Recovery Workshop: Lesson Twenty-Five

Identifying Compulsive Rituals

In the previous lesson, you began identifying the elements involved in your sexually compulsive behavior. This was done because in the hierarchy of compulsive behavior — elements are the smallest units of measurement.

Hierarchy of Compulsion

Study the following until you develop a working knowledge of the terms:

I. Compulsive Elements
These are the smallest measurable units in a compulsive act. Each element represents the capacity to change a person's emotional state. Remember, this does not necessarily mean an opposite change (e.g. from bad to good), but can take the form of any change in an emotional state (e.g. from bad to worse; from good to better).

II. Compulsive Rituals
These are single, perceived actions/events which are broken down into their smallest emotional elements. Any behavior can be broken down into a compulsive ritual, but in is most useful to identify the compulsive elements as a means of isolating your emotions. More on this in the urge control and decision-making lessons.

III. Compulsive Chains
These are multiple compulsive rituals that are strung together to form a primary life management strategy. Compulsive chains allow a person to create a consistent flow of emotion over extended periods of time. They also serve to allow an individual to achieve an emotional intensity not capable of being achieved through a single compulsive ritual.

These three terms make up the foundation of addiction awareness. Learn them separately, but eventually you will want to master how they interact with each other as a single, practical concept.

Linking Elements to Rituals

By now, you should also have recognized that each element of a compulsive behavior links together to provide you with a measurable change in the intensity of your emotional state. This is a critical insight to grasp when considering the functional role that addiction plays in helping you to manage your life. It is also important to understand that the stimulation derived from each of these elements may be positive (e.g. orgasm, accomplishment), negative (e.g. past abuse; shame/humiliation) or possibly both (e.g. physical stimulation producing pain/pleasure). Unless you have mastered your emotional awareness skills, you typically won't be able to dissect these emotions on the fly. Nor will you find much use in assessing them as isolated elements — which is all we have done to this point in the workshop. Instead, you will want to assess the role that each element plays within the context of the ritual itself.

From this point forward, the following is what will be referred to as a compulsive ritual. It is a single, isolated behavioral event that you use to knowingly stimulate your immediate emotional state. The use of this behavior can be conscious or you may not even be aware of it yet. The key is that there has been a historical use of the behavior to the point where a pattern of anticipated emotional response to that behavior has been ingrained. Stop. Understand what was just said. In defining a compulsive ritual, you are looking to isolate any behavioral pattern that you can use to stimulate your emotions. That could be masturbation. That could be watching TV. That could be making love to your wife. That could be belittling your child. Any behavioral pattern that alters your emotional state can be isolated and assessed. And do note, while it is labeled a 'compulsive ritual' — that is only because we are learning it in the context of addiction recovery. For you to master emotional management, you must learn to apply these concepts to any behavior you engage in to help quantify the motivation and function connected to that behavior.

Are Compulsive Rituals Really Compulsive?

As mentioned previously, anyone can use the skill of measuring to analyze behavior, as all behavioral patterns can be broken down and examined — not just compulsive ones. But when the behavior being evaluated involves compulsive action, it means that somewhere along the way, you have lost conscious control over your ability to choose your response to that particular stimuli. Specifically, it means that you have lost the ability to engage in healthy, rational decision-making when faced with this stimuli. From the emotional urge through all associated reactions, the experience is perceived by you to be one long emotional event. And so, when the urge is experienced, you often feel helpless to regain rational thought until that particular event has ended. Until it has played itself out.

This triggers a contradiction to what you have learned to this point in the workshop.

On the one hand, you have learned of the importance of breaking down each compulsive event into separate emotional elements; on the other, because the behavior that you are engaging in is experienced as single compulsive event, the skill of measuring your behavior is useless to you at the very times you need it most. So, why then should you learn it? Because when all is said and done, there is no such thing as compulsive behavior. At least, compulsive to the point where you have no control over your actions. As you will learn, all behavior has the potential to be broken down at the time it is experienced. All "compulsive behavior" can be stopped. All can be turned into rational, values-based decisions...rather than perpetuated as an emotional response. Any person who acts 'compulsively' is in truth, acting through emotional immaturity. That immaturity may be hidden behind ignorance (e.g. "I honestly don't know why I did what I did.") or perpetuated through neglect (e.g. "If I don't learn, I'm not responsible for what I have learned."), but it is there nonetheless. As is the potential to overcome that immaturity and ingrain a pattern of making values-based decisions in any given situation.

At this point, the answers involved in developing this maturity are complex. They involve abstract concepts like isolating your emotions, separating your behavior from your identity and the need to engage in prioritized, values-based decision-making. Ultimately, you will be redeveloping your identity — and how you go about developing, maintaining and managing that identity — to allow you to produce value-based stimulation that is similar in intensity to the 'compulsive actions' that currently prevail. But it cannot be done intellectually; It must be done through practical skill. Mechanical at first, but once you have put the pieces into place...once you have built the foundation for such change to take will all seem quite natural. For now though, you only need to recognize that recovery will not be achieved by learning to measure behavior, but that learning to measure your behavior is an important piece in the foundation for understanding what it takes to manage your life.

