EPISODE 1: Agency and Addictive behaviorsOct 03, 2019
Agency is a really important part of everyday life. Many of us think of it as our freedom of choice and in a lot of ways that’s right.
For individuals who believe they are addicted to some behavior or another the phrase, “I can’t stop” is a typical refrain.
I find it interesting and powerful that the phrase “I can’t stop” is the one we use. True addiction seems to include some compulsion, but we don’t say, “my body makes me do x” or some other phrase that indicates the external forces driving us to the end result.
In terms of the Gospel we often discuss how agency is an important part of our time here on Earth. To have agency we must have three key items:
1 – Knowledge of what is right and what is wrong
2 – Consequences for our actions
3 – The ability to choose our actions
The knowledge of what is right and wrong is something that most of us have a grasp on. We usually know that certain behaviors are not good and that others are.
Consequences for our actions can come in many forms. They may be natural consequences that come without any intervention, like our conscience holding us accountable to ourselves.
They may also come from external sources, such as the anger a spouse may show because we have violated their trust.
Both of these first two items usually occur without much difficulty. The third item on the list, the ability to choose, is the place where all the friction happens. Yes, obviously, making good decisions and making bad decisions is built into our freedom of choice. But where we are going wrong, especially when it comes to addictive behavior, is when we say, “I can’t”.
I have a lot of kids and my least favorite phrase out of their mouths is “I can’t”. They say it when it comes to cleaning, they say it when it comes to calling people on the phone, they even say it when it comes to interacting with other people outside of their comfort zone. At that moment, they are abdicating their agency by abdicating their ability to choose. They are creating, within their minds a mental block over which they believe they have no power. They are creating a mental construct where they are not granted the capacity to choose to do or not do something but that they are at the mercy of external forces. Think about it, when your kid says “I can’t clean my room” and you threaten them with not being able to go out and play until it is done, even if they then clean the room they have not “chosen” it. It has been forced on them, in their mind at least.
The same thing is happening with pornography use and other addictive behaviors. We say, “I can’t” because our lower brain is running a script that our higher brain, seems unable to interrupt without a great deal of will power.
That is partly because what we have done is set a habit that our lower brain controls, by giving into urges that feed one of our primal brain’s three main goals. Those goals are to conserve energy, seek pleasure and avoid pain. Then, in a type of automatic assembly line, our lower brain gets set on a path that is well worn, starting with an urge.
When we say, “I can’t stop”, our brain wants to be right. When we keep on the path of our addictive behavior, we begin to prove how right we are to our own brain. There is a lot of complicated science that bears this out in the field of epigenetics, but for the purpose of this article none of that really matters. What matters is taking back our agency.
Agency is a tricky thing. When we choose habits and behaviors that have negative consequences there comes a whittling away of our agency. Like the kid who cannot choose to play because he chose to not clean his room. But when we choose habits and behaviors that have positive impact our consequences are just as direct but leave us with more choices. None of this is probably new to you.
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