Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Fitness & Health

Compulsive?  Who Me?
by Jan Johnson

Karen eyed the candy bars as she stood in the check out line.  She deserved one -- she'd spent her entire Saturday chauffeuring her children and running errands in the rain.  Shouldn't she get a reward? 

Still, her doctor advised her to lose twenty pounds to help relieve her chronic back pain.   

The clerk smiled and said, "Next."

Karen picked up the candy bar, but felt miserable.  Why do I feel as if I can't live without chocolate? she wondered. 

Karen's "little problem with food" has grown into a compulsion.  Diets don't work anymore because now her world is built around food.  She feels driven to eat even though her weight causes medical problems.  She uses food to comfort herself when she's depressed, to brighten life when it's dull.

Karen isn't so unusual.  Peter Robbins, director of Turning Point Counseling in Diamond Bar, California, says that one in every four Americans is either a compulsive person in some way or so closely related to one that it affects their lives.  He also says that counselors are finding that different compulsions are similar in their causes and treatment.  Whether it's alcohol or spending, drugs or gambling, people depend on these substances or activities to cope with life.

Compulsive people include many more than just the Skid Row alcoholic.  Someone who visits several doctors collecting medication becomes a prescription drug addict.  Compulsions with food include not only anorexia and bulimia but also people like Karen who drown their sorrows in a strawberry milk shake.  Compulsive spenders are those who aren't kidding when they say, "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."  Even innocent activities such as working, exercising or volunteering at church can become compulsions when we find our thoughts are consumed by it, our calendars are scheduled around it, and our guilt is multiplied after we indulge in it. 

Glenn, an engineer at work and soccer coach at home, enjoyed being on the City Council.  It made him feel good about himself and soothed the hurts of low self-esteem.  He then volunteered to lead  a fundraising campaign for the cultural arts center even though he knew it would further divert her attention from his family.  He kept saying he would cut something out, but he never did.

A harmless habit becomes a destructive compulsion when:

  • We continue it even though we know that it is harming our health, our finances or our relationships with our families.  (Your work is so important that you can't take time off to go to the doctor.) 
  • More of the behavior/substance is required to satisfy our needs.  (You used to drink only on Friday nights, but now it's Saturday nights too.)     
  • A sense of withdrawal occurs when it is not available;  we quit only to fall back into it.  (You tried to quit taking tranquilizers, but found you "really needed them.")

How can well-meaning people like Glenn develop compulsions?  Most often, compulsions are habitual ways of life that we learn early.  Palma Garbo, director of Grace Counseling Service in Torrance, California, says that compulsions are rooted in negative feelings from childhood.  "The compulsive person's needs for self-worth were not met in their families.  That childhood pain stays in the subconscious and haunt the adult," says Garbo.  "As a result, compulsives keep seeking love and approval in life and use their compulsions to comfort themselves."

Darlene, whose father was an alcoholic, never drank because she had seen its destructive results.  "At fourteen, I turned to spending.  I talked my mother into buying me lots of clothes and stole them when she wouldn't. 

"As an adult, I decorated my house with trinkets that made me feel good and bought new appliances before the old ones wore out.  After a few days the glow would be gone, and I'd need a quick shopping trip to sustain me.  Unconsciously, I think I even chose my husband because I knew he would be an easygoing, hard worker who would financially support my habit."

"I see now that I have the same inner drives that my father had," says Darlene.  "I just chose a more respectable compulsion." 

DEALING WITH IT

1)  Become Aware Of Compulsions.

Larger public libraries and bookstores offer books on most compulsions.  Self-help groups allow compulsives to listen to others and see if their feelings and experiences resemble theirs.

Most compulsives have built walls around their feelings, so it may take a few meetings to feel comfortable.  Contact one of the _____ Anonymous groups by looking it up in your telephone book.

2)  Accept Your Negative Feelings.

We use compulsions to mask feelings such as anger, loneliness and rejection.  We bury these feelings because either they hurt too much or because we want to avoid expressing them in ways that hurt others -- blaming, hitting, or yelling. 

Therapist Palma Garbo advises compulsives to stop themselves in the midst of their compulsive behavior and ask themselves:  What am I feeling?  Why am I feeling bad?  "Try to discern what you really need.  What are you trying to prove to yourself, to others or to your internalized parent?" she says. 

"As you discover your buried pain, let yourself hurt," says Garbo.  "God made our emotions so that while we're hurting, the pain heals and dissipates.  It's a simple application of the saying, 'You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'  If we acknowledge feelings, they are no longer bogeymen over us."

3)  Find A "Safe" Depository For Feelings. 

Verbalize those feelings in ways that aren't self-pitying or hurtful to "safe" people, those who love and accept you no matter what.  "Safe" people aren't shocked.  "Safe" activities are ways to deal with hurts so that we injure neither ourselves nor others.

Allow these "safe" depositories to be places to confess wrong beliefs and behaviors.  Confession not only helps us find forgiveness, it also exposes our patterns and implies accountability to work at overcoming the compulsion.

Here are some possibilities for "safe" depositories.

Self-Help Groups  Compulsives can confess to fellow strugglers and receive their acceptance and encouragement. 

Journals  "The journal acts as a receiver of bad feelings the way a counselor does," says Palma, "so that the person no longer has to store negative emotions in their head and heart." 

Glenn journals in a spiral notebook:  "I try to be open and honest.  Sometimes I'll re-read a paragraph and find I've been mean as I've told someone off on paper.  I try to surrender that behavior.  Months later I re-read them again and see how I've grown." 

Art Expressions  Darlene is better at expressing her feelings with paints, charcoal, watercolors and even clay.  The first time she tried it, she chose a black crayon and doodled, not necessarily drawing objects.  As she viewed her scribbling, she found hidden expressions of hurt such as the ring from a broken engagement.

Professional Counselors  They are trained to help people discover their feelings and deal with them in legitimate ways. 

4)  Revise Impaired Thinking.  Because of the unresolved pain of their past, compulsives have adopted impaired "facts of life" that contradict God's truth.  These are the beliefs that drive the compulsions -- "As he thinketh in his heart, so is he." (Prov. 23:7, KJV)

Here are some examples of impaired thinking and the correct thinking that should replace it. 

  • IMPAIRED:  I am an unimportant, inadequate person.  CORRECT:  I am a valued person, a child of God.
  • IMPAIRED:  I have to hurt those who have hurt me.  CORRECT:  We can ventilate our feelings in safe ways, but God, who is wiser and better able to punish, will punish them.
  • IMPAIRED:  Others have hurt me so I can depend only on myself.  CORRECT:  What goes around comes around, and it's not up to us to hand out consequences.

These impaired thoughts sound so wrong that we immmediately dismiss them, thinking, I shouldn't feel that way.  Yet the bad feelings remain.   "Try to uncover the impaired beliefs that cause your bad feelings," says Robbins.  "Ask yourself if the belief is legitimate or overstated.  Conduct a mental dialog with yourself until you've faced the truth of the situation."

As the need to practice compulsions subside, the compulsive spender may have to shop by catalog for several years, the compulsive eater may have to use a rigid eating plan and the compulsive volunteer may have to drop out or limit herself to one activity only. 

As we deal with our feelings adequately, we can surrender our outward behaviors to God without our inward drives sabotaging us.  We find a new awareness of ourselves and a sensitivity for others who are hurting.

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