From Choice Behavior to Compulsive Behavior

So, how does "choice behavior" develop into "compulsive behavior"? By definition, when you are acting compulsively, you feel compelled to behave in a certain way. Most often, this way involves previously learned behavior that once played a healthy and/or comfort role in your life. Or, was expected to play such a role, but became significantly distorted along the way. And while these behaviors can include just about anything, some of the more common include: love, sexuality, relationships, eating, exercise, games, cleanliness, security and work. For many possible reasons, the boundaries surrounding these behaviors — e.g. the rules that ensure the healthy execution of these behaviors — became distorted and/or lost. Without this firm, rational set of rules, you were forced to govern your behavior with nothing more than your emotions as a guide. In other words, your decision-making process was relegated to more or less a single question, "How will it make me feel?" No matter what the situation, whether it was the possibility of engaging in an altruistic taking a drug for the first time...the primary source for making that decision came from an immediate assessment of how you think you would respond emotionally. Such a process is the essence of the "Immediate Gratification" principle brought up earlier in the workshop. And it is the essence for how compulsive behavior becomes ingrained in your life.

Because you are relying solely on your emotions to guide you, you are unable to engage in a rational decision-making process — something that is key to a long-term, healthy, fulfilling life. When basing your decisions on emotions, you are unable to consider the long term consequences of your actions in your decision-making process. You are unable to see the reality of the situation that you are facing. Intellectually, you may very well understand the consequences of your actions, but emotionally...they don't register. And they won't until those consequences are put into play — which by that time, is almost always too late to be useful. Such a pattern is found at the very root of addiction: the process of basing decisions on immediate emotional need, as opposed to long-term decision-making and healthy boundaries.

To help visualize this process, I will use an example from my own life relating to exhibitionism. As you read, see if you can substitute your own behaviors to help visualize this same process in the development of your own compulsive behavior.

When I was a fairly young teenager, I was on the beach with my friends and saw some girls laid out on their towels between us and the water. I don't know why I did wasn't planned or anything...and actually, I had never even fantasized about it before...but I "accidentally" rearranged my bathing suit — thus exposing my privates so that only they could see. At that time, the behavior certainly wasn't I consciously chose to move my bathing full awareness of my actions. And what a rush of stimulation I received.

If I was to 'map out' this behavior as a compulsive ritual, it would look something like this:

Compulsive Ritual: Exhibitionism

#1 Saw attractive girls
#2 Hoped that they liked me
#3 Tried to get up the courage to talk to them
#4 Recognized that I would never do such a thing
#5 Felt failure at not being able to overcome my shyness
#6 One of the girls looked at me and smiled
#7 Tried again to get up the courage to approach her
#8 Gave up again
#9 Got the urge to communicate with her in someway
#10 Pulled bathing suit over to expose myself
#11 Secretly pretended to sleep — while actually watching her watch me
#12 Felt warmth and breeze on privates
#13 Fantasized about her coming up to me and talking, becoming boyfriend/girlfriend
#14 Felt powerful and free
#15 Began to get an erection
#16 Became self-conscious
#17 Stopped the behavior

That was it. A single, spontaneous behavior that I chose to engage in as a result of a spontaneous emotional urge. And with no healthy boundaries in place, the notion that my behavior might have been received by others in some way other than the fantasy that was playing in my head was inconceivable. Was the behavior compulsive? No. Not at that particular time. Why? Because I could have chosen not to expose myself, and it wouldn't have created an emotionally devastating feeling.

But, because that single, spontaneous behavior had created such a strong emotional reaction...because it was experienced by me as an overwhelmingly exciting, safe and secret event...I began looking for other opportunities to experience those feelings. To experience the thrill of such an intense emotional stimulation. And so, while riding my bike, while sitting on a park bench, while sunbathing at the pool...while pretty much anywhere where others could accidentally see me, I'd find ways to expose myself. And each time, the emotional stimulation I experienced was incredible.

Over time, I learned that certain elements always needed to be present in order to achieve this fulfillment (fantasy, visualization by women, the 'accidental' aspect of the exposure); while other elements could be altered to achieve different levels of intensity. Over time, previous scenarios were no longer capable of producing the same emotional intensity as they once had (habituation); and so I would become more daring. More blatant.

Without realizing it at the time, there came a point in that pattern of exhibitionism where I would no longer seek out opportunities to engage in such behavior. Instead, I would find myself already in such opportunities, and would experience an intense pressure to fulfill the act. Whether I was "in the mood" or not was irrelevant — I had to expose myself in some way, or I would experience significant negative emotions. Stress, anxiety, pressure...and these feelings simply would not go away until I fulfilled the behavior. This originally 'fun' experience had now developed into a compulsion. 'Fun' was no longer a consideration.

The elements of exhibitionism...the initial stimuli (women;public)...the urge...the exposure...the accidental nature...the accompanying fantasies... they had all 'fused' into a behavioral chain...which then fused with my identity. And because these chains had fused with my core identity, I began to see them as a part of who I was. I was an exhibitionist. I was a voyeur. And it felt so natural. In fact, it felt quite unnatural to abstain from such behavior. Again, such is the nature of a compulsive ritual.

