Recovery Workshop: Lesson Fifty-Seven
Reactive Action Plans
Action Plans: Developing the Plan
Before we implement action plans into our lives, let us first review some rather important concepts relating to compulsive behavior.
As you should know by now, compulsive urges are triggered by your ingrained perceptions of stimuli (e.g. what most people refer to as "triggers"). This stimuli can come in the form of something you see (a picture, a person), a way that you feel (bored, angry, depressed), or in just about any form that is capable of triggering an emotional connection. Note the critical words here: 'your ingrained perceptions'. It is not the stimuli itself, but your perceptions of that stimuli that trigger the emotional urge. Quite often, when the compulsive process has become ingrained, these emotional urges are extremely intense, requiring action on your part to alleviate the anxiety that accompanies such urges. Once you have acted, and the anxiety has been effectively relieved — the way in which you have acted is further ingrained into your core identity as a successful way to manage such an urge. Long term consequences are not considered — only the immediate urge to regain emotional balance.
This is critical to understand in long-term urge control: it is our thoughts that drive our actions, not our emotions. But the influence of our emotions over our thoughts can be considerable, and so we need to gain an awareness of how our emotions influence those thoughts — and action plans allow us to do just that.
Taking this one step further, integrating the use of action plans into your life will assist you in changing the emotional associations related to your perceptions of 'triggering events' — WITHOUT HAVING TO EXPERIENCE THE DESTRUCTIVE CONSEQUENCES FIRST. In other words, you will now begin to put into practice the action of mastering your emotions as they relate to the stimuli around you. It is a much more effective process for change than the "trial and error" method. And, you will not need to subject yourself to the actual stimuli — making it a much safer and convenient method for learning. The skills involved with creating action plans go hand-in-hand with making value-based decisions — and often overlap considerably.
Action Plans: What are they? How are they used?
Action plans are recovery tools that allow you to further ingrain the process of healthy decision making into your life. Taking anywhere from five to fifteen minutes to create, each action plan allows you to intellectually define the elements involved in a potentially compulsive situation. They allow you to examine your values, how those values can be used in making the right decisions, and to review potentially triggering situations long before they occur. Additionally, they can be used for assessing past situations where you have engaged in compulsive behavior, as well as to assess current and future compulsive events. It is the latter that is most effective in transitioning from being "in recovery" to living a healthy life.
To help you better understand action plans, I will describe for you how they have been (and continue to be) used in my own life:
As I first began the recovery process — the true recovery process, not the ritualistic one I was initially guided towards — I found myself at a complete loss for what was 'normal'. In dissecting my life, I discovered that I had sexualized and/or romanticized just about every aspect of my life — from friends to family to patients to social activities to...well, you name it. The emotional attachments that I had developed to all of these areas were significantly skewed through the sexual and/or romantic patterns that had I had ingrained into my core identity over the years.As a result, though I was completely committed to overcoming my addiction, and changing my life — I found myself continually engaging in behavior that, at the time, seemed completely normal, but after the relationship was over, I'd look back and think, "What the...?! Why would I do that? That's not normal. That's not healthy." And I would learn from it, ingrain it into the person I was developing into, and never do it again. A wonderful way to grow, but not the most efficient.
By the end of the first year, I had eliminated all obviously destructive behavior and felt fairly confident that the changes that I was making in my life were real and permanent. But it was the subtle behaviors that would consistently trip me up. The ones that weren't black and white. Things like, "Is it okay to masturbate (at one of any number of situations)?" "Is it okay to have sex with a woman I've only been dating a week — even though we both want to?" "Is it okay to watch movies that have nudity in them?" The toughest behavior for me involved the romantic side of the addiction...as behavior can be enormously easy to rationalize/justify when the feeling of 'love' is involved. So, during the second year of recovery, I found myself having only to deal with the subtle issues or rebuilding my life — which was much easier than the urge control issues of the first...and, much more difficult.
Why it was more difficult was because the consequences of the behavior in question could not be clearly defined. Most often, it wouldn't be until much later that the behavior could be categorized as either healthy or unhealthy — and by that time, the decision-making process had been completed. And, should the behavior be deemed unhealthy, I would then overwhelm myself with thoughts of hopelessness, frustration and shame. "Why couldn't I see this before?" "Why do I always seem to make the wrong decisions when it comes to such behavior?" I didn't always make the wrong decisions, but it seemed that way whenever a seemingly obvious event would occur that would totally blind side me. And therein lies the role that Action Plans have played in my life: they have kept me from getting blind sided.
Time after time, the process of make mistake...learn from mistake...make new mistake...was the impetus for my growth...as well as the feelings that I would never be 'normal'. That I would always have to be aware of the sexual and romantic triggers that were everywhere. Still, it was better than choosing to live a destructive life, so I was happy with the progress. Then, it hit me. Why must I wait to experience the destruction from such events before I learn from them? The events themselves will not change — whether they are experienced now, or in fifty years. All that will change will be the way that I perceive them...and the decisions that I make when I encounter them. So what is stopping me from exploring the events now — before they happen? Nothing. It was such a simple thought — already applied to many other areas of my life...yet the thought had never occurred to me to role-play such compulsive events in advance. To train ingrain more healthy perceptions of those events — long before they occur. In other words, to see them as 'recovery triggers' as opposed to 'relapse triggers'. And oh how it worked.
