Natural Mind Magic

Letting go of compulsive behaviour

Kalden and Samten
Kalden and Samten

Unwanted compulsive behaviour can be problematic in itself, tying up time and energy that we would prefer to have available for other things. It can also lead to further problems with health, finances, self-confidence and relationships. We owe to ourselves and the other people in our lives to become free of compulsion and reclaim control of our actions.

Compulsive behaviour is more than just a mildly annoying bad habit. Although people may use words like 'addiction' or 'compulsion' to refer to relatively trivial things like having three chocolates instead of two, minor greed shouldn't be confused with addiction! The term 'compulsive behaviour' can be used to describe any repetitive action we do as though against our will: we don't want to do it, but somehow we can't stop ourselves. It may involve ingesting some kind of physiologically addictive substance, such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or heroin; or it may not. Biting your nails, washing your hands, binge-eating, gambling, or shopping can be just as compulsive as smoking; there seems to be a kind of internally generated 'addiction' to the excitement, anticipation, and satisfaction associated with the activity; scientific research indicates that this may be linked to the body's release of 'feel-good' substances called endorphins.

If the urge to engage in the behaviour is resisted, it intensifies until the person gives in to the desire. This leads to a temporary alleviation of the uncomfortable feeling; often followed by guilt or even disgust. After a while the urge arises again, sometimes associated with an identifiable external trigger, sometimes not, and the cycle repeats itself. The important points are that it's extremely difficult or even impossible to resist the impulse to do it; the satisfaction gained is temporary; and there is some kind of inner conflict between the wish to indulge in the behaviour and the wish to resist it.

Typically, people engage in the inner conflict, trying to combat the impulse with willpower. When this fails they label themselves as 'weak-willed', which adds to their self-disgust. Struggling to assert willpower against a powerful compulsive urge is ineffective. All that happens is that one part of your mind fights against another part. The process is exhausting and unpleasant. And, very often, even if your willpower manages to subdue the impulse for a while, the urge will resurface later, for example the serial binge-drinker, climbing on the wagon and falling off over and over again; or the person who stops smoking, only to start stuffing cakes and chocolate instead.

So if willpower doesn't work, what to do? The key to dealing with compulsive behaviour lies in resolving the inner conflict associated with it. This means recognising that the impulse to engage in the behaviour is actually motivated by a positive intention: it's an attempt to feel better, usually to alleviate some kind of unease or agitation. When you look at it like that, you can see that the obvious thing to do is to find other, more constructive ways to alleviate that unease. This means you may need to address other issues in your life, of which this is only a symptom. You must acknowledge your deeper emotional needs, for example for love, comfort, forgiveness, excitement, freedom, security, personal space and creative expression – it's a long and varied list, for people differ. And then you must take responsibility for finding other, better ways to honour those needs.

By learning better ways to honour your needs, you'll find the old compulsive urge loses its force and drops away and you can leave it behind you. Find out what works for you. Many people turn to yoga, meditation, and some kinds of therapy as ways to learn to find their own fulfilment. And as well as exploring and experimenting on your own, you may find it useful to enlist professional help. Employing professional assistance is not a sign of weakness; it's a matter of taking responsibility for addressing a problem that has been damaging you and others around you.

Here are some useful immediate techniques you might like to try. They will enable you to interrupt the build-up of the impulse and redirect the energy in a different, more constructive direction.

First is awareness: noticing what's happening. If you catch the impulse as it begins to come up, you can do something about it. If you wait until it's at full strength, it's harder to deal with. So pay attention to what's going on in your body, so you notice the tension in the shoulders or the fizzy sensation in the belly or whatever it is that lets you know you're beginning to feel uneasy.

Second is response. Having noticed the impulse arising, you'll need to respond to it skilfully. Generally, we tend to react to an urge in one of two ways: we either indulge it, or we deny it. But there's a middle way, avoiding these two extremes. It's possible to allow the impulse to arise, remain, and pass, without reacting to it at all. While that may sound simple, it's not easy; it takes practice. Another method, which sounds more complicated, is actually easier to do. As the impulse comes, ask yourself, 'What do I want?' Don't settle for the obvious answer! Go deeper, asking yourself: 'OK, and if I do that, what do I want to get by doing that? How do I want to feel?' You're asking for an emotional response: the alleviation of the unease associated with the impulse. Usually it's some kind of peaceful, relaxed sense of fulfilment. It's what the impulse is prompting you to seek, and, by being attentive to your own present moment of experience and asking yourself what you really want, you can find that fulfilment now without actually engaging in the behaviour. The behaviour was merely a means to an end, and if you can get the result without indulging in the behaviour, then, hey presto, you can drop the behaviour.

Thirdly, the sense of ease, relief, fulfilment that you're seeking is very closely linked to relaxation. So if you can train yourself to notice the physical tension associated with the impulse and immediately respond to it by taking some deep breaths and relaxing, you will interrupt the build up. Relax repeatedly, breath by breath, until the tension has dissolved. The more often you do this, the easier it gets, as you develop a kind of automatic 'relaxation response'.

Another way to interrupt the build up of tension is to release the energy by moving. Even just a stretch will help. Getting up and moving about is better, while jumping up and down is better still! And it's important to include some kind of vigorous exercise as part of your regular routine.

Lastly, any kind of distraction can help to interrupt a habitual pattern. If you know that a particular sequence of activities or combination of circumstances is likely to trigger the impulse, do something different! For example, if you know you always want a cigarette after dinner, leave the table as soon as you've finished eating and go and brush your teeth; this will break the usual sequence of events and redirect you more positively.

The compulsive behaviour you've been experiencing as a problem has actually been motivated by the wish to alleviate unease. There's nothing wrong with that – you just need to find better ways to do it! It's important to avoid identifying yourself as having 'an addictive personality' or as being 'an addict'. Such labels make things worse by inducing a sense of helplessness: after all, if you're an addict, it's only natural to behave like one. It's much more constructive to think of yourself as someone who wants to learn better ways to do things, and has the intelligence and ability to do so.

Think how wonderful it would be to be free of the tyranny of compulsive behaviour, back in charge of your life. Not only would you be happier and feel better about yourself, but the other people in your life would also benefit.

You might like to start practising the immediate strategies now to gain confidence and familiarity with them so you'll be ready to use them when you want them. Remember to:

be aware of how the impulse is arising;

respond skilfully, neither indulging nor denying the impulse, but seeking the emotional response you want;

relax and breathe deeply to release tension;

move and stretch to dissipate energy; and

distract yourself to interrupt a sequence of habitual steps.

I hope you've found this short article useful. Thank you for reading it. I wish you well on your journey.