I could have just as easily replaced the exhibitionism with other behaviors — porn, affairs, voyeuring, masturbation. Heck, even basketball. They all followed very similar patterns — they started as choice behavior, and developed into essential behavior. To the point where I wouldn't feel comfortable unless I was engaging in these patterns.

The point of this example is to underline the process of how a compulsive pattern develops. You don't just start out with a natural compulsion to engage in such behavior. Instead, such behavior starts out with choice and/or spontaneous exposure, and — when such an exposure repeatedly ends with your experiencing intense positive emotional stimulation — it develops into a compulsive need. When this happens, the additional element of experiencing intense negative emotional stimulation develops should you NOT engage in the behavior.

The Parts of a Compulsive Ritual

Because you are strengthening your awareness of addiction by initially using mechanical learning, there are several 'mechanical' points to each ritual that you will want to begin identifying in every ritual that you experience in your day-to-day life. Eventually, you will need to develop your awareness to the point where you experience instant recognition of each of these points as they are happening.

The Beginning of the Ritual

The key to it all. If you master one element of a compulsive ritual, let this be it. Your ability to recognize when a compulsive ritual has begun will trigger everything else you will learn about urge management. Often, there is no absolute 'right place' to identify as the ritual's beginning. In your mind, it could have begun with the feeling you had as you awoke that morning...or it could have begun with a rejection that you felt weeks earlier. What you define as your starting point will be directly associated with your perception of the elements involved in the ritual. If you perceive the ritual to have begun with a trigger, say...feeling angry...and that building anger led you to masturbate; you may start the ritual the moment you recognized your anger getting out-of-balance. Or, if you perceive your ritual as starting (regardless of the reason) upon the experience of the urge to masturbate, then that may be your beginning. All that matters is that you define a starting point with every compulsive ritual that you experience. Over time, your ability to identify this 'beginning' this will become easier and easier, eventually leading to your recognition of when it starts...AS IT STARTS. And that is the ultimate goal in urge control: to put yourself in a position to act. Rather than to react.

The Point of No Return (PoNR)

Of all the points in a compulsive ritual, this is the one that is 'most temporary'. Meaning, you must learn to identify the 'point of no return' in every ritual you experience, but only until you gain the wisdom to know that there is no such thing as a 'point of no return'. That EVERY POINT in a compulsive ritual is a potential 'point of no return'.

By definition, the 'point of no return' is the point in any given ritual where you know that you are going to complete this ritual. For instance, you are faced with having an affair and perhaps at first, through the early grooming period, you were having sincere conflicts about whether or not you should continue. But at some point, a decision is made to finish the ritual...that is the 'point of no return'. The point where you know that there was no turning back. That while you may try to rationalize, minimize, pressure yourself (through guilt and shame) to not act...deep inside, you know that you are going to eventually.

A potentially easier behavior to visualize the point of no return is in viewing porn. Let's say that a person is in recovery and has sworn off any type of porn. Then, while searching the Internet for something totally healthy, an urge is experienced and the ritual has begun. Initial thoughts include things like, "I have been doing so well, I don't want to screw that up." Or, "I promised my wife that I wouldn't do this." Or, "Just one little look won't hurt." Whatever thoughts may take place, at some point there comes a time when they will hit that point of no return. When they know that they will be searching for images that they shouldn't be looking at — no matter how that search is packaged inside their own minds. That PoNR may be identified as the THOUGHT of 'Just one little look won't hurt'; or it may be an action such as clicking on a porn site. The potential variables are endless.

Your job is to identify the PoNR in all rituals that you engage in. Every one. Do not let a single compulsive behavior go by without your having assessed it to the point where you can identify it's beginning, the PoNR and it's end. One ritual at a time.

The End of the Ritual

Just as the beginning of any compulsive ritual is arbitrary, so too is the end. But, in formulating the functional awareness that you are developing, you must learn to assign an ending to each ritual. That ending could involve cleaning up after masturbating. Deleting the Internet history. Or even feeling guilt/shame for engaging in the ritual (which ironically, is often part of not only that ritual, but also the next).

Summarizing Compulsive Rituals

By now, the benefit of taking a more analytical approach to your compulsive behavior should be obvious — or at least the clouds should be starting to part. By taking just a few minutes to analyze each compulsive ritual you engage in, you will have developed the ability to perceive your compulsive actions in terms of the logical, practical and beneficial roles that they play in your life. This will then allow you to gain a more realistic and functional approach towards efficiently managing those behaviors. Such concrete analysis of compulsions has proven to be a considerably more effective tool for eliciting permanent change than maintaining a general helplessness over what was previously regarded as irrational, unmanageable behavior.

Lesson 25 Exercise:

I. Develop your own compulsive ritual. Make this relatively simple. List the primary elements in a similar fashion as exampled above in Compulsive Ritual: Exhibitionism. Post this ritual and its elements in your recovery thread.

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