By Mary O’Malley, author of The Gift of Our Compulsions
At one time I gained 97 pounds in a year. At the same time I was drinking and using drugs! And I tried every diet, therapy and medical plan that promised to get rid of these so called obnoxious behaviors.
I thought none of this worked because I wasn’t committed enough. I also thought that everybody could do it but me. So I would try even harder only to spiral down into self-hate, confusion, and despair. In the depths of my despair, I finally had to admit that controlling my compulsions didn’t bring me the peace I so desperately longed for.
And thankfully so, for as I learned how to cultivate a new type of relationship with them I not only healed my compulsions; I also experienced the deep and lasting healing I was longing for.
It is important to realize that there was a time when you absolutely loved being you!
When you were an infant you were wide open to life, at home inside of yourself, comfortable in your own skin. You may have no mental memories of this time, but your body does. It remembers when there was no part of you that wasn’t okay. You hadn’t yet bought into the belief that you needed to be any different than what you are.
Then slowly, as you experienced moments when life scared you, overwhelmed you and disappointed you, you learned how to pull back, tightening your body, holding in your breath and containing your feelings. You began to live an inner conversation that said you needed to be better or different in order to be okay.
Rather than accepting yourself as you were, you began to hide all of the unacceptable parts of yourself deep inside, hoping they would go away and leave you alone.
But the feelings that we are afraid of don’t just dissolve when we ignore them. In fact, they influence our lives from underneath our everyday awareness.
For all of us, there came a time in our lives when holding in our life energy and distracting ourselves wasn’t enough to keep these feelings at bay, so we learned how to take care of ourselves through some form of compulsion.
By compulsion I mean any recurring activity we use to manage our feelings and around which we have little or no control. We can get compulsive about almost anything – overspending, overeating, overworking, overplanning, overworrying, overexercising, overdrinking, overcomputerizing, etc. Many people are compulsive without even knowing it.
It isn’t until the computer crashes or the credit card is canceled or the doctor says you can’t eat a high-fat diet that it becomes clear just how much a particular activity controls your life. To make matters worse, our whole story around compulsions is that they must be gotten rid of. So we try to control these urges, only to have them control us and this is where many of us are caught.
The old style of working with compulsions is to try manage them, but managing keeps us on the surface of our experience. If we aren’t aware of what is going on inside of ourselves whenever we are compulsive, we will live in reaction.
Reaction creates contractions in our minds, bodies and hearts, and these contractions, if left unattended, fuel our compulsions because it is what we choose not to observe in our lives that controls us.
There is strong evidence that managing compulsions doesn’t work. Take overeating for example. It has been widely reported that 95-98% of every pound that is lost in the United States is gained back, plus some, within a year and a half.
The tricky thing is that management does appear to work initially, but eventually it gives diminishing returns for compulsions don’t heal the feelings that are fueling them. They just numb us out. And even though they promise us that they will take away our pain, they actually do the opposite, leaving us caught in a seemingly endless cycle of trying to control our compulsions only to find ourselves being controlled by them. And if we do manage to control one compulsion, another one usually pops up to take its place.
Rather than managing our compulsions, a more effective way is to engage with them. The two qualities that make up the art of engagement are curiosity and compassion.
Curiosity is an alert acceptance coupled with a passionate interest about whatever is happening right now. Moments of pure curiosity are powerful beyond our wildest imagining.
The second quality of engagement is compassion. The power of compassion is that it dissolves problems rather than trying to solve them. This dissolving comes from compassion’s ability to meet ourselves as we are. Compassion understands that no amount of becoming ‘better’ will ever bring us the healing we long for.
All lasting healing happens when we can be compassionately present for whatever we are experiencing in this moment, for the quickest way to the healing that we long for is to stop striving for results and start meeting things as they are.
I call the ability to be present for our experience ‘treasure hunting,’ for hidden in everything we have turned away from inside of ourselves is a treasure that contains the lasting healing we long for.
Whenever we are compulsive, instead of turning away, this is the perfect time to turn toward our experience. The more we bring our compassionate attention to our compulsion, the more we can unravel the ball of struggle that made compulsion enticing in the first place. As we do so, we literally transform the feelings we hid inside of ourselves that are fueling our compulsions. When we meet whatever is there with curiosity and compassion, our old patterns and feelings finally lose their power over us.
Management gives us short-term results; engagement brings us the lasting healing we long for. Management keeps us caught in a cycle of controlling, only to be controlled. Engagement brings us to a place where we trust ourselves again, knowing we are okay, life is okay and everything will be okay.
As you become interested in engagement, know that patience is an important ingredient on the journey. It took a long time to weave the web of compulsion. It will take a while to unravel it, but the invitation is to begin right now.
For just this moment, let go of any judgment you have for being compulsive and instead, respect yourself for taking on the great teacher of compulsion. And know that as you learn how to listen to your compulsions, they will become your guide back into a life of true satisfaction and fulfillment.