Overcoming our bad habits often requires removing the element of choice. We make a commitment to not do the bad habit anymore, and thus the choice is already made and doesn’t have to be made again.
But then, a little later, we make an exception and indulge in the habit. Or perhaps we decide that we will engage in the behavior to some degree, if not all the way. At this point we have created the option to do the behavior to some extent if the conditions are right. So now it becomes a matter of judgment again. The borders have been blurred, and from that point on, we must debate whether each successive situation warrants getting to indulge in the bad habit again or not. Thus, our bad habit has once again become a matter of choice. And this is why we give up on our commitments shortly after making them.
We should set our commitments, refuse to make exceptions, and remove the element of choice.
For the last year I’ve been attending a 12-step group for lust and pornography addiction. Every couple weeks we will have a new attendee who feels embarrassed about being present. Quite frequently they’ll introduce themselves with something like “Hey, so…I don’t really know if I have an ‘addiction,’ per se, but I just figured I ought to come here and see if it feels like it might be beneficial for me…”
Let’s take a closer look at one of these individuals. We’ll make up one called Pete. Now Pete knows that his behavior isn’t what he wants it to be, but he’s uncomfortable with the notion that he is chronically or perpetually enslaved to that behavior. Pete’s willing to admit that he has a “problem,” but it seems a stretch to classify it as an addiction.
When Pete thinks of the word “addict” he imagines a grizzled man sleeping on a park bench, or a nervous kid hawking his mother’s jewelry in a back alley, or a young woman selling her body for drugs. He imagines people who are ruining themselves mind, body, and soul, who are completely out-of-control, who have severed all ties to anyone that used to love them. Those are all clearly addicts, but surely Peter, who goes to church, has a family, and pays his bills couldn’t be an addict…could he?
Choice vs Compulsion)
Another key element that keeps Pete from identifying as an addict is the matter of choice. An addict is defined by his inability to choose, he his compelled to act, even to his own destruction. But while Pete doesn’t like all of the things that he does, he still feels that it is a choice when he does them. His behavior is problematic, but he doesn’t believe it is out-of-control. He does these things because he wants to do them. Granted, he doesn’t always want to do them, sometimes he very much wishes that he didn’t do them at all, but sometimes he does want to do them and that’s when he “makes the choice” to do so. He’s not saying that that’s a good thing, but he does say that he isn’t being forced against his will.
One might ask Pete that if he still retains free choice in this area, then why doesn’t he make a firm and final decision that he isn’t going back to that behavior anymore? If at all possible, try to catch Pete when he is feeling a strong desire to act out and ask him then if he is still in control.
“Yes,” Pete answers us. “I really am in control. I can choose to do this, and I can choose not to. In fact, I think I’ll make both choices here and now. I’ll choose to go ahead and do this just one more time, and then I’ll choose that I’m done for good!”
“Could you choose to be done before this last time instead of after?”
“Of course…but I don’t want to. I want to choose to do it this one time for the last time, and then be done forever.”
“You say that you do not want to choose to stop just yet. In general, are you able to choose to do things that you do not want to?”
“Yes, of course. I choose to do unpleasant things when I have to all the time. I go to work when I don’t feel like it, I help my neighbor shovel his driveway, I skip the dessert line if I’ve had too much to eat. I can choose to do things that I don’t want.”
“Then choose to do this thing that you don’t want. Choose that the last time you acted out was the last time. Choose that you won’t act out again now even though you want to.”
“I…don’t want to.”
“But you have just said that you can, even if you don’t want to. You’ve already claimed that you are in control, but what does that even mean unless you can choose in spite of what you want? That’s what control means. So choose to stop now, even though you do not want to, and that is the only way to prove that you really are in control here.”
How Pete squirms! For as unsure and out-of-place as he felt at his first twelve-step meeting, he soon starts to realize that he’s just as crazy as all the “real” addicts there. Usually by a newcomer’s third or fourth meeting he’s willing to throw in the towel and admit that his “little problem” is actually his slave driver!
