How I’m getting free from compulsive behaviours

(Mentions self-harm and the effects of sexual abuse)

There’s something I do most days that not many people know about me. I’m ashamed to look people in the eye and tell them but I know that it doesn’t make me a shameful or bad person – though I believed that for so long.

I scratch myself, hard, in a sensitive place. I’m not going to go into any detail because I don’t want this blog post to be triggering for anyone.

I also frequently and obsessively distract myself online and get caught up in fantasies, occasionally for hours or even days at a time. I also for many years had a problem with sexual fantasies, sexual intrusive thoughts and masturbation.

As this is a blog for people who battle with shame, I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to the overwhelming desire to escape from reality; the warm sensation in your belly as you think about the promise of satisfaction; the irresistible pull; the fuzzy sensation in your head and the inability to think about anything other than what you crave. Not to mention the sense of shame and hollowness that comes after indulging.

I’ve come a long way on my journey to get free of these compulsive behaviours and this blog post will talk about how far I’ve come and what I’ve learnt along the way.

Just to be clear, I’m writing solely about my personal experiences and I’m not a professional. If you’re battling with compulsive or self-harming behaviours, you may need professional help. Your GP should be able to refer you to the right support. Here is a link to information about services that can help you if you’re self-harming.

Feelings lead to actions

About five years ago, in an effort to overcome my compulsion to distract, I banned myself from reading books and looking at news websites. I policed the ban strictly, and did things like turn my books the other way round on the shelf so that I wouldn’t be lured in by the writing on the spines, and ask my parents to hide my computer from me so that I wouldn’t go on the news. I even installed an app that locked down my phone, giving me access only to the least distracting apps like my calendar and my calculator.

Despite my strict methods, I regularly flouted my own rules and punished myself for doing so. I would beat myself up and criticise myself for giving in and then impose even harsher rules the next time around. It was like I was two people in one: a strict prison warden and a naughty, childish inmate who constantly looked for ways to rebel. Knowing what I know now I can see that my prison warden tendencies were actually causing me to want to rebel more and making my compulsive behaviours worse, not better.

It was only when I learnt that my feelings create my actions that I discovered that I was able intercept my habitual patterns and divert my actions towards healthier behaviours by intentionally feeling my emotions. Knowing this changed everything for me.

I set myself a goal of feeling my emotions whenever I was tempted to give in to an urge. It was hard at first – I’d never deliberately felt my emotions in my body before and didn’t really know how. But the more I did it the better I got at it. Even though I still gave in to my urges more than I wanted to, feeling my feelings just five times a day for 30 seconds at a time meant there were at least 35 times a week when I didn’t give into my urges. And this soon added up, with the times that I didn’t give in to my urges outnumbering the times when I did.

One thing I’m learning about at the moment is emotional regulation and self-soothing. God spoke to me through a dream the other morning. In it my two oldest nieces were tired and overstimulated where they’d been up all night playing with their friends. I came along and tried to get them to bed but they resisted and wanted to keep on indulging their desires for sweets, distractions and fun. Telling them firmly to go to bed wasn’t helping, nor was taking away their sources of fun. In my dream I suddenly realised that they needed help to regulate their emotions – they were constantly reacting to their emotions instead of being present with them. I spoke with empathy and kindness to my oldest niece – ‘I know how hard it is when you’re overtired and can’t focus, I can understand why you want to go off and have fun. What girl your age wouldn’t?’ I comforted her and soothed her and took her in my arms. She relaxed and went off to bed. She thought she needed fun but really she needed help to soothe her emotions and settle down to sleep.

Her sister was different. The tactics that worked on my oldest niece didn’t work on her. I discovered that she didn’t just need soothing emotionally but spiritually as well. I prayed for her and she fell asleep in my arms.

It was a strange dream but I learnt a lot from it about myself and how I manage emotion. So often I think I want something physical like distraction to satisfy me but in reality I need to soothe my emotions and spend time with God. As with many survivors of childhood trauma, I learnt from a young age to regulate my emotions with things like distraction and self-harming behaviours, and never learnt to pause and be present with how I felt.

For most of us as children it was our adult caregivers who comforted and soothed us when we felt strong emotions. They were the ones who were supposed to teach us how to soothe ourselves when we were hurting through their unconditional love and acceptance.

If you didn’t receive the comfort that you needed as a child, it’s not your fault if you then went on to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. You didn’t know any better, you were just a child. My parents were amazing and showed me so much love and support but even they (and most people in their generation) were taught to distract from, ignore and even punish strong emotions instead of comforting and soothing emotional distress and trauma.

But thankfully, even as adults, there’s still hope of learning how to regulate our emotions in a healthy way. We can show ourselves that same compassionate presence and comfort that we should have received as children. Personally, I find it helpful to practice deep breathing, mindful awareness, positive self-talk and putting my hands on my chest to simulate a hug. I also reassure myself that I’m safe throughout the day. On the spiritual side, I ‘check in’ with God when I’m tempted to give in to urges and tell how I’m feeling. I invite him in to my emotions and ask for help. I often picture myself being held and soothed by God and like to speak biblical truths over myself about God’s love for me and him being with me always and never leaving me.

There are other techniques in this article that you might find helpful.

If I’m honest though, I’m still learning to recognise my own emotional disregulation and respond to it. I’m near the beginning of that journey but I’m getting there.

The trouble is that as people who battle with shame, the very time when we need the most love and compassion is the time when we’re least likely to give it to ourselves. So many of us think that our inability to handle emotions, our compulsive behaviours and the emotions themselves all make us unworthy of love. So we punish ourselves for our compulsions and emotional disregulation – just like me in prison-warden mode – when the one thing that can help us heal from those things is love. Effectively we shame ourselves for our shame. I’ve done this so many times I’ve lost count but I’m on a new path towards self-love.

Do you have strict rules with yourself? How do you treat yourself when you give into your compulsive urges? Do you know what feelings lead to your compulsive behaviours? Were you comforted as a child? How do you self-soothe?

Celebrating small wins

I’ve tried shaming myself into changing and it didn’t work (I now know that anything I try to shame myself into doing or not doing won’t work)! I mentally tracked every time I scratched or distracted and held it against myself, thinking it would motivate me to stop. That led to more shame when the number didn’t reduce as I’d have liked, and of course the shame led to more compulsive behaviour.

Then I downloaded an app and tracked entire days when I didn’t scratch, giving myself a tick in the box for every day that passed without me scratching. It seemed motivating at first – at least I was tracking my successes and not my failures – but it meant that, on days when I perhaps gave in once or twice but still made huge progress, I had to miss out on my tick because I hadn’t lived up to my lofty goal.

Then I thought of a more empowering method: I tracked every time I felt tempted to scratch but didn’t give in. This method tied in with the goal that I mