Breaking free from the willpower spiral

“If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.”   Peace Pilgrim

A foundational concept in cognitive behavioral therapy is that our thoughts, behaviors and feelings are all interrelated and influence each other.  It is often diagramed in a triangle with each point influencing both of the other two points.  They discuss how often our thoughts are cognitive distortions and those inaccurate thoughts influence our emotions and responses to situations.  As I work with clients I talk about how this triangle creates results in our life.  It is interesting to really pay attention to the thoughts that are running through our heads.  Often if we take the time to become aware of them we realize that many are very negative and deeply entrenched distortions of reality.  As I talk with clients I discuss this interrelation as a spiral.  They have certain thoughts about themselves that lead to certain emotions in a situation, those emotions lead to certain behaviors which gives them certain results.  Those results then influence their thoughts again.  It can be an upward or downward spiral. For example when my child screafractal-733920_640ms for a toy in Wal-Mart, certain thoughts start running through my head.  They may sound like, why is he doing this to me…everyone is staring at us…why won’t he just stop…he always does this…I can’t take him anywhere…I can’t deal with him anymore…  These thoughts lead to emotions like embarrassment or anger which leads to the behavior of me yelling in Wal-Mart or giving in to get the child quiet.  This response creates a result and leads to more thoughts about how it was handled.  It is a perpetuating cycle that leads to patterns of behavior.  In dealing with addiction I talk with the clients about how change is completely changing the entire cycle in order to create not only different behaviors and results, but also different thoughts and emotions about ourselves.  I point out that our willpower is great at changing behaviors and getting different results for the short term, but just changing those two parts without changing the thoughts about who we are creates a small spiral that gets tightly wound like a spring and then eventually the willpower hits a moment of weakness and we relapse right into the previous behaviors.  Willpower is great at making temporary change- like staying on a diet for a few weeks or abstaining from drug or alcohol use, but once it hits its breaking point or we reach an established goal, if our thoughts about ourselves haven’t changed we go right back into old behaviors and most times sink even deeper than we were before we used our willpower.  To truly get into recovery is to truly change the entire cycle.  To be able to have kind, compassion thoughts about ourselves when we are triggered to use or put the weight back on or when our kid acts out in Wal-Mart.  We can only interrupt the cycle when we are aware of the pattern.  So take some time and listen with fresh ears to the voice that plays.  Is what you hear true and is there a kinder, more compassionate way to talk to ourselves in this situation?

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