At first, I found myself reviewing many of my past compulsive events, and seeing those events with so much more clarity. Why? Because the associated emotions had been removed. Then, I began role-playing potential situations that I had yet to face, but that were likely. And again, without the emotions guiding the decision-making process, I was free to see the situation objectively. Free to explore the consequences of the different options available to me. Free to make the decisions that were based on my value system. Free to feel good about making such decisions. And a funny thing happened, when these situations began playing themselves out in real life, I found myself acting in the ways that I had role-played. Found myself making the right decisions, and feeling good about them. No more trial and error in recovery...I now had the ability to prepare myself for success — right from the start. Eventually, it became a game that I would play inside my head several times a day or more — thinking of potential situations, then thinking of the right way of handling those situations.
In a sense, this was still fantasy — but rather than the fantasy playing out in destructive action, it would play out in constructive, value-based action. And without any question it worked. Over the years, this tool has helped me to prepare not only for potential unknown situations, but has become a regular exercise that I use with upcoming events. Conferences, trainings, vacations, social events...before I attend such things, I mentally prepare myself. Always. Now, because I have done this for so long, most any situation that can possibly arise in my life has already been thought of, and the accompanying response ingrained into the core of who I am. That makes such situations things to look forward to and enjoy, rather than fear.
Developing an Action Plan
Developing an action plan is quite simple. There are no steadfast rules, no concrete information that must be obtained. They can be created on paper, recorded on cassette or video, or simply played out in your head. They can be created while sitting at your desk, changing your babies' diaper or driving in a car. Or, you can set aside fifteen minutes each day to envision a new situation, and the accompanying action plan. The specifics do not matter. All that matters is that you make a routine of associating new actions with potentially triggering stimuli — before that stimuli appears. That way, if/when it does appear in your life, you will have already gained experience in how you will respond. You will already have examined the most likely consequences of such behavior, will have learned from those consequences, and all of this will culminate in the decision-making process being that much easier.
Lesson 57 Exercise:
Create an action plan for managing your most common compulsive ritual using the following guide:
1) Define the situation. Be as specific and graphic as you can — as it is the stimuli that you are striving to change your emotional associations with. For instance, instead of identifying a situation as: A woman approaches me and is interested in having an affair. Be specific: An attractive woman is flirting with me at the playground that our children are playing at. She sits next to me on the bench and engages me in pleasant conversation. She hints that she will be here next Thursday. Several days later, we meet at a school function and again, we engage in very pleasant, stimulating conversation. After several hints, she invites me to come to her house while the kids are at school so that she can show me a project that she is working on.
The former will do little to actually trigger emotional responses; the latter will allow you to experience several elements of the beginnings of an affair. And will allow you to define numerous options relating to your decision-making relating to that affair. For instance, when she invites you to her home, you respond, "My wife would kill me. But I would love to see your work some other time...perhaps you and your husband would like to come to our house for dinner?" Kind of cheesy, I know...but that is not important. What is important is that you have begun to prepare yourself for such a situation, and that you have begun to switch your perceptions from this being a possible relapse triggering event — which will happen when you fantasize what it would be like to be alone with this woman; to a certain recovery triggering event — as you further ingrain your boundaries, values, etc. into your decision-making process.
The next time, you tweak the situation a little more...then even more. Eventually, with several months of experience, this process of planning the actions that you will take when confronted in certain situations will be mastered, and you will then have the ability to generalize it to situations that you had never envisioned.
2) Evaluate all realistic options. Just like in the decision-making process, you will need to look at all possible actions that you would have available to you in such a situation. This does not mean to evaluate only the healthy options, but to consider all of the most realistic options you might engage in — given your current place in recovery. Your goal in such an exercise is not to avoid and/or deny that you have compulsive urges, it is to become aware of them and their role in your life. Hopefully, if a healthy option does not already exist, you will have created one by the end of the plan.
3) Evaluate the potential consequences of the option(s) that you choose. In decision making, you need only to evaluate the consequences of those options which fall within your established boundaries. Here, when working within the constructs of your own mind, you are free to remove those boundaries and explore all of the emotions associated with an absolutely unlimited number of behaviors. Also, in life, you often can make only one decision — you either engage in the affair, or you don't. Here, you have the ability of playing out any number of options — but it is essential that you always play out the options to their value-based end.
4) Make a decision as to which value-based option you would choose. Once you have selected an option, role-play the situation over and over again in your mind — seeing yourself choosing this option every time.
5) Optional: Keep a journal of different situations, options, choices, etc. While this is not mandatory, such a collection of written action plans can be used in actual decision-making situations to further remove the emotional influences on immature decision-making skills.
Whether you formalize the action plan process or not, all that is critical is that you see yourself selecting the value-based option every time. This is what will ingrain the necessary emotional attachments that will allow you to experience immediate emotional fulfillment and satisfaction at the time of an actual decision — should such a decision ever be necessary.