The Cycle of Doing Things We Don't Want to Do
“Pain in this life is not avoidable, but the pain we create avoiding pain is avoidable.”
But I hate that I do it...I don’t want to do it anymore…Nothing in me wants it.
It’s the one thing you can’t stop doing. That action you return to in times of stress, sadness, or frustration. It might be an addiction. Most likely it’s a part of your personality that you hate, a piece of you that you drag around and wish you could offload. You cycle through the guilt and shame every time you do it...but you still return to it.
Ever felt this before? You know the tension of really wanting freedom, absolutely hating the action, but returning to the cycle over and over again. Maybe it’s your anger. Maybe it’s pornography. Maybe it’s mood altering substance.
As I sat in a group session this week, listening to several individuals discuss their hatred towards their actions, the counselor asked a simple question: What’s the benefit?
Their reaction (which I would argue is most likely how all of us would react) was simple: there isn’t any...I just told you I hated it and want to stop.
If there wasn’t any benefit, why would we keep doing it?
The Hidden Benefits
Benefit is a tough word here. If we just talk about what our action does to us or for us, we kind of let ourselves off the hook. Is there really a benefit to what I’m doing? That implies that I like it. That I want it.
Without diving too deep into behavioral theory, I think it reveals part of why we can’t/won’t get ourselves out of these loops. If there weren't a benefit to the action, we wouldn’t do it. At a core level, there is some benefit to our minds/bodies/souls that keeps bringing us back to the action. We typically cast off the behaviors that don’t provide some benefit to us much more easily.
Sure, some of the benefit is that it feels good in the moment - we might be willing to be honest with that...but are we aware of the ways our actions help us hide? Are we aware of the ways our actions protect us from facing hard emotions? Are we aware of the benefit our actions bring to us as others feel sorry for us? The way others come to rescue us? The way others keep us at a distance?
Isolation takes us to these depths. In our fear of connecting with others, in being known, we find solace in something that takes the feelings away. The action benefits us because it gives us a way out. The cycle continues, and we’re stuck with this confusion - why do I do this if I hate it so much?
A Willingness to Address the Pain
We cannot just break the behavior. We cannot hope to shift out of the cycle of shame and guilt that comes with these actions by simply trying to pull our bootstraps up and quit. We have to be willing to address what we are running from...What we are afraid of...What feelings we continue to hide from...And I would argue we need each other to face this.
We know we are created for relationship, but the being known part of the relationship is where things get complicated. I’m ok sharing the pieces of me that I’ve worked on, but to process an emotion with you that I’m currently running from? No thanks. I’m working on a new level of honesty - with myself, with God and with others. The next time I say, “I hate that I just said/did this” I want to immediately start searching for the benefit - if I keep doing/saying it - what benefit is it bringing me? I want to look for the underlying feeling or emotion I’m running from/to. And I want to invite someone else into that process as I bring it before God.
Yes for accountability, but also because the isolation that comes from my guilt and shame is part of what keeps me in the cycle. I’m learning that to be honest before God, I have be honest with those around me and vice versa. It’s not just a behavior modification; it’s a total restructuring of how I relate to God, myself, and others. It’s that “putting off of the old self” that Paul talks about and living as a new creation. Not because I hate the behavior so much that I finally quit it - but because I am willing to daily take stock of the deeper fears in my soul, invite others in, and bring them before God honestly.
May we continue to pursue this depth of knowing and being known, in spite of how terrifying it can be. What actions do you need to assess this week and how are they keeping you from experiencing something deeper?