Tag Archives: guilt

Compulsive Behaviors

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Last week, I wrote the post “Overspending,” about a recent shopping trip that resulted in my spending too much money and feeling that I had acted in a compulsive manner.  Although there were important lessons inherent in that individual experience, it also raised the issue of compulsive behavior in general.

This post is geared toward examining compulsive behavior, getting to the root of why we engage in such destructive actions, and looking at what we can do to begin to turn it around.

Compulsiveness Takes Many Forms…

I shared about my shopping and spending issues, but these are far from the only forms of compulsive behaviors with which I’ve struggled.  I’ve also engaged in compulsive overeating, dieting, and exercising, and spending too much time working or surfing the internet, among other things.   You may have grappled with similar issues, or you may have had problems with drinking, drugs, gambling, sex, or any number of other maladaptive behaviors.  It doesn’t matter which of these behaviors has plagued you, the problem is usually rooted in the same causes.

Years ago, I wanted to write a book called “It’s Not About the Food,” about eating disorders and compulsive overeating.  Unfortunately, someone else used this brilliant title before I could, but that won’t stop me from sharing my thoughts on the issue.  From my early teens until the very recent past, I struggled with pretty much every eating disorder which a person could have.  I was anorexic, bulimic, an obsessive exerciser, and a compulsive overeater.  I have been seriously underweight, overweight, and every weight in between, yet my pain was always the same.  It was never about the number on the scale or what I did or didn’t do around food.  It was always about something else, and the same is true for all other forms of compulsive behavior.

Escaping Pain

My overeating, under eating, shopping, and other compulsive behaviors have served both as coping mechanisms and means of escape from the pain which I was experiencing in my life.  As much pain as these behaviors caused me, and that pain has been intense, the pain which was being masked by my compulsivity was far greater.  There was something, or multiple things, which I just didn’t want to look at, so I ate, dieted, or shopped.  I would then lament my weight gain, food obsession, or credit card bills instead of dealing with what was really wrong in my life.

  • What was it that I didn’t want to feel?
  • What is it that you don’t want to feel that is being buried under your compulsive behaviors?

Getting to the Root of Things

While I can’t possibly know the answer for anyone else, I can share what I believe it was – and is – for me.  I have always felt like an outsider and as if I didn’t really “belong.”  I never felt like I was “good enough,” but I thought that if I could somehow be thin enough, maybe I would measure up.  Or I thought that if I could be pretty enough (which relates to the hair obsession which I shared in my last post, “Perspective and Appreciation”) or dress well enough, maybe I would fit in and be on par with others.  That was part of it…

As I’ve shared in previous posts, I’ve long struggled to achieve the societal vision of success in terms of my career.  While I know that I am intelligent and capable, I have experienced only limited financial success over the course of my working life.  I have difficulty maintaining a passion for a single occupation and thus have switched careers a number of times over the years.  Now, at age 43, I feel insecure at my current career status and feel that I should be much farther along the path of success at this point in my life.  While I think about this often, I frequently feel stuck and powerless, and I sometimes plummet into feelings of despair and hopelessness when I find that I don’t have the answers.

Comfortably Numb?

What do people do when they feel desperate and hopeless?  They often do whatever they can to numb those feelings, using whatever they have at their disposal at the time.  I don’t consciously think, “I feel bad, so I think I’ll go shopping and numb myself out,” but that is virtually what I do.  The shopping gives me a high that serves to mitigate the lows I was feeling about my career woes or whatever else was troubling me.  I know this is true because the items which I buy often sit in my closet for weeks or even months with the tags still on them.

