I know what it is like to struggle with compulsive behavior. My struggle was so severe that I nearly died in the process.
For eight years I have lived free of compulsive behavior. I’ve shared the solution with thousands of people and personally coached dozens to complete recovery.
You might struggle with mildly disruptive compulsive behavior. Or your struggle might be as severe as mine was. Or maybe your struggle is even more severe. In any case, I will share with you how to stop the compulsive behavior.
In this article I will share with you how to understand what is really driving your compulsive behavior. And I will tach you how you can transform that into happiness, freedom, and confidence.
If your struggles are severe, you may find that last claim to be difficult to believe. But I promise you that by the end of this article you will see how this is possible. Once you understand what is really happening, you’ll know that you can make changes for good.
What Is the Real Cause of Compulsive Behavior?
The underlying cause of all compulsive behavior is the same. This is true whether the compulsive behavior is:
- fingernail biting
- or any other compulsive behavior
Most of us find the behaviors themselves or the consequences of the behaviors to be problematic. We don’t typically peer beneath the surface, so to speak. We experience such an urgency in the compulsion that we don’t give ourselves enough time to reverse engineer the problem.
I know well what the consequences of this can be. I began to struggle with compulsive behavior when I was 11 years old. And I continued to struggle until I was 32 years old.
In my case, the compulsive behavior began as compulsive exercise and compulsive counting. I would lift weights at night while my family was sleeping. I felt compelled to do every exercise in sets of 13. And as soon as I stopped doing one set – no matter how exhausted I was – I felt compelled to do another.
Over the years this grew into a long list of compulsive behaviors. I indulged compulsions to turn around in particular patterns while showering. I felt compelled to avoid stepping on crack in the sidewalk. I ate compulsively until I was sick and then kept eating. And on the other hand, I would often compulsively starve myself.
I compulsively stacked my mail. I compulsively meditated (compelled to meditate for longer and longer stretches). I compulsively checked my door and windows to ensure they were locked. I compulsively checked the stove. I counted everything, including my thoughts, my steps, the number of times I rubbed my hands together when washing them, the number of sheets of toilet paper I used, and on and on. I compulsively rinsed my hands. I compulsive tried to avoid certain thoughts. And if I thought of those things, I would compulsively perform all kinds of difficult to explain and internal rituals.
All of those compulsions had the same underlying cause. Furthermore, in the years since my recovery, I have coached dozens of people to recover from compulsive behavior, Everyone I have coached has had the same underlying cause for their compulsive behaviors.
What is the underlying cause?
The answer to that question is actually extremely simple. And because it is so simple, many people overlook it or dismiss it. However, I assure you that truly recognizing this holds the key to a full recovery from compulsive behavior.
The underlying cause a feeling of aversion. That feeling of aversion is a reaction to fear.
The specific behaviors are, in some sense, arbitrary and unimportant. Although they may sometimes be disturbing or painful, focus on the behaviors themselves won’t resolve the real cause.
Furthermore, simply trying to force yourself to stop the behavior without recognizing the real cause rarely (if ever) works. Instead, trying to force yourself to stop the behavior typically results in extreme discomfort, relapse, or some alternative compulsive behavior.
That is because the behavior itself is not the cause. The compulsion is a reaction to fear. The behavior is a coping strategy we have learned in an attempt to avoid the underlying fear.
We assume that the fear is because there is an actual threat. But there is no real threat. We’re only reacting to conditioning. That is it. There is no real threat.
This is very good news. Once we truly recognize this, we hold the power to make real change and fully recover. The next step is to discover how the aversion to fear takes shape and grows into a compulsive behavior.
Watching the Compulsion Move into Action
Compulsive behavior is a habitual response to the feeling of aversion to fear. The specific behavior can and sometimes does change over time. The behavior itself is just a habit. And since there is no real threat, we don’t actually need to do anything to avoid the threat.
We could change the habit with enough will power. But as I suggested earlier, on its own, this rarely gives satisfying results. At best, using force we can substitute one compulsive behavior for another. Which is not really what we want.
In order to satisfyingly stop the compulsive behavior and resolve the underlying compulsion (the discomfort, anxiety, aversion to fear), we need to use awareness rather than force.
Awareness is difficult to define in normal language. But it is a very real thing, and it is something that we can make use of to bring about real change.
We can cultivate awareness by doing something simple. That simple thing is to slow down.
I’ll share with you a few ways in which to slow down throughout this article. But regardless of the means by which we slow down, the internal slowing down generates greater awareness. And that awareness indicates a fundamental shift in the state of the nervous system. That shift in the nervous system is what we are wanting. That helps to change the conditioning in the nervous system. And that gives us the results we want.
If you think back on anything you’ve ever learned, you may see how when you first start learning something new, you go slowly and deliberately.
Whether it is walking, talking, playing an instrument, riding a bicycle, or anything, we learn by slowing down.
Once it is a habit, it moves fast. Fastness in the processing within the nervous system indicates the utilization of a part of the nervous system that is for habit. We can’t make fundamental changes at this fast level.