A Needed Perspective)
And frankly, that’s why we need to go to a twelve-step group. It provides just this sort of well-meaning confrontation which shows us our own inconsistency. The sooner we go to group, the sooner we feel pushed to give up our pet vice. The sooner we try to give up our vice, the sooner our illusion of self-control is dismantled. It is only when we try to resist against our vices that we feel the hooks they already have in us. We only ever felt we were in control because we had never tried to make a choice that went against the script.
I have made the case that both the addict and his spouse have their individual work of recovery and that each of them needs to be active in it for their own sake. I have stated that this is the only way for them to become whole individually, which is already a worthwhile endeavor, but that this is also a prerequisite if they are ever again to be whole in their union together.
This brings up the question of what happens if both members of the relationship aren’t doing their work? Or what if only the addict is, or only the spouse? I thought it would be worth-while to consider all of the possible configurations and all of the different choices that they lead to. Like the branches of a tree, each individual decision splits into multiple possible futures. Today I will cover the most common and general options, which may manifest themselves in numerous ways.
No One is Doing Their Work)
The first option is that the addict isn’t really working on addiction recovery and the wife isn’t really working on trauma recovery. Perhaps they make an effort at first and burn out, or only ever go through the motions, or don’t even make any overtures towards getting better at all. Whether consciously or not, they decide that the effort of recovery isn’t worth it, and they would rather continue with things as they are.
There are two main ways that this situation might play out. The first is that the addict publicly continues to do behavior that is damaging and hurtful and the spouse continues to be incensed at his choices. Argument and self-justification will be constants in their household, thoughtless actions and harsh words will damage one another, creating great emotional scarring in them both. Either they will have a totally loveless union, or they will decide to part ways bitterly.
The other option is that each of them tries to deny the reality of what’s going on. The addict tries to hide his offensive behavior and the wife knows it is happening but turns a blind eye. For the sake of comfort or appearances they try to live as if there isn’t anything wrong at all, silently agreeing to just not bring the matter up anymore. Of course, no matter of pretend will take away the damage. They are living a lie, and the mutual disrespect will stretch a great hole in their hearts.
One is Working)
The next option is that only one member of the relationship is doing their work. It might be the addict sincerely striving to overcome his behavior, but his wife insists on holding onto hurt and anger, or it might be that the wife is working to heal her wounds and forgive, but her husband has no intention of ever changing.
Pretty soon this disjointed approach will separate the two into very different circles. One is trying to live a healthy and productive life, the other is constantly stuck in place. One outcome of this would be divorce. It might be that the healing partner seeks to move on to a relationship that is on more equal footing, or it might be that the complacent partner wants to stop feeling guilty for not trying.
Another outcome might be that they stay together, but start living totally different lives. Perhaps due to pressures of family or community, they feel that they have to hold the relationship together. Perhaps the member of the partnership who is actually trying feels that he/she must sacrifice his/her own interests to provide greater stability to the children. I believe the risk for unhealthy self-denial is very high here, but only you can judge your own situation.
Both Are Doing Their Work)
The final and best option is that both the addict and the wife are doing their work. The addict is overcoming his nature, the wife unburdening herself from the problems that don’t belong to her. Each of them is looking ahead to a life that is abundant and centered on truth.
An obvious outcome of this is that the addict and the wife find that they can rebuild their relationship. Or perhaps more accurately, they find that they can build a new one together. They sweep out the old and start anew. They will enjoy a union that exceeds any that they had before, for the first time they are building it on a foundation of truth.
It must be noted, though, that even in the situation where both parties do their work, it is possible that they find they are no longer compatible with one another. Perhaps they came together due to unresolved insecurities and encouraged the worst in one another. In this case, it might be to the benefit of both to let each other go with a full heart, hoping that they will find a union that is better fit to their healthy self.
Here we have multiple paths, but really there are only three outcomes. They are a dysfunctional relationship, a painful separation, or mutual wholeness. Each decision comes with a heavy cost. Making real change is expensive up front, but avoiding real change takes its toll over the rest of your life. Perhaps you had intended to spend your time and energy elsewhere in life, but believe me when I say that this is the only work that really matters. This is the work of the soul, and you owe it to yourself to do what is right, no matter what follows.
NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.
