Overcoming Compulsive Behavior, Part 1

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In spite of her mortification over the prospect of being a fat mother-of-the-bride, Meg sits and absentmindedly finishes off a bag of cookies. With his family playing board games in the next room, Peter surfs the Internet, looking for his favorite variety of porn. Although the completion deadline for his project is fast approaching, Tony, rather than working on the awaited project, begins his sixth hour of video gaming. With knees wrapped against deep, intense pain, John loads up the weight bar and pushes through one more set of squats, ignoring his trainer’s advice to rest.

When we continually practice behaviors that threaten relationships, our physical or emotional health, our livelihoods or any other major life area, we may be engaging in compulsive behaviors. A compulsive behavior is any behavior in which we engage for the purpose of distracting ourselves from our selves. Compulsive behaviors produce a physical or emotional result that serves to inhibit our experience of our emotions.

Mother-of-the-bride, Meg, has reason to suspect that the man to whom her daughter is engaged is not the reputable businessman he purports to be. There have been suspicions about his philandering and Meg has witnessed behavior from him that appears abusive. Meg has always served as peace-keeper in her relationships. Rather than risk stirring conflict, Meg finds solace in sweets. Both the negative eating behavior and her expanding waistline serve to distract her from her fears.

Peter’s wife has caught him viewing pornography on several occasions. She has told him how much it disturbs her and she is fearful that the children might walk in on him. She has threatened to throw him out if he continues. Peter is unable to tell his wife that he is terrified that he might turn out to be like his neglectful father, who abandoned the family. He constantly worries that he will not continue to provide for his family. Viewing pornography helps to insulate him from his fears; in spite of the threat his behavior has to the very thing he is most fearful of losing.

Tony, the gamer, has no conscious awareness of his fear of being viewed as incompetent. Growing up in a family where his status as class valedictorian was ignored and he was ridiculed for pursuing higher education has left him doubtful of his abilities. For him, the idea of losing his new job is more aligned with his beliefs about himself than turning in a project that will be closely and publicly scrutinized. He immerses himself in his video games to quell his fears of risking his reputation as an engineering hot-shot.

John was mercilessly bullied in school. He was always one of the quieter and more sensitive boys in his class. He made an easy target to classmates who called him “queer” and “faggot.” When John discovered that his body responded well to weight-lifting, he became obsessed with making his body large and formidable. The physical pain that he endures from his over-training is much easier for him to tolerate than exploring the damage to his sense of self and the internal rage that resulted from his boyhood trauma.

These are examples of compulsive behaviors. Compulsion is defined as “a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, especially one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.”  Children raised in families where there is little recognition of and encouragement to process emotion, grow up to be adults who are uncomfortable with strong feelings. Many people reach adulthood with little to no skill in how to recognize, process and effectively communicate emotion. Under these circumstances, emotion is perceived by the mind as a threat. Threat is perceived as pain and even an amoeba will do what it can to avoid pain.

When the unwanted emotion is triggered by some activating event, the mind that is not accustomed to effectively processing emotion will perceive this as an unmanageable situation. We will react and unconsciously begin the process of moving into our compulsive behavior. Through repetition of the behavior, the mind produces a cascade of neurochemicals that pushes us deeper into performing the distracting behavior. One result is that we are now numbed to the emotion that started the whole process; now we have other things to focus on, i.e. being a fat mother-of-the-bride, fear of being discovered, fear of losing a job or physical pain, to distract us. With refinement of the cycle over time, engaging in the compulsive behavior, itself, can become the trigger for engaging in more of the same behavior, thus shortening and perpetuating the cycle.

The way out of this destructive cycle begins with awareness of the purpose that the compulsive behavior serves. We will, probably, not be able to immediately identify the emotions that fuel the behavior. Our process of healing begins with a willingness to stay present in the discomfort that arises when we don’t allow our minds to habitually react. What emotion comes up when I don’t react? What feelings begin to present when I breathe into a more sober state?

Learning to stand firm in the face of emotion that, to the mind, has always been perceived as a threat is not easy.  The key to moving forward is in the word “perceived.” Although the less sophisticated parts of the mind believe that it will be destroyed by the mere presence of emotion, we can call upon the more rational parts of our higher selves to coach us through. By standing tall and keeping our breath moving we can allow the energy of the emotion to move through and out of us, making room for more emotion. With practice, the mind can be retrained to recognize emotion as something that is manageable and, with more practice, as something that can open our hearts to a fuller range of personal expression.

©2011. George J. Limberakis, LPC. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express permission of the author.

Be sure to look for the next installment: How to fortify one’s self for the difficult process of responding, rather than reacting to, emotion.