We can make fundamental changes when we slow down.
The simplest way to slow down is to simply observe your own experience. And the most direct and relevant observation practice in this case is to watch how the feeling of discomfort – the compulsion – takes shape as a compulsive behavior.
Logically, you can see that there is a point between the sensing of the compulsion and the beginning of the compulsive behavior. Let’s take the example of compulsive hand washing. I used to wash my hands dozens of times every day. My hands were dry and cracked, and I still washed them.
When I started to observe this carefully, I discovered that the compulsion was a feeling of discomfort. Up until this point everything happened so fast I hadn’t really noticed. But it was obvious once I slowed down just enough to see it.
Do this when next you experience a compulsion. Pause for just a second and slow down inwardly enough to observe. See how there is a feeling of discomfort.
This feeling happens before the compulsive behavior.
Next, you can watch to see what happens just before the compulsive behavior starts.
When I first started observing this, I saw that between the compulsion (the feeling) and the start of the compulsive behavior there was a subtle tension in my body. Sometimes this tension was in my belly. Sometimes in my head.
As I continued to slow down my experience, I observed that the subtle tension would cascade into increasing tension until it was so uncomfortable that I found myself moving into the compulsive behavior.
Having coached many people through this exploration, I am confident that this is the same basic mechanism that operates in all compulsive behavior. I strongly believe that if you slow down and look at your own experience, you will see this to.
When you next experience compulsion, pause for a moment. Observe your experience. And see if you discover a tension in your body.
At first, many people tell me one of two things in this exploration. They either tell me that they don’t find any tension (less common) or they tell me that they find a lot of tension everywhere (more common).
In the case of those who say they find no tension, more careful observation eventually reveals this is not true. The nervous system may numb itself to the tension. But with enough observation, the nervous system eventually awakens to the tension.
In the case of those who say they have tension everywhere, they may sometimes find this to be overwhelming. They don’t know where to start. Yet more careful observation will eventually reveal that there is a subtler layer of tension that is easier to work with.
Next, I will share with you more ways to slow down and relieve any overwhelm you may experience during the process of observation.
Using Breath Awareness to Slow Down
We’ve probably all heard the advice to “take a deep breath” in order to calm ourselves.
Well, it turns out that is some bad advice. Breathing “deeply” usually means breathing more. And breathing more is unlikely to help bring calm or balance. If anything, it is more likely to lead to anxiety.
However, breath awareness is a very powerful tool to help slow down. Breath awareness brings our attention from our anxious thoughts and uncomfortable feelings to an activity that is happening all the time (our breathing) that can capture our interest. Furthermore, when we are aware of our breathing, our breathing naturally begins to even out and become more regular. This produces physiological changes that shift the state of our nervous system. Our brain waves literally shift to a slower frequency.
We literally slow down through breath awareness.
The wonderful thing about breath awareness is that you can do it anywhere and you don’t have to have special skills or knowledge to do it. All you need to do is to observe your breath.
Because this is so simple, most people will dismiss it as “couldn’t be effective”. But it truly is very powerful. The one catch is that you have to actually do it.
Shifting our attention to our breath requires that we do just that. We have to be willing to give our attention to observing the breath. This is a fully immersive practice. We can’t be doing this and thinking about fearful things at the same time, for example. Neither can we be fully giving our attention to our breath while we are indulging compulsive behavior.
Most of us are so habituated to giving attention to our thoughts and indulging compulsive behavior, we may find it challenging at first to give our attention to our breath fully. If you do, then it is especially helpful to find regular times when you can do this. Perhaps you can make the space for it while lying in bed at night or first thing upon waking.
With more practice, it becomes easier and easier. And it also becomes increasingly pleasurable.
Here is how to do it. Many people will find it is easiest to do while lying on their backs. But you can do this from any position.
Notice your breath. Don’t try to change it. Just observe it.
Notice if it is smooth or choppy. Are you holding your breath at any point?
Again, just observe. Awareness will change things if you allow it. But if you try to change the way you breathe, you will introduce more strain and stress. So it is important just to observe.
If you notice any choppiness or breath holding, be curious about that. What is happening at these times? Are you holding tension in the body? Can you become aware of that?
Start to observe where in your body you can feel the breath. And importantly, notice where you do not feel the breath. Observe the front of the body, the back of the body, and the sides of the body. Observe the chest as well as the abdomen. Observe the pelvis. Are there places that feel rigid, restricted? If so, just observe if you are exerting yourself to hold those areas rigid. You may discover that with awareness, these areas begin to soften.
In general, don’t try to take bigger breaths. Allow awareness to guide the volume of the breath. Most of the time what we think we should do to correct our breathing is wrong. We have incorrect perception. So we need to allow ourselves to simply become more aware. That awareness allows the uninhibited functioning of the autonomic nervous system to regulate the perfect breath. All without us having to “do” anything.
As you observe, simply allow the breath to become increasingly under the control of the autonomic nervous system. Don’t inhale rhythmically. Instead, let your body determine when to inhale. Likewise, don’t exhale rhythmically. Let the body determine when to exhale. The body has its own rhythm that is uninhibited. Let it move to its own needs.
