Recovery Workshop: Lesson Fifty

Values Based Decision-Making

The final aspect of developing effective urge control involves a single, yet extremely important skill: that of Values-based decision-making. Over the course of your life, you have already made tens of thousands of decisions. You have made so many choices in fact, that the processes involved with making those choices have long been taken for granted. And while some decisions may have been painstakingly thought out, the great majority of them have occurred with little effort whatsoever. You arrived at situations that required decisions to be made, you made the choices that you felt were best, then moved on. This is natural. This is normal. And for every single one of us, the cumulative result of the decisions we have made in the past will be reflected in the person we are today.

Note: Though your past has dictated who you are today, most relevant to your current position in recovery is the understanding of the cumulative effects of the decisions that you make today, since today’s decisions will be reflected in the person that you will become tomorrow. This will be addressed later in the lesson.

Compulsive Decisions are based on Emotions; Healthy Decisions are based on Values

If you are currently struggling with a pattern of compulsive behavior, there is one certainty in your current decision-making strategy that must be addressed: that the majority of your choices are guided by your emotions rather than by your morals, values or intelligence. As we know by now, this is a constant characteristic in those that struggle with addiction, as it is at the core of the role that addiction plays in one's life. In a healthy person, the majority of decisions are based on assuming the most likely effect on the quality of their life (e.g. on the consistency of that life in relation to their values). In addiction, choices are often made in an effort to achieve immediate emotional gratification/stimulation. This means that long-term consequences, while intellectually available at the time of the decision, are given little real value in determining the actual course of action.

Seeing the Opportunities for Decision-Making

The second certainty that must be understood in compulsive behavior in order to rebuild a healthy decision-making strategy, is that of the individual having lost the ability to recognize decision-making events. Earlier, we talked of the natural tendency for people — all people — to take decision-making for granted. This is true, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. If a child learns to make good choices, those choices then lead to healthy behavioral patterns. This, then leads to more good decisions. You want such a thing to take place without much thought. When a healthy decision-making process has been ingrained — when it functions effectively without the need to expend significant energy — that is a good thing.

Consider the analogy of dribbling a basketball. If you first learn to dribble efficiently, it becomes second nature to you, or ingrained, and you are free to focus on developing other areas of your game. But what happens when such a fundamental skill is not developed efficiently? Or worse, it is actually developed fundamentally ineffectively. In basketball, this leads to you being a destructive force on your team; turning the ball over to your opponents, traveling, etc. If you have accepted your fate, thinking that you are a bad dribbler — and always have been and will be a bad dribbler — you might try to overcome your deficiency by excelling at another aspect of the game, perhaps shooting the ball. This leads to temporary success on the court, and the further pursuit of being a better and better shooter until your entire worth to the team becomes completely dependent on your ability to shoot the ball. Ultimately, you will need to relearn efficient dribbling in order to play a well-balanced game; and this relearning will require you to return to the basics of dribbling. In turn, this will require a lot of practice, and then more practice. You may never become exceptional dribbler, but you will improve your dribbling to the point where it is no longer a weakness. In life, when such a fundamental skill as decision-making has not been developed efficiently, it leads to similar problems in the scope of your life. Problems like addiction.

An important difference to recognize between the basketball reference and compulsive behavior is that in basketball, such inefficient skills can be easily identified. But, with addiction, once the process of decision-making has become ingrained, whether this is a healthy or unhealthy process for the individual, a funny thing happens. Rather than seeing the decision-making event as something that should call upon developed skills, it is perceived instead as a natural occurrence. And so, situations that in reality require decisions to be made are instead perceived as natural events that simply play themselves out, based on the emotions that are being experienced at the time. If the emotions are fairly balanced at the time of the decision then healthy decisions are made. If the emotions are fairly out of balance, then unhealthy decisions are made. The constant factor in this understanding is that addicted individuals no longer recognize the decision-making situations that involve the compulsive behavior, but instead perceive them as natural.

Relearning Decision-Making

The underlying process of creating permanent change in your life will involve a developing self-awareness, ongoing consequence analysis, and an efficient application of the results of that analysis. Because of this process, you will be asked to do something that will not be comfortable or easy for you to do. Over the next few lessons, you will be asked to tear down your 'natural' decision-making abilities and begin rebuilding this skill based on healthy principles. You will then be asked, temporarily, to take a fresh look at situations that you have come to take for granted. Compulsive situations — situations that can be identified with the experience of the compulsive urge.

The decision-making process in addiction recovery is a bit more complex than it is in an everyday, healthy life. Why? Because in most healthy situations, you are free to make decisions and then evaluate the consequences of those decisions. You can measure the significance of a decision — those that are major; those that are minor — by identifying which values will be affected. This then allows you to reserve an appropriate amount of time/energy to managing that decision.

With decisions involving addiction/compulsion, you do not have that luxury. At best, you have increments of about 30-60 seconds with which to think rationally and objectively. Go beyond that and the artificial stimulation (emotional trance) engages. At best, you may have three or four opportunities over the course of any one compulsive action for this rational thinking to occur. But most often, you will not recognize a single one of them, unless you have been pulling out your Values List and forcing yourself to read through it.

The Need to Achieve Healthy Stimulation

A second concern in the compulsive decision-making process is the desire to fulfill some type of emotional need. If you recall, and you had BETTER recall by this stage of your recovery, your compulsions act as a way of temporarily stabilizing/stimulating your emotions. This need for stabilization may result from outside stresses such as people, places or events, and/or they may stem from internal emotional processes like the desire to feel pleasure, to succeed rather than fail. But in all cases — whatever the emotional imbalance present — not acting will cause that emotional imbalance to grow. Anxiety, frustration, stress...some type of action must be taken in order to achieve balance. This means that in order for decision-making to be effective in the compulsive process, the results of that decision must produce an emotionally stabilizing effect. This is a burden that skilled decision-makers do not have to consider. How you do this will be addressed in the coming lessons.

In the coming lessons, decision-making in a compulsive environment will be developed through five stages. First, by identifying the options available to you. Second, filtering those options through your existing values/boundaries. Third, intellectually anticipating the consequences of those remaining options. Fourth, making the actual decision on which action to take. And, finally, internalizing the consequences of that action.

Lesson 50 Exercise:

Once you have applied effective urge control — once you have identified the emotional elements of a compulsive urge, isolated the element that exists just prior to the 'point of no return' and put yourself in a position to make a rational decision in what was once a compulsive moment — the next step is to make the decision and accept the consequences for whatever decision you make.

A. When facing a compulsive urge, what do you anticipate the consequences of using a healthy, values-based decision to manage that urge to be? (think positive and negative consequences)

B. Now consider having made the decision to continue on with the compulsive ritual, what consequences do you anticipate? (again, think positive and negative)

C. For each decision (values-based; emotion-based), what long-term effects will these consequences have on your developing identity and values?

D. Document your thoughts in your recovery manager.

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