Recovery Workshop: Lesson Forty-Six

Urge Control: Isolating the Decision

In learning to manage compulsive urges, there are four skills that are necessary to master:

  • You need to understand the role that compulsive behavior plays in your life (e.g. providing you with a means of achieving immediate emotional stimulation)
  • You need to recognize the series of elements that work together in a compulsive event to create that stimulation (e.g. 'compulsive rituals'; 'chains')
  • You need to be aware of the information flow in a healthy event; and that of a compulsive event (such is the purpose of this lesson)
  • You need to master the skill of decision making (such is the purpose of the next several lessons)

With these four abilities in place, urge control becomes a mechanical issue, rather than an emotional one. Once mechanical, the emotions surrounding compulsive behavior are isolated from your core identity — which allows you to make decisions that reflect your values, rather than your current emotional state.

The Flow of Information

The following will provide you with an introduction to the flow of healthy information/constructive learning, and the flow of information which occurs in compulsive urges/destructive learning. These processes will be evaluated from the initial stimulus through your interpretation of the stimulus to its eventual impact on your core identity. The initial diagram (healthy flow) outlines some of the main issues involved with each stage in the learning process; while the second diagram (compulsive flow) will outline the differences between constructive and destructive learning.

A Constructive Learning Flow

In a healthy person, the most common and basic learning flow involves an initial stimulus (an event, an urge), which is then interpreted (perceived) by the individual. Most of the time, an almost instantaneous emotional reaction (imbalance) will occur. This reaction will trigger the need to act, and so a review of the options that are available ensues. Once the "best" option is selected, the decision to act is made and the person is then left to assess the consequences of that action. Eventually, there is an emotional reaction to the consequences (e.g. good/bad) that gets communicated to the core identity. This core identity then uses this information to alter future perceptions and to streamline options that are available to you in the future (through an adjustment of your values/boundaries).

Confused? Don't be. It all happens quite naturally, and most steps occur without you even being conscious of them. But therein lies the problem. You should be conscious of these steps — at least until you have mastered them. Otherwise, you are opening the door for compulsive behavior to reign. To better understand this process, let's review each element of the healthy learning cycle.

Initial Stimulus

In a healthy flow of information, there must first exist a stimulus — an event that starts the flow. Most commonly, this stimulus will exist in the form of something external: a situation that you are involved in; an erotic image; a person in distress. But, it may also exist in the form of something internal — like a spontaneous thought or urge. There is literally no end to the pool of potential stimuli that you face. Fortunately, new stimuli have no emotions associated with them, and so you are able to screen out the majority of this stimuli without conscious effort. Unfortunately, because the way that you interpret this stimuli will directly influence your emotions, those who have developed an extensive pattern of sexualizing their environment face a constant bombardment of potentially sexual stimuli. This makes recovery from sexual addiction much more difficult than it needs to be.

Your Perception of the Stimulus

The next step in the flow of information is in your perception of this stimulus. The exact same event, say, a co-worker touching you on the arm, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It may be perceived as a sexual invitation, a repulsive violation of personal boundaries, friendliness/caring, flirtation, etc.

There are many different factors that influence your perceptions, but the great majority of this influence comes from your existing values and boundaries, as well as previous experiences stored in your core identity. By this we mean, not just intellectual memories of past events, but the emotional memories that are associated with those events. That is what makes up your core identity. And the more extreme or consistent the emotional reactions to past similar experiences are, the more influence this will have on your perception of current stimuli.

In english... A stranger approaches you and calmly says the word, "snacklefid", then walks away. Because this word has no significance to you (I hope!), you are left to perceive it without any emotional influence (other than that which would be associated with a mentally ill stranger). But ten minutes later, the person returns and smears a tuna melt sandwich across your forehead. You now have an emotional connection to the word "snacklefid".

The following day, a new person approaches and says the word "snacklefid", proceeding to smear yet another tuna melt sandwich across your forehead. The repeated process has strengthened that emotional connection. Finally, upon the next time you hear the word "snacklefid", you immediately pull out a pickle to go with what is about to come — and a learning event has taken place. Think Pavlov — in a deli.

How this relates to your perceptions, is that the next time a stranger approaches you with a similar, but unique stimuli — say, the word "gringlebang" — you will perceive that stimuli differently that you would have prior to the tuna melt fiasco. Your boundaries and values will have changed, which will have had an impact on your perceptions of this unique but similar stimulus.

Your Emotional Reaction to the Stimulus

Until you have made an emotional association with an event, the event is meaningless to you. We organize the originality of our life through our emotions — it is that simple. It is our emotions which allow us to communicate with our core identity. It is our emotions, when managed efficiently, that provide us with the very peace and stability that we seek. Without emotions, life would have no personal value.

In reality, emotional reactions often occur simultaneously with your initial perceptions. From the moment we are born (and most likely before that), we have been programmed to evaluate life based on our emotional reactions to it. The difference though, is that in healthy learning, those initial emotional reactions will continue to develop over the remainder of the event — allowing for further learning and action to occur. This does not occur in a compulsive learning environment.

With every emotional change that occurs, there is imbalance — there is emotional stress. And, from what we now know, whenever we experience a state of imbalance, we have a natural compulsion to act in a manner that will regain that balance. We need to "do something" to regain stability — even when the decision is made to do nothing at all (which is, incidentally, an action).

Review Options

Once an emotional imbalance has occurred, and the desire to act has been becomes necessary to evaluate all possible options. For a beginner, or for situations involving grave consequences, it might be necessary to write out each available option. For those who have mastered urge control, this process will be done inside your head in a matter of seconds.

