, there would have been NO WAY that I would have said no. To not take advantage of such an opportunity would have left me anxious and emotionally anguished. The helplessness I would have experienced as a result of wanting to have, but being unable to engage in the affair would have been unbearable. Voluntarily passing on the opportunity to experience such an intense passion/connection with a person I was attracted to just wasn't an option. And so, for many reasons, not having the affair would have left me emotionally pained — a negative emotional event.
Why would such a positive decision be experienced as negative? Because at the crux of my addiction, there was little connection between my values and my inner self. I was never completely devoid of values, as I maintained strong connections with my children...with animals...and with helping others. I also felt extremely strong bonds with the women that I would have relationships with. So, I remained capable of experiencing values, its just that they were never internalized. The values that I experienced were attached solely to my social self — the person that others saw. In my mind, I could have rightfully engaged in affairs to nourish my immediate emotional needs, yet still maintain the values that I presented to others by keeping the affairs secret. This meant that if I could engage in such a relationship and get away with it — and in my mind, I always believed that I could get away with it — I would do exactly that. There was no downside — save for NOT engaging in the behavior. This was my experience as an addict.
How I Did Respond
That this opportunity to engage in an affair occurred long after the addictive patterns had been eliminated, and long after I had developed the ability to make value-based decisions, the event itself was seen with a whole new perspective. And, with a whole new set of options available to choose from. Because I learned to use my value-based identity to make such decisions — and thus no longer considered my actions in terms of "what I could keep secret from others" — I was left with evaluating only what was best for the life that I was developing. In other words, everything I did mattered. Every decision was real. Every consequence had an impact on the person I was, and would be. Armed with this functional awareness of my own identity, I knew that as long as I continued to choose health...by focusing on the development of my own identity...I had no place to go but forward.
By taking responsibility for every decision that I made, I knew that no matter how small the action being decided or how justified the rationale I could have presented for making an unhealthy decision, ultimately, what I was facing was the reality of my own growth. In one direction or another. This was a reality that I could quite conveniently avoid with a dual identity in place. Because healthy people cannot lie to themselves, secrecy was no longer an option. And so, because decisions must be made on a daily basis, taking responsibility for every one of those decisions meant developing a stronger and stronger identity with each day that passed. One advantage of basing decisions on developing one's core identity means that every decision becomes an immediate opportunity to grow. This, as opposed to first filtering decisions through whether or not the behavior can be kept secret (a practice that often leads only to keeping better secrets) is where the opportunity to derive positive emotional stimulation from value-based decisions must be developed.
Returning to the affair...because I made the decision to have or not to have the affair based on its consistency with the person that I am developing into, I said no. No big deal. The majority of healthy people would have done the same thing in my position. I said no, that was that...and it was now time to move on. Except that saying no was not the end of the event. If it was, I very easily could have allowed myself to continue ruminating as to the decision I made...wondering if it was the right one. And with each thought, with each uncertainty...a little bit more energy would have been stripped away. My emotions becoming a little bit more imbalanced. Why? Because I faced a decision that stimulated my emotions, but went against my values. The natural reaction — based on my past — would have been to experience a negative emotional experience. Anxiety, frustration, depression. But rather than allowing myself to take that path, I instead began to examine the consequences of my decision to not have the affair. Because I stayed true to my values, because I used my boundaries to guide my behavior, because I refused to allow myself to use the thought processes that I have used in the past to justify such affairs...I now was facing the reality that:
- I do not have to feel guilty or ashamed for my behavior; quite the opposite.
- I do not have to worry about having impregnated someone other than my wife.
- I do not have to worry about having contracted some disease that I may now pass on to my wife.
- I do not have to keep secrets about my behavior — and thus begin splintering off into a dual-identity that is so common in addiction.
- I do not have to expend energy to maintain the lies that I would have had to keep.
- I do not have to spend the enormous emotional costs that often come with keeping up an affair — praying not to upset the woman to the point where she may tell my wife. Or praying that she doesn't have a moral conflict and feel the need to 'come clean'. Or heck, just plain maintaining the relationship — with so many secrets in place — is exhausting. As a consequence of my behavior, I do not have to worry about this now.
- I do not have to worry about losing my family. Losing my wife's respect. Or her admiration.
- I do not have to worry about my youngest son having to be raised without me in the home.
- I do not have to avoid talking to my wife about certain things. Using anger or aloofness as a weapon to keep her at a distance.
- I do not have to worry about the guilt of my behavior affecting our sex life.
- I do not have to worry about my wife wondering what is wrong with her...and why she is inadequate to meet my needs.
- I do not have to place myself in a situation where I am arguing lies with more lies — when I know that we all know that I am lying.
- I do not have to worry about sacrificing the work that I have done on my own site. As though I know that that work is not about me, I do have a certain responsibility to uphold in terms of my behavior — which is why you will never read about me in the newspaper for some immoral act ‹smile›. I'm all too aware of the number of outward "model citizens" that are finally caught living secret immoral lives. This work means too much to me to jeopardize.
- I do not have to spend years of emotionally exhausting energy trying to rebuild a marriage that had nothing wrong with it to begin with.
- I do not have to spend the rest of my life wondering if she "really forgives me".
The list actually went on and on. The point is, rather than experiencing the not having an affair as a negative emotional event, I was able to associate the situation with many positive emotions that have been attached to real values that I possess. Comparing the list of positive consequences for NOT engaging in the affair to the list of likely positive consequences for engaging in the affair (e.g. temporary emotional escape), only served to reinforce the confidence that I had made the right decision. This will then strengthen that decision-making ability even further should I find myself in a similar situation. In a nutshell, the embracing of the consequences of my decision to not have an affair led to a strengthening of the associated values. This led to a reinforcement of the boundaries that protect those values and ultimately, I felt emotionally fulfilled for choosing not to have an affair.
This same approach should be taken on all such decisions involving compulsive urges. Look at each urge/each decision as an opportunity to learn. And then take what you have learned and apply it cumulatively towards the next decision. And always, always, always take the time to accept ALL of the consequences for each decision that you make. It is the most efficient and effective way for developing a healthy identity.
Lesson 54 Exercise:
In your recovery thread:
A. Select a VALUE-BASED decision that you have made in the past year. What were some NEGATIVE
consequences that resulted from that decision?
Example: Last month, I had the opportunity to take credit for the work of someone else. Because I value the importance of working hard to achieve personal success, I decided not to take such credit. The negative consequences that resulted were that I was not able to experience the accompanying praise from my boss; that I was not given credit that would have enhanced the probability of a promotion; that another coworker was seen as being more talented than me.
B. Select an EMOTION-BASED decision that you have made in the past year. What were some POSITIVE consequences that resulted from that decision?
Example: While surfing the Internet, I was redirected to a site that offered a free week of unlimited online dating services. Though I knew that I had no business being at such a site, I clicked on the link and signed up for the free trial because it sounded like harmless fun. Lying about my marital status, I began searching for people to interact with...and engaged in several online affairs. The positive consequences that resulted were that I felt free and playful. My mind was filled with all sorts of fantasies and the online interactions were intellectually stimulating.
The point to this exercise is to reinforce the reality that most all actions have both positive and negative consequences attached to them. When you evaluate the consequences of a particular decision, it is vital that you take into account all of the consequences — not just those that reinforce what you want to believe. In other words, do not fool yourself into thinking that all value-based action is healthy; and all emotion-based action is destructive. To do so is to destabilize the reality of the life that you are building and ultimately such thinking will lead you to disillusionment and regret.