“Hitting rock bottom” is a common phrase in addiction recovery and twelve-step programs. Addicts will include it when describing the shocking depths they descended to before they were willing to wholly commit to recovery. They lost jobs, were imprisoned, lost their families, declared bankruptcy, were excommunicated from their church, lost their physical and mental health, and perhaps even found themselves on death’s doorstep. In short, they sunk as low as they possibly could, and then, having “hit rock bottom,” they finally started to look upward.
This pattern is so common that some addicts will attest that no one will ever find real recovery until they first hit rock bottom. It’s not that everyone’s rock bottom is the same, but they claim that one must hit their personal moment of absolute devastation before they can recover. Some will even tell newcomers who haven’t suffered enough hardship from the addiction that they aren’t possibly going to get better until they first get much worse.
I absolutely disagree with such claims. I think there is a real pattern being recognized, but extrapolating that pattern to say it is an absolute rule for each and every single individual is a terrible mistake. No one should ever be told that they cannot yet begin the process of getting better.
The Power of Fear)
But as I just said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real pattern occurring here. I saw it in my initial recovery group of six members. We each had our own highs and lows, but only one of us totally stopped working the program. I have to say, from the very first meeting I had my doubts about his commitment. The most obvious difference between him and the rest of us was that he was still young, unmarried, and had relatively little to lose if he didn’t get better right away.
Well, that’s not true, we all had just as much to lose, but for some of us the losses were occurring in the present, whereas for him much of the potential losses were still in the future. Since that time, I have met other young addicts who were able to stick to a program, even without their feet being held to the fire by the threat of losing marriage and family, but they are a small demographic in our ranks.
Fear of real and dramatic loss is one of the greatest motivators for change. It isn’t the only motivator, and people can achieve recovery without it, but there will always be more scared and desperate individuals in recovery than cocky and sure.
Of course, fear does not properly account for the phenomenon of getting sober after “hitting rock bottom.” Fear is an emotion that comes from potential unpleasant outcomes. Fear is always looking forward to a future experience, usually one that may or may not even occur. But “hitting rock bottom” would mean that the thing you were afraid of has already occurred. The loss has happened, the relationship has ended, the freedom has been taken. Fear has already been replaced with reality. So what else is it about these moments that might inspire real change?
Well, these are pivot points. They are moments that force a huge reality check on us. Up until these moments we might have been in denial, finding other things to blame for our problems, but huge tragedies like these usually make us take a hard look inside. We finally see ourselves as we actually are, and having gained that perspective we get to make a choice whether we will accept what we see or not. We have a chance to say to ourselves “no, I cannot tolerate this. I cannot be this way. I will do whatever it takes to change.”
Each new low presents a new chance to have that introspection and to make that commitment to change. They are stations along the railway, and at each one we have the option to change trains if we want. There is a train station when you are caught the first time. There is a train station when you lose your marriage. There is a train stationwhen you go to jail. One might take the first exit, another the second, another the third, and another might never get off the ride at all.
Thus, “hitting rock bottom” really means the time you reach the pivot point where you finally decide enough is enough. Each person has a different point where this occurs for them, and it is based entirely on their individual personality and choice. Many of us are too stubborn to choose to change until we have suffered great loss, but as I have said already, I do know others who made a real change far sooner on their journey. It’s entirely up to you.
During the past few days, I have discussed the addict who has fallen to his temptations time and time again, yet still thinks that next time he’ll somehow pull through. I made the case that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that all of our desire and willpower combined are not enough to prevent us from doing the things we despair of. When we act out our addiction, our base and thoughtless impulses are bringing the whole self along for the ride, even if some of those parts are kicking and screaming against it!
I have also shared how this is in large part due to the stunted prefrontal cortex that develops in the mind of the addict. One who has given in to a harmful habit for an extended period of time literally has less mental willpower than one who has not. To adapt to this fact, we must consider techniques that will help us avoid our temptations, rather than trying to fight them head-on. But before I get into that, I do want to offer one word of encouragement in regard to facing temptation and overcoming it.
I have made the case that the addict has some situations where he will give into temptation, even if he doesn’t want to. We don’t like that fact, but it is a fact, nonetheless. I want to reiterate a fact that I shared just yesterday, though, which is that it doesn’t have to always be that way. Absolutely we can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, build up moral fortitude, break habits, and get to the point where the same temptations that would have overwhelmed us can now be rejected entirely. Many former addicts have healed their minds and their souls in just this way, and we can, too, but in order to survive long enough to do so, we will need to employ these more preventative tactics that I am about to discuss.