If it really was about my being greedy or truly wanting certain items of clothing, wouldn’t I be rushing to wear them?  The feeling I get from shopping and buying clothes is similar to what I used to feel when I would eat a pile of sweets.   The pain is numbed and replaced with a high, and I have escaped my negative feelings, albeit only temporarily.   That pain returns shortly thereafter and the feelings of guilt and shame resulting from my compulsive behavior add insult to injury and I end up feeling much worse.  It’s a vicious cycle and a very difficult one to stop, but there is hope…

The Place of Power

I’ve often heard it said that the place of power is in the space between stimulus and response.  Most people merely react to what’s going on in their lives; they do what they have always done even when it doesn’t serve them.  There is virtually no gap between their feelings (stimulus) and their compulsive behavior (response).  A person feels bad, and then they eat, drink, or do something else to numb the pain.  But there is another way -and it starts with awareness…  The awareness of your compulsive behavior and what it is costing you is what creates a small space between your negative feelings and what has become an automatic reaction.  That small space is the seat of powerful action, as opposed to disempowered reaction.

An Example & Key Questions to Ask

An example can help to illustrate this important point… Let’s say that I just checked my email and have learned that I didn’t get a much hoped for work project.  I feel anxious and that anxiety leads to some serious worries about my future career prospects, as well as fears that I may never have a “successful career.”  Without even thinking about it, I walk to the kitchen and start riffling through the cupboards for something sweet to eat.  In the past, I would have stuffed my face with food until I felt numb, but this time, I pause. I ask myself these key questions:

  1. Am I physically hungry?
  2. What do I really need in this moment?
  3. What small step can I take to give myself what I really need?

The pause that I have taken has allowed me to act instead of react.  Even if I still choose to eat, I have removed the automatic nature of this behavior, which is what makes it compulsive.   The same questions can be asked when faced with other types of compulsive behavior.  Simply construct an alternate first question (i.e. “Do I really need that pair of shoes?”) to fit your specific behavior challenge and use the same second and third questions as above.

There is Hope!

I am not promising that you will eliminate your compulsive behavior overnight, but if you are able to pause and allow yourself to examine what’s really going on beneath the behavior, you are on the path toward healing.  It often takes time to overcome long-term behaviors which have served as effective (albeit self-destructive) coping mechanisms.  As I’ve revealed, I still struggle with shopping and spending too much money, but it happens less often and I can more readily “course-correct,” as I did last week.   I was able to realize what was going on, turn it around (by returning the unnecessary purchases) and learn from the experience.  That is my hope for you as well…

Principles of Louise Hay – Part 3

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This post is a continuation of the key principles of Louise Hay’s philosophy.  This post outlines three more of the points which are the basis for “You Can Heal Your Life.”

“Resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns.”

There are many thought patterns that can be harmful to us, especially if we engage in them on a regular basis.   However, some patterns are more harmful than others, and Louise Hay contends that resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns of all.  Upon reflection, I would have to agree with her.  Let’s look at these patterns one by one, along with some examples of each, to drive the point home.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines resentment as follows:

a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury

It is normal to notice when we are wronged and to be upset by it.  But when we continue to rehash a bad situation and ruminate upon how unfair or wrong it was, it can be harmful to our sense of well-being, as well as our health.   There is a man I know who felt he was treated unfairly at work and had filed a grievance against his employer.  Even several years later, one could not have a conversation with him without the topic of his grievance coming up.  Not only did this repel others from desiring to be in his company, I’m sure it also destroyed his inner peace and happiness.  This is just one example of the harmful effects of resentment.

When one is either the target or the source of criticism, it is damaging.  Yet the most detrimental form of criticism is when it is self-directed.  I can speak of this from extensive personal experience.  I used to be extremely critical toward myself.  I had a running tape inside my head of all of the ways in which I was deficient and didn’t measure up to my expectations.  At times my self-criticism would be voiced, but the verbal complaints paled in comparison to the negative voice which lived inside of my head.  I am convinced that the many health complaints which I have today were created by means of my intense criticism of all facets of my being – my appearance, my career pursuits, my interactions with others, you name it… I am gradually turning this around and the negative tape is no longer the constant presence it once was.   As I emerge from the chasm that was my self-criticism, I gain an ever increasing amount of joy, peace, and happiness.  And interestingly enough, as I criticize myself less often, others are less prone to denigrate me as well.  I am also less prone to deriding others.  Win, win!