The Role of Values/Boundaries

In a constructive learning process, each option that was identified must be filtered through your existing set of values and boundaries. It is important that this filtering occur with no emotional involvement whatsoever. You have identified the options, you then filter them through your values...filter them through your boundaries...and what you are left with is your true options.

Assessing the Potential Consequences

For each remaining option, you should carefully consider the potential consequences of such an action. If you recall from an earlier lesson, there is no way that you can be absolutely certain of the long-term consequences of your actions, and so you are left with using your experiences, logic and common sense to guide you. But a guide is all that you will ever have — never an absolute.

The Decision to Act

Once you have evaluated the potential consequences of all remaining options (again, with practice, this can be accomplished in seconds, rather than hours), you will need to select what you believe to be the best option available and act on it.

Assessing the Consequences

Obviously, simply acting on a decision will do nothing for further development, without an assessment of the consequences of that action. This should include both short and long term consequences.

Communicating with Your Core Identity

On an ongoing basis, your continued evaluation of the consequences of that action will be translated into further emotional interpretations. "Did I do the right thing? Was I successful? Am I proud of what I did?" These types of emotional assessments are what help to replace the artificial stimulation produced through compulsive behavior. Also, it is these emotional interpretations of the consequences of your actions that allow you to communicate with your core identity.

Your Core Identity

As your core identity receives these emotional assessments, it uses the information to make changes to your existing values and boundaries. And, most importantly, it creates an immediate impact on future perceptions that involve stimuli similar to what was originally presented.

The following is a graphic of a healthy, constructive learning process...


A Destructive Learning Flow

In a destructive learning flow, the elements are the same as in a healthy flow, but the roles and order of the elements are different.

Initial Stimulus

No change. The presenting stimuli (we will assume it is the same stimuli as the first case) is absent of any emotional associations. It is reality in its purest form.

Your Perception of the Stimulus

Being that your perceptions are directly influenced by your core identity, the more success you have had in temporarily managing your emotions with compulsive sexual behavior, the more your core identity will interpret new stimuli as sexual. And, the more your values/boundaries will reflect this sexualization as well.

Your Emotional Reaction to the Stimulus

In a constructive process, your emotional reaction occurs initially, then continues on throughout the life of the event, providing ongoing feedback and learning cycles. This is not the case in a destructive learning process. Here, only the initial emotional reaction is considered in making the decision to act. Once this emotional reaction has been recognized, the focus shifts to the action and the consequences of that action — not to the stimuli itself.

Review Options

In a destructive learning process, only those options (e.g. compulsive actions) that have proved successful in stabilizing emotional imbalances in the past are recognized. Other options (e.g. socially-acceptable options) might be reviewed, but only to appease the conscience. They are rarely seen as realistic or viable.

The Role of Values/Boundaries

Boundaries do not exist. Values, on occasion, can play a small, desperate role in forcing a re-evaluation of the options, but are usually relegated to one of two roles: 1) as a conscience-appeasing afterthought to stimulate guilt/shame; or 2) as an element in the compulsive chain — creating further emotional imbalance by intensifying the awareness between what you should do...and what you know you will do. Resulting in a greater relief upon the compulsive act.

Assessing the Potential Consequences

Rarely done, as most consequences are seen as 'all or nothing'. They are filtered through the belief that because the consequences will only matter if they are caught acting out — and because they have no concept that they will be caught (at least not this time) — they defer any real emotional evaluation of the consequences. And continue deferring until it is too late.

The Decision to Act

Based solely on the need to achieve immediate emotional relief. Again, even when that 'relief' involves emotional chaos or other extremes.

Assessing the Consequences of that Decision

The assessment of the consequences will rely largely on whether or not they are caught. And because the great majority of times that people engage in compulsive behavior are not caught, they assess the decision to act out as hugely successful. They were able to overcome an emotional crisis in a quick and efficient manner...with what they perceive to be no immediate consequences.

Over many months or years, they can begin to perceive the destructive consequences that have evolved as a result of their behavior, but we are limiting our discussion here to a single learning event.

Communicating with Your Core Identity

The largely positive emotions that have been associated with the sexually compulsive behavior are then communicated to your core identity. This information is then used to adjust your perceptions, which will become more and more will your values.



Your goal in this lesson is to be able to identify the different parts of the learning processes in your own life. There are many variations...and often, these elements overlap with multiple events being processed simultaneously. But the underlying patterns are almost always the same. Of special interest to you, is in developing a visual conception of how your emotions communicate with your core identity. That is, they are not your core identity, but a method of communication. Once you have isolated these emotions from your core identity, it becomes significantly easier to visualize your role in managing your urges.

Lesson 46 Exercise:

This next step in urge control is quite simple. It is the transition in thinking from the identification of a time where action can be taken, to the realization that action will be taken. It is the realization that you are in control over whether you continue engaging in your established compulsive ritual, or whether you engage in alternate behavior that will establish new chains — preferably, ones based on values.

A. In the long run, addiction is eliminated by altering the existing compulsive behavior (destructive, based on immediate emotional needs) to more stable, constructive chains that solidify the foundation of your life in a progressive manner. Before such compulsive chains can be reversed, it is necessary to begin mastering the ability to reverse single compulsive rituals. Begin this process now by considering a previous compulsive chain, identify the element immediately preceeding the 'point of no return' and then rewrite the remainder of the chain so that your actions are based on healthy values, rather than immediate emotional response. Share this in your recovery thread.

B. Initially, this may feel awkward. The emotions derived from a compulsive act is often much more intense than that capable of being achieved through long-term values. And while there are ways to address this, know that it is similar to switching from Coke to Diet Coke (or Pepsi!). It may taste unappealing at first, but stick with it and you will soon wonder how you could have ever liked the taste of the original.

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