If and Then)
Let us suppose that at last we are able to admit that we are not in such control of ourselves as we would like to think. Let us suppose that we have accepted that given certain situations we will give in to temptation. This does not have to be a statement of hopelessness. It can instead be the first part of an if-then rule that preserves our safety.
If I cannot browse the internet late at night by myself without viewing pornography, then I will not browse the internet late at night by myself. If I cannot walk by the pub without going in for a drink, then I will not walk by the pub. If I cannot go to that restaurant without ordering the chocolate cake, then I won’t go to that restaurant anymore.
If I’m serious about my recovery, then I’m not going to put myself into the same position of failure that I have succumbed to time and time again. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll just defeat temptation in battle, I’m going to secure victory by preventing the battle from ever occurring.
By understanding the parameters and preconditions of our acting out, we can stop worrying about how we will face temptation and instead focus our efforts further upstream. If you’ve let it get to the point that you’re alone in your office with your hands hovering over the keyboard, or sitting on the stool talking to the barkeep, or roving your eyes over the menu, you’ve probably already lost. The time to fight was when you first started going to the place of temptation. You may currently lack the resolve to resist the tantalizing ad on your computer, the smell of the beer, the atmosphere of the restaurant, but you probably did have the resolve thirty minutes earlier to say, “I’m going to bring my laptop out into the family room where everyone can see me,” or “I’m going to see if my friends want to play golf instead,” or “I’m going to try that other restaurant today.”
This is true, because even though the prefrontal cortex of the addict brain has been diminished, it has not died completely. The addict still is capable of higher reasoning, just not when they are not in the face of great temptation. By exercising their reason at a time when the distasteful appetite is sleeping, they can avoid waking the beast entirely.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
One of the most basic components of engineering is the lever. It is a simple machine whereby a relatively small force in one place can be magnified into a multiplied force somewhere else. One may not have enough strength to move a heavy rock directly, but through the magnification of a lever, their strength can end up indirectly moving the rock even so.
Does it matter if you don’t have the willpower to turn down temptation if you do have the willpower to avoid the temptation in the first place? In either case, haven’t you effectively overcome your addiction in that moment? A choice, only made indirectly made through another choice, is still your choice.
It takes some time an observation, but if you examine your life and your addiction behaviors, you will notice that there are certain situations and events that tend to be precursors to those actions. With a little thoughtful effort, you can circumvent those situations and events, and will already make great progress towards sobriety.
But of course, even this is not a complete solution. If we circumvent every opening for the addiction, soon we will experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Cravings will arise, even without our usual triggers to set them off. Sooner or later, we’ve got to deal with that matter of resolve in the face of temptation. And I’ll tell you right now, there will never be an easy win here. It is always going to be a difficult, uphill battle. But at least we’ve cornered the enemy to this one place. So next we will examine how we rely on a willpower other than our own in such moments. We’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. - Romans 7:19
The universal paradox that every addict faces is the notion that they must stop acting out, but they can’t. They have tried to stop so many times before only to repeatedly let themselves down. They are overcome with a terrible sense of powerlessness, a belief that they are forever destined to do the very things that they cannot accept.
And what makes this situation even more frustrating is that part of them still insists that they really could stop. Certainly they possess the physical capability to not do the troubling behavior. None of us are physically required to do any of the things that we wish we didn’t do. It’s just that we can’t work up the self-will to control ourselves.
Except for when we do. I was once speaking to a man who received a powerful insight from his therapist. The addict had been bemoaning that he kept returning to pornography because he had no power to resist. The therapist then asked him what would happen if he was viewing pornography in his room and heard the footsteps of someone coming down the hall. Well, in that case, all of a sudden, this “powerless” man would suddenly find untold reserves of willpower as he frantically ALT-TABBED away from the offensive window! Thus, it was clear that the man could exercise the willpower to turn from his addiction, at least when sufficiently motivated by the fear of being found out!
