By Guest Author Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.
Kevin thought he was addicted to pornography. “I must be. I’ve tried so hard to stop. I’ve worked for the last five years at it, and yet I still can’t kick the habit completely.” When I talked to him about his approach, it sounded like he was doing almost everything right. He had opened up to his family about the problem and would talk to them about lapses. He had sought the help of his bishop and met with him regularly. He was participating in the Church’s addiction recovery program and regularly attended their 12-step group meetings. He maintained a habit of regular prayer and scripture study.
It sounded to me like Kevin was doing everything right except for one thing: he was still in the habit of locking horns with the devil. Terry Warner said, “Satan does not need to overpower us in order to win the war. He only needs to get us to adopt his way of fighting it.” On a typical day, Kevin might be going through his routine, doing well and feeling good. However, if temptation it, he’d start to brace himself, focus real hard on doing well, and redouble his efforts to avoid a problem. Sometimes his approach “worked” and he avoided giving in that day. Too often, despite all the effort and energy he exerted, he failed. Sure, he may fight for a while. But later that day or sometime the next day—occasionally his fight lasted several days—Kevin almost always eventually gave in once an intense battle got going.
I shared with Kevin my opinion: that it was not the initial trigger, not the temptation itself, but his way of dealing with it, that was the beginning of his downfall. So what, exactly, is the problem with fighting temptation with all our might, as we may feel compelled to do when a strong urge or craving hits? To answer that question, let’s consider our reaction on four dimensions:
• Attitude: When we fight temptation, we do so with a sense of urgency. This certainly makes sense: it’s a threat to our spirituality, our sense of confidence and well-being, and perhaps even our success in life. The problem couldn’t be much more important than it is.
• Body: When we brace against temptation, our bodies react by tensing up. We become physiologically aroused in order to deal with the threat. We’re on alert and ready to “fight or flee.”
• Mind: Our consciousness narrows and we become very focused—sometimes even fixated. Mentally we know what the problem is and know that it’s a challenge we haven’t yet figured out how to overcome. Our mind is primed and ready to devote significant mental voltage to the threat.
• Behavior: We feel driven to take action against temptation. We feel like we “can’t” give in and “have to” resist urges. We vacillate between that and feeling like we “have to” give in and “can’t” resist anymore.
In the 121st section of The Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord describes two different approaches to the exercise of power and influence. The Lord labels the first “unrighteous dominion.” It is characterized by the attempt to exert control by way of dominion or compulsion (v. 37). In our efforts to get what we want from other people, every one of us has at least experimented with this approach. I can tell you from experience, we never become more influential by being coercive. Of course, it may work great for getting our way in the moment, but people end up resenting our pushiness. Any influence we have evaporates once we walk out of the room.
Whenever I get pushy—whether it’s with my kids, with another driver on the road, or with a customer service representative on the telephone—I end up feeling less powerful. Not only that, I end up being less powerful. People simply do not respond well to coercion. Instead of cooperating, quite often they rebel. The driver I tailgate slows down. If I tell my three-year-old, “You can’t watch TV any more, you have to go to bed,” I’ll be peeling little fingers off stair railings and door frames all the way up to his bedroom.
As human beings, everything inside of us yearns to remain free and stay in charge of our own lives. David O. McKay has said that “next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man” (Gospel Ideals, 1993, p. 299). Even if the driver in front of me doesn’t believe in God, even though my three-year-old doesn’t understand the Plan of Salvation, they, like all of us, instinctively value their agency and will fight fiercely to retain it. Every one of us is determined to maintain independence, especially if we sense that someone is trying to force us to do something.
If a coercive approach fails miserably when it comes to influencing other people, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that things don’t go well when we adopt it in an attempt to change our own behavior. If our Father in Heaven wouldn’t allow Satan to tell us we can’t sin and have to obey, do we really believe that he might bless our efforts when we adopt to the same mentality or methods on ourselves?
Fortunately, there is a second form of influence described in D&C 121. It’s quite unlike unrighteous dominion both in terms of the way it operates and the effect it has. It is characterized by persuasion, long suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge (which is described as “greatly enlarging the soul”), and a lack of hypocrisy or guile (vv. 41-42).
I’m reminded of this gentle, easygoing approach when I talk with those who have established a solid, long-term recovery from a formerly compulsive behavior. When I talk with people who are two years, five years, or twelve years beyond their last relapse, not one has ever said, “I still fight the same battle every day, it’s just that now I always win.” Instead they say, “It’s hardly a struggle at all anymore.” Consider the way they approach the problem across the four dimensions we introduced earlier:
• Attitude: These folks exhibit an easygoing mentality and are not easily perturbed by temptation. The problem remains an important one to them, but less urgent: they know that it’s not one they can annihilate “once and for all” with sudden efforts of Herculean proportions.
• Body: Physiologically they stay calm and relaxed. They stay in a mode they can maintain over the long haul, not one in which their efforts will of necessity diminish over time as a result of depletion and burn-out.
• Mind: They remain perceptive and observant. They’re big-picture-oriented. They’re not as vigilant against temptation itself, but remain on-the-lookout for its precursors. By remaining observant over time they have learned what puts them at risk and they keep trying to respond to those concerns in a proactive way. They reach out when they’re struggling or in-need so that their emotions don’t build to the point that they fuel self-defeating urges.
• Behavior: They don’t “have to” do anything—they remain free. They keep choosing their response, rather than giving in or fighting based on which compulsion is strongest at the time. If one response doesn’t take them in the direction they want, they’re free to change course. They keep experimenting until they find what works.
If you’ve been in the habit of fighting temptation and forcefully trying to keep yourself on track, how can you switch over to this other, more relaxed and effective approach?
Change Your Attitude: Next time temptation hits, adopt a more easygoing mentality. Don’t think, “Oh no, here we go again! I’m never going to be free of this!” Instead, remember what the apostle Paul said: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). In fact, instead of “Oh no!” think to yourself, “Oh, good! Now I have the chance to practice a different way of approaching this problem.” The more chances you get to practice, the better you’ll get at doing things differently. Plus, something else happens when you think, “Oh, good!” The devil is, by nature, contrary and oppositional. Once you, like a Judo master, start to use the force behind his blows against him, he will probably pick fewer fights with you.
Relax Your Body: Take a few nice, full breaths. This helps relax the body and ease it down from a hyperaroused state. Instead of bracing yourself against temptation, loosen up. Oxygenate your brain and body so that you can approach the problem with all of your usual resourcefulness and intelligence still intact.
Open Your Mind: Broaden your attention. Don’t fixate and obsess. Encourage your mind to maintain objectivity by turning your attention to something concrete like a sight, sound, or touch. I encourage clients to alternate this kind of noticing with the breathing just mentioned. “Breathing and noticing” three or four times in a row can help the mind free itself. For instance: Take a nice, full breath and notice: “There’s a poplar tree way down the street.” Focus intently on it for a moment. Then breathe again and notice: “There’s the sound of a car engine.” Hold that focus…. Breathe and notice: “There’s the hard sidewalk beneath my feet.” Feel it. Feel it. Feel it with each step. As simple as this technique sounds, it can help us stay rooted in reality here-and-now, where we can see more of our options.
Choose Your Behavior: With more of our options in view, we’re prepared to take action, and to do so in different ways than we have been in the habit of doing. Whenever we refuse to do what it feels like we “have to” and choose our response instead, we exercise our freedom in a powerful way. Even if the behavior we choose this time doesn’t end up taking us where we want to go, at least it was different than the well beaten trails we’re in the habit of treading. We can always choose a second new path next time, and a third after that, until we find one that does work better than our usual.
Kevin knew that “trying harder” had never worked for him over the long haul, so he was excited to try something different. He went home from our first session with a resolution unlike the dozens of others he had made in the past. He was ready to practice a new way. Here’s what he reported when he came back the following week:
“I was determined to think, ‘Oh, good!’ when I was tempted and then to practice breathing, noticing, and experimenting. However, I really didn’t think I’d be able to do it every time I was tempted. After all, it had seemed to me that some days were filled to overflowing with sexual triggers and urges and cravings. It seemed to me that if I really tried to do it every time temptation hit, some days would be consumed by this new little ordeal.
However, once I was on the lookout for temptation in a good way, prepared to practice my new skills, I was surprised that the topic of sex seemed to rear its head less and less. Even when it did, sometimes I’d check in with myself to see if I was tempted only to discover that I wasn’t. Now that I was prepared to cope with it and eager to take it in a better direction, those triggers seemed less threatening. The emotional charge of many of my everyday triggers seemed to be neutralized.
But then, Thursday night, I came face-to-face with a real test. I had played basketball until late, and once I finally got home everything was dark and quiet. As I started down the stairs, I got panicky: ‘I’m headed down to shower. It’s late at night. Oh, no! This has often been a problem for me in the past! I’m headed right into the lion’s den. I could so easily have a problem while I’m showering. All of the progress I’ve made would be washed away. Three weeks of success would be down the drain. Then the countdown for turning in my mission papers would have to start over again. This could be disastrous. It’s so important! I need to focus real hard on staying clean and redouble my efforts right now!’
“Then I caught myself. ‘Hold on a minute. That’s my reflex, but I can do it differently. I don’t have to lock horns with the devil. In fact, I can look at this as a good thing—an opportunity. Yes, I’ll go back to my fire drill: “Oh, good—another great chance. Let me breathe… and notice the texture on the sloped ceiling in front of me as I walk down the stairs. Breathe… and notice the feeling of the banister in my hand all the way down. Breathe… and notice the musty smell of the basement. Experiment… Experiment… What could I do differently?’ I was pondering that as I grabbed onto the doorknob of the bathroom door. That was when it hit me: I always lock the bathroom door when I shower, but I don’t ‘have to.’ I am free to leave the door unlocked. It was late at night. Most of my family was asleep. There was very little chance that any of them would even come downstairs, and almost no chance that they would walk in on me when I was showering. Still, if I left the door unlocked, it seemed to me at that moment that there was no way I was going to masturbate in the shower.”
At that point, I didn’t need to hear anymore. I didn’t cut him off—we continued that session and continued for several more after that as well. Nonetheless, there was something defining about that moment. I hadn’t even heard whether Kevin’s experiment (leaving the bathroom door unlocked) had worked (it turns out that it did). It’s just that I’d seen enough clients like Kevin to know how this was going to go. Even if that experiment had failed, Kevin was succeeding. He had not yet succeeded in completely overcoming his sexual struggles, but he was successfully changing the way he approached them. He was adopting a new, easygoing attitude. He was learning to relax instead of bracing against temptation. He’d been able to see, even in the heat of the moment, that he had options besides the two he’d always fixated on before: fighting and succumbing to temptation. He’d taken one of those options and acted on it. I knew that as time went on and he continued to exercise his freedom along all four dimensions, Kevin would overcome his problem. He’d keep relaxing and exploring and experimenting in a more easygoing way until he kicked his destructive habit once and for all.
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