Your agency has been hijacked
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.
What may be new is this; if I said to you, “you’re Mormon, you can’t drink coffee”, you would probably give me some version of the following in reply. “I can, but I choose not to”. But if I said to a room full of LDS women, “Can your husband look at porn?”, the overwhelming response would be a resounding “NO!” In fact, I would be very surprised if any of them said, “he can, but he chooses not to.” But in both instances, saying "I can, but I choose not to" is the proper exercise of our agency.
Very few of us, when it comes to addictive behaviors, are phrasing our choice to look at pornography in terms of “I can and I will” or “I can and I choose not to”.
I believe part of that has to do with the shame that comes with looking at pornography or over eating or excessive shopping. When we say “I can’t stop” we have something external to blame. We give excuses as to why we acted the way we did and then we wait for the next episode.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone who has an addictive behavior just change their wording to “I can, but I choose not to” and everything will be fixed. Quite the opposite. What ever thought we choose to work with next on the road to fully realizing our agency needs to be something we can believe.
When I was using pornography on a regular basis and ready to change my behavior the first thought that occurred to me when I finally realized that “I can’t stop” was a lie was “I can and I am going to use pornography”. It was something that I knew to be true because I was using pornography even though that behavior ran contrary to my moral code.
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Saying, “I can and I will” was the beginning of my path back from a place where I felt incapable of change to a place where I was empowered to make decisions. I felt like was able to choose because I was admitting to my self the choices I was already making.
The reclamation of my agency was not easy or simple. Each time I began to think a new thought about what I was doing I had to believe it.
I moved from “I can and I will” to “I can but I don’t always choose to view pornography”. That gave way to “I can but many days choose not to”, which eventually became, “I can but do so rarely”. Finally, I was able to come to the same conclusion most people who don’t drink coffee come to, “I can look at pornography, but I choose not to”.
Many of us with addictive behaviors beg and plead with the Lord to take this burden from us, to make it so we can’t ever feel the urges and the guilt and the shame that come with our choices. We say, “I can’t stop” and we keep doing it. In doing so, we abdicate our agency and fail to progress in our struggle.
The good news is, you can choose to take your agency back at any time. You can end the highjacking. It won’t be easy. It won’t happen over night. You’ve programmed your brain to do exactly what it is doing. That means that you can deprogram it.
You have got this. Good luck!