Can’t vs Won’t)
So, what is it? We seem to be going back-and-forth as to whether the addict can suddenly stop his problematic behavior or not. After some time, I have concluded that the seeming paradox goes away just as soon as we change one, little word. Instead of saying that the addict “can’t” stop their behavior, it is far more truthful to say that they “won’t.”
Now I don’t mean “won’t” in the sense that the addict will defiantly refuse, only that the addict has presented copious amounts of evidence that when subjected to certain situations and triggers they will act out and they will not stop themself, even though they otherwise possess the desire and physical capability to reject the behavior. This is an observable, consistent pattern which we all need to come to terms with sooner or later.
The first truth that every addict must accept is that “if I am alone, by myself, under these particular circumstances…I am going to act out.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to resist, or that you won’t try to resist, or that you’re faking your efforts to be sober. Indeed, the defining trait of the addict is that he really, truly, sincerely does want to stop himself…but he just won’t.
The only logical conclusion is that part of the addict is holding the rest of himself as a slave. There is the part that would live soberly, but there is the other part that won’t let him.
This is a simple concept, but it is extremely difficult to accept. We are loathe to admit that we are not as in control of our own selves as we pretend. We say that we aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, that we are our own master, that all it takes for us to do something is to choose to do it.
But that is demonstrably false. That we are the masters of our own fate is a motivating and happy thought, but it is a complete lie. And living a lie is to remain living a pattern of life that simply cannot work. So long as you insist on this mentality of being your own master you’re going to keep living as a slave to your lusts, insisting through it all that you’re a free man.
I would like to tell you that waving the white flag and admitting that you are a slave to your appetites isn’t necessary. I have tried to find my way around this surrender myself. I have tried to deny my fundamental powerlessness. I have tried to find the external evils that forced me to do wrong against my self will.
But the simple fact of the matter is that if I live the same patterns of life that I have lived before, I will give in to my temptations again and again. Not because anyone or anything external forced me, not because I wanted to, but because I am enslaved to a tyrant of my own making. And I have to accept that fact, and then accept it again and again, anytime my ego starts to think that I can fully trust myself in the driver’s seat, only to be proven wrong yet again.
Now I do have more to say on the matter, including more hopeful messages for the addict, but first and foremost we have to come to accept this sense of powerlessness. This is the first step of any twelve-step program, to finally accept that we willnot do what we wish we would do under every circumstance. Let’s let this notion settle in for today, and then move on to next things tomorrow. I’ll see you then.
Today we are not denied access to the written word of God, as in the Dark Ages. Today the existence of the gospel is not hidden from view. Today the love of God is readily available to any who seek for it. Today we have the ability to do all the right things that are stirring in our hearts.
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.
And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
They will deliver you up to the councils, and ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another Jesus did not mince words when he told his disciples what to expect when carrying his message into the world. And one of the points that he stressed in particular was that they were going to be rejected…a lot. Though the disciples would work miracles, though they would speak with power, though they would dedicate their lives to this work, though they would convince many of the truth, there would always remain those who would not accept their message. Recall that even the master orator Paul, after he had borne a masterful testimony to King Agrippa, was only able to elicit a response of “almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”
For they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me But is it any wonder that the disciples would be rejected when their master was as well? Jesus was turned away from cities, disputed against in the synagogues, and given up to death by his own people. Was it just because he didn’t know the right words to say, because he fumbled in his delivery, because he wasn’t skilled enough in the preaching his own message. No, of course not. He and his disciples faced rejection for the simple reason that people have their freedom of choice, and some just choose to reject the gospel message and that’s all there is to it. It doesn’t have to be that the one proselyting did anything wrong. They might have said exactly what they needed to, but the person hearing the message just didn’t want to receive it. And that is an important truth for us to remember whenever we try to champion the right. I have known those who believe that if they can just find the right, magical words they will be able to unlock anybody’s heart and that simply isn’t true. No one has to accept what you to say. Anyone is able to turn you down, no matter how perfect your reasoning is. If you feel that you spoke with the words that were given you, that the point was made, that the truth was evident to any who would see, then you have done your part. Anything after that, acceptance or rejection, is out of your control. Whatever the outcome is, you must just accept it and move along.