As the old saying goes, guilt is a wasted emotion.  It doesn’t make anyone feel better, and it cannot do anything to change a given situation.  It is also often misplaced and experienced by people who have nothing to feel guilty about in the first place!  The famous radio talk show host, Dr. Laura, says that guilt is only merited if one has truly done something wrong.  Even then, the guilt should only serve to motivate the individual to do whatever he or she can do to make amends to those they have wronged.  If you have done all you can to make things right, then let the guilt go.  I once had a seminar leader who stated, “Let it go; it’s killing you!”  He was referring to the ongoing guilt and regret which we experience about things that are past and cannot be changed.

If you have done something wrong, apologize, make amends, do what you can to make up for your infractions.  Don’t ruminate in wasted feelings of guilt.  If you have not done anything wrong, do whatever you need to do to release your guilt.  As Louise Hay says, “Your sentence is now over, so let yourself out of prison.”

“Releasing resentment will dissolve even cancer.”

It is Louise Hay’s contention that cancer is caused by deep resentment held for a long time until it literally eats away at the body.  As she states on page 169 of “You Can Heal Your Life,” those who develop cancer often experienced something in childhood which destroyed their sense of trust and led them to find it difficult to develop and maintain long-term, meaningful relationships.   These individuals also have a tendency to feel hopeless and helpless and to be highly self-critical.   A big key toward healing cancer is for the person to release their resentment toward the past and those who hurt them and to learn to love and accept themselves.

I realize that the above paragraph may be difficult to take in and accept.  I am reminded of the 12-step group maxim, “Take what you like and leave the rest.”  If the idea that cancer is caused by resentment seems implausible to you, perhaps this is a concept from Louise Hay that you will choose to leave.  However, as I wrote about under the previous key, resentment can and does cause a lot of damage in those who harbor it, and we would all benefit tremendously from releasing any resentment we hold, particularly resentment of a deep and long-standing nature.  So instead of thinking about dissolving cancer by releasing resentment, why not consider the increased sense of well-being or lightheartedness which you could gain by letting go of a grudge that you hold.

“We must release the past and forgive everyone.”

When we are angry at others and hold grudges, it hurts us more than it hurts the other person.  Think about it… They are off living their lives while we are stewing and seething over how they have wronged us.   Often the person we choose not to forgive is not even in our lives any longer; they may even be deceased.  Yet we hold on to our anger and resentment because we feel justified in doing so.

You may have heard of the expression, “He would rather be right than happy.”  So many people are what might be called “right fighters.”  They are indignant about their position and swear that they are right in their assertions.  They may even BE right, yet that’s not what’s most important.  What’s most important is, are they happy?  Do they have peace of mind?  Are they enjoying their lives, or are they so wrapped up in their being right and someone else being wrong that all of the enjoyment has slipped out of living?

Forgiving someone for what they have done does not mean that you are saying what they did was okay.  Forgiveness is more about YOU than it is about the other person.  When you forgive someone, you are giving yourself permission to release the past and move on with your life.  If all or most of your energy is wrapped up in being angry at someone who hurt you, where is the energy for creating a life you love?

I remember reading a story about a woman who was raped.  Of course, rape is one of the most horrific atrocities which a human being can endure.  There is a temptation to want to crawl up and retreat from life, to go into a sort of cocoon and hide from life.  Yet this particular woman was extremely strong.  I don’t remember her exact words, but her sentiment has stuck with me.  She expressed that although the monster who raped her subjected her to pain and indignity for an hour, she wasn’t going to give him the power to take any more from her than he had already taken.  She decided to let go of the experience (I would imagine this wasn’t immediate and took some time) and embrace the rest of her life with strength, joy and conviction.  Her story was truly empowering to read!

One of the best ways to release the past is to look for lessons from your experiences.  It is a good practice to always ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” or “How has this experience shaped me as a person? How am I a better person as a result of this challenge?”  We all go through difficult times, some of us more than others.  There are many times when life doesn’t feel fair, but once something has happened, we can’t turn back the clock and change it.

I will end this entry with a wonderful quote from Louise Hay – food for thought until my next post…

“The point of power is always in the present moment. The past is over and done and has no power over me. I can begin to be free in this moment. Today’s thoughts create my future. I am in charge. I now take my own power back. I am safe and I am free.”