Learning to Interrupt the Cycle
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel - ‘Thou mayest’ - that gives a choice. It may be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ - it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ -John Steinbeck
I was listening to a patient* describe their disease with surprising clarity. I could sense what was being said was not the whole truth...but I could also sense that there was a lack of awareness from the patient that it wasn't the whole truth. It usually takes an individual some time to accept that they are in treatment, facing the demons that helped contribute to their substance abuse. But you can typically see the ways in which all of that is avoided - it’s obvious. The excuses...the denial...after you hear similar stories over and over again, it’s easier to pinpoint when someone is trying to take you for a ride.
But this individual had something else going on. From years of drug use, the brain can actually start to change. As the drug creates new pathways, others are lost - most importantly the decision making center of the brain. Not all researchers necessarily agree, but the majority suggest that constant use of drugs will actually begin to remove your ability to make a decision to even use drugs. You have removed your ability to choose.
Hence why with this one individual, it felt like the whole truth was not coming out, but it also did not feel manipulative. It was beyond awareness.
The Ways I've Rewired my Brain
I’ve been wondering what that looks like for me every day. The parts of my brain that I have rewired over years and years of the same message...returning to the same experiences...to the point that I have removed some of my decision making ability in the process. Maybe it hasn’t been substance abuse...but what has it been?
Approval seeking? Perfectionism? Avoidance of pain and hurt?
I can return to some of these ‘vices’ as they were, daily. So much so that I learn to need them. Before long it is not a question of making a decision to seek approval, or perfection...I’ve removed myself from making the decision entirely - it’s now my only option.
I don’t want to overstate this in a way that misses personal responsibility. I’m not attempting to lay out a blanket excuse - “sorry, I avoid pain in relationships because I have lost my ability to choose otherwise…” But...what if we have refused to interrupt the cycle for so long that we actually are living out these pieces of our character with zero forethought?
I have rewired my brain so deeply over the past few years that the idea of failing at something can be crippling. It started out as a desire to do something with excellence - and man, it felt good to get feedback on my performance in those times. But then I had those moments where I thought I was doing something perfectly and received feedback that was the opposite - “Michael...you really messed up here..” Everything in me wanted to avoid that feeling. I hate that feeling. So I’m going to work harder at making sure I never feel that ache of failure again.
And suddenly, I have removed all options of failure being ok and have instead believed the lie that I have to be perfect. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t another choice.
We can internalize these messages similarly to addiction. It starts out as a way to avoid pain or increase pleasure, but over time we no longer think about it - we just have to do it. So how do I recover? How do I face the ache inside of me that simultaneously strives for perfection but knows I’m destined to fall?
Starting at the Root
I have to be willing to start back at square one. What made me want perfection so bad? Why did I think it was attainable? I also have to open myself to similar experiences that I wrote about last week when a colleague called out my performance idol...without honest feedback from people who love me, I will continue in the well-worn paths I have created for myself. I need people who know and love me to help walk a new path. I also need to be reminded that I am a new creation. The work of Christ in me means I no longer have to walk these old paths - he calls me into a new freedom.
I’m still going to be tempted to run back to my old ways. I still want approval. I still want perfection. I still want to avoid pain in my relationships. Moving further away from indulging these desires means I can regain some understanding of choice. I can gain back the freedom to fail, be hurt and at the end of the day - be okay.
What thoughts and actions have you accepted for long enough that they now go unchallenged?
*all patients/clients are a combination of several traits of different people to remove any identifying information