Today we’d like to explore compulsions – whether they are good or bad, changeable or not, restrictive or empowering? I guess the first question to ask is “What is a compulsion?” We see compulsions as innately irresistible urges to do certain things that will avoid some form of pain (offering relief) or lead us to an action offering some form of positive feeling.
Compulsions can take many forms; to act in a certain way, to speak in a certain manner, specialised internal dialogue (worry / ruminations / mental ritual) and having to control people / events to unfold in a preordained fashion. Many compulsions are very small (even insignificant to others) such as, needing to wipe a finger print from a glass table or having to have books or CD’s in a certain order, drink from a specific cup or stay away from things that may have germs or other ‘contamination’ on them.
How much control do we really have over our compulsions?
Compulsions often have a circular nature too, where your thoughts about something start (or stop) your emotions, and then, those emotions kick off a whole new set of thoughts – for example; a person may worry (thinking) about if their work is of a high enough quality, then get bad emotions because they feel that it isn’t, then start to look for evidence that is good enough by comparing them-self with others, then thinking they are not as good, then feeling worse etc. etc.
Compulsions feel like we need to act on them, however, that is just a belief, the reality is, they normally restrict our lives rather than enrich our lives. As you can (jokingly) see in the clip below.
Differences between an addiction and a compulsion
We believe that compulsions do differ from addictions, although compulsions may be an element of an addiction, for example; a gambler (addiction) may always feel compelled to kiss his betting slip for good luck, which is a compulsion.
Addictions are behaviours where the individual has become dependant on a set of processes and outcomes that they feel is required to cope with life and even though the those addictive behaviours may be self destructive (to themselves or their families) they believe they will experience pleasure as an outcome.
Compulsions, by way of contrast, may not have a pleasurable ending – they are more about doing a certain thing or thinking in a certain way to get some form of relief from an inner agitation or anxious feeling, for example; a person may feel less anxious once they have completed the compulsion of washing their hands.
One the biggest hurdles to letting go of compulsive behaviours is actually spotting them in the first place! Any person who lives with a partner who has OCD will confirm that they deny many of their compulsions as being problematic. They say things like “I just like it to be clean” or “It’s not for me, I’m doing it for them” or “I know it is a little silly but I just like it that way…”
That’s why we need to be open to listening to those who are close to us and allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable for a while and really explore what they are saying to us without becoming defensive.
The next step is to look at what beliefs are under pinning my compulsions? Sometimes we have had the compulsions for so long (even from childhood) and we forget why (or may never know why) they started in the first place. When the beliefs trail has been explored the real reasons become revealed, the process may go something like this……
I have a compulsion to do things perfectly. Why? Because it feels bad if things are not done well. Why? Because I don’t like being criticised? Why? Because my teacher used to criticise me and I don’t like it. Why? Because it makes me feel small. Why? I don’t know why. Why? Because I haven’t thought about that in years. Why? I don’t know. Why? I guess it is a bit out of date now. Why? Because I want more flexibility in my life. Why? Because I am tired of this. Why? Because I want more happiness in my life. Why? I just do.
At some point the belief has to crumble, or at least reveal itself as being out of date or in some way self-abusive. Then the real work can begin because you will need to replace that belief with a new more productive belief and spend some time letting go of the old habits.
Do compulsions have a hidden agenda?
For many people who have a lot of compulsions or OCD or anxiety – the compulsions (at some level) do keep the person safe (although not necessarily happy.) Perhaps they keep them ‘safe’ by not having to face up to getting a new job, perhaps the compulsions keep them safe from being alone (so they stay in a bad relationship,) perhaps they keep them safe by trying to control everything so there are no surprises in life (good luck with that one!) So, you see, there is some logic behind it all, but it is usually quite childish and based in fear.
If you have compulsions that you are looking to explore and overcome the Calmness In Mind Anxiety treatment Program might be a great place to start.