This practice of simple breath awareness is a very powerful way to slow down. As I have stated, it literally slows down the frequency of brain waves. It literally produces a shift in the functioning of the nervous system. And this allows you to perceive very differently.
From this slower, calmer state of the nervous system, you will find that you have a greater sense of choice. You may still experience the habitual compulsion, but you will notice more space around it. You may experience less urgency.
This awareness is not in and of itself necessarily the magic cure for compulsive behavior. But it is an essential first ingredient. It forms the foundation that allows you to begin to choose rather than react.
Using Somatic Awareness to Slow Down
Personally, I find breath awareness to be the most effective method to slow down. However, a close second is simple somatic awareness. That is, giving attention to the felt experience in the body.
There are many ways you can approach this. Don’t think that the way I am describing here is the only right way. But do let this be a starting point for your exploration.
Start by feeling your feet on the ground. Notice how much of the bottoms of your feet are making contact with the floor, ground, or inside of your shoes. Are the bottoms of the feet relaxed against the surface they are resting on? Or are they holding tension?
Don’t try to make your feet do what you think they should. Don’t try to flatten them or force them to make more contact. Just observe your felt experience. And allow that awareness to gently release and relax any unnecessary tension.
Again, don’t try to force the release of tension. That won’t work. Be patient and just observe and allow for a natural softening.
You can continue this kind of exploration throughout the body. I find it to be particularly useful to explore feet, hands, pelvis floor, belly, shoulders, chest, throat, tongue, eyes, and forehead. But you can feel free to explore any parts of the body in this way.
The basic exploration is to bring attention to one “part” of the body at a time. Let your attention rest with this area of your body. And be curious to observe any unnecessary tension. Without trying to force anything, just see if awareness of the area and tension can soften it.
Keep Slowing Down
The truth is that the only step in the recovery process is slowing down. If you persist in slowing down, that helps to cultivate awareness. And awareness plus commitment does everything for you.
As hard as that might be to believe, it really is true. Awareness (which comes from slowing down) plus commitment (which is about continuing to slow down over and over) completely cures compulsive behavior.
Consider what I have proposed to you about the actual mechanics of compulsive behavior and this becomes easier to understand. Compulsive behavior is a habitual reaction to discomfort (the compulsion). The discomfort (compulsion) is a reaction to fear. There is no real threat, meaning we don’t need to react to the fear.
The compulsion moves into action through a subtle tension. And if we allow it to play out, that tension cascades into the compulsive behavior.
But if we have sufficient awareness, we can soften and allow the compulsion to ease rather than indulging the habitual tension.
Done persistently, this undoes the habit. This is actually just Pavlovian conditioning at play. We can undo the conditioning as long as we don’t indulge the habit repeatedly.
The key to success is to quietly observe. As I have said previously, if we try to use force, we are failing to properly undo the conditioning because we are not sufficiently aware of the entire process. Therefore, if we just use force, the underlying compulsion remains. We might forcibly stop a specific compulsive behavior. But if the underlying compulsion habit remains, it will show up as a different compulsive behavior.
For that reason, gentle awareness is the key.
What a Recovery Looks Like
Many of us – myself included – have been taught to be impatient. We want immediate relief, and we want that relief to be lasting. If we don’t get immediate and lasting relief, we may give up and move on to seeking for another solution.
However, in my experience, what actually works to produce a full recovery from compulsive behavior is persistence. A commitment to this approach that I have outlined in this article is what has worked for me and for many others I have coached in this process.
It is important to understand that your expectations about what success should feel like or look like are distorted. As difficult as this might be to believe, I promise you that your perception of what true relief and true happiness and true peace actually is, is all wrong. That was what happened to me for 20 years. I kept seeking for what I thought relief and happiness should be, but the more I chased after it, the worse things got.
True recovery is a shift in perspective. Our nervous systems reset and our conditioning changes. This allows us to begin to see clearly. We then recognize peace and happiness as it truly is. And we stop chasing after something else, believing wrongly that what we’re chasing after is peace and happiness.
Again, I know that might be hard to believe. But if you’ve struggled long enough with compulsive behavior, you may be ready to admit to yourself that what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working out so well. So it is at least worth considering that maybe you’re perception is distorted.
The process that I have outlined in this article works. It is based on my own intensive observation of my own experience. It is supported by research. And it has proven to work in dozens of people I have coached one-on-one in this process.
It can work for you too. The important thing is commitment. The gentler you can be with yourself, the better. And know that you are doing something rare and courageous. Be kind to yourself. You are doing something amazing.
Doing this alone can be challenging. Having support can make a big difference. If you aren’t signed up for my mailing list, I recommend that you sign up below. I send daily emails with insights, encouragement, and sometimes humor that can inspire and help you. You are not alone. This does work. You can do it.
Also, please post comments below if you have any questions or feedback for me related to this article. I value your feedback so that I can make this article ever more clear and useful.