I have heard and read some thoughts recently about how to take a reign over the damaging habits that we use to deal with or hide overwhelming emotions. These impulses are different for each person, but basically everyone wrestles with some of them… more or less, at different times in life.
Emotional eating/drinking, procrastinating or over-sleeping, substance abuse, self-harm, sexual addiction, social media obsession, and various kinds of thought patterns are among the kinds of impulses that we would prefer not to have colouring our lives. Often they cause us and others real loss and damage, or weaken us from being able to offer our hearts, souls, and strength deeply to God; work productively for what matters; and live with a generous, focused emphasis on justice and kindness.
I’ve found four different areas to address this through. They may or may not help much on their own, but they can be powerful in conjunction and with the right support.
Choose and define the big-picture values of our lives.
Often we feel disappointment, guilt, or helplessness about damaging habits, but we dwell on (or avoid) these feelings in a negative way rather than having hope and ideas about how we could live differently. It starts by putting in words why certain behaviours are a problem to us. At the very least, they might be stopping us from dealing well with pain and issues deeper inside. They can interrupt our schedules, over-stimulate us in unhealthy ways, get in the way of our responsibilities, reduce our ability to hold real forms of intimacy, damage our bodies, and prolong experiences of lethargy or depression/anxiety. The next step is to imagine what we’d like things to look like if we could make choices without the unmanagable feelings controlling where we end up. What would be so good about that end point? If we can see clearly how we are harming ourselves and others (whether now or in future) and what we could possibly gain (even if it’s hard to imagine), the motivation are direction become clearer.
This involves also being honest with ourselves rather than justifying, even if at times we only have the clarity to do so after failing, when the tunnel-vision of the impulse subsides. Rather than focusing on guilt, we have the grace and the hope in our lives to focus on the future and the way our small choices will form part of it.
Respond with words to the way our minds are talking.
It helps to listen and recognise the words we say to ourselves in our minds. They can be negative and worth talking back to, while remembering to be as gentle and realistic with ourselves as we would with a friend or child. Sometimes we can answer untrue thoughts rationally, with truth. In terms of impulsive habits, “I don’t need this as a ‘drug’ to cope” can sometimes help. The painful feelings and negative thoguht processes we are coping with to begin with can also be challenged sometimes; optimism is often the truer reality. “I can do this better,” “people do care about me,” “there have been some good things in this day,” etc.
Sometimes the negative thoughts are true, but not helpful, so it is good to answer them as well. “It would help to focus on ___ instead of ____.”
Work ‘long-term’ on healing the underlying emotions.
While challenging the words in our minds can help, usually emotions run much deeper than that. I can’t deal with all the different ways of healing different kinds of pain and damage, and often a counsellor/psychologist/psychiatrist, along with the wisdom of caring and experienced friends, can help. But what we can all do is create long-term changes in our ‘environment’ that help us to heal. Bringing in habits and hobbies that heal can be as little as choosing to open the curtains to the sunshine, take a walk every day, take an unusual route home from work, find past-times or projects that will add interest and beauty to the lives of ourselves and others, become better at keeping a schedule, fit exercise and healthier meals in, and most of all, build the depth and quality of a few relationships with family and friends, while also being as generous as possible for others’ needs. The effort and balance of bringing in things like that can be hard, especially when we are already in a rut. But they help in quiet ways, in the long run, a lot.
Learning to physically and mentally relax is also a good thing to build into each day, and can help in the more specific times when we are overwhelmed as well. Next to this, times of prayer each day and each week are about our relationship with God but also a good chance to rest, think, and find our feet again in His presence. After all, our lives are for His goodness and from His goodness.
Remembering to be thankful for the little and big things makes a big difference. In our tradition we make a blessing to thank God for many things, from waking up in the morning, to everything we eat and drink, to all kinds of experiences that come up daily or in life. It helps us as well, to remember.
Replace habits ‘in the moment’ with non-harmful sensate impulses.
The above things are vital, but sometimes we come to a point where we still aren’t healed inside and pushing away our ways of coping is just too much for the physical aspect of our selves to handle. At times like that, sensory replacement can let us indulge in something, but make it positive rather than harmful. In place of each of the habits above that we struggle with we can choose an alternative. The following ideas are personality-specific, but we can find what works for us. Instead of clicking on our email when we don’t even intend to answer, it could work to find different scents (for example in the spice drawer of your kitchen). Instead of opening the fridge, we could light a candle and find a book to study or an art project to work on. Instead of mulling over something that upsets us in silence, we can put on soothing but sensate music (for example classical music, or any kind that stimulates the mind while comforting the soul) and either think it through to a conclusion or find something else to do for today. Instead of going to sleep in the afternoon when we aren’t underslept, we could take a shower and go for a walk. These are band-aid approaches, but they don’t hurt us as much as the things that we’ve learnt we should avoid or regret. They can also add beauty or energy to our lives even when there’s no strong impulse to cope through.
I find these approaches all helpful in different ways, and although it takes a lifetime to grow stronger and better at life, they have all helped me at various times.
It is meaningful to realise that all of our impulses and needs can serve a meaningful purpose if they are elevated to valuable things in life. A lot of them allow us to make choices of love for God and for His paths of goodness. He knows that we are made of flesh and spirit because that is how He created us: to take a journey of grace and of life. This world for some reason contains both awful pain and depths of blessing, and amidst it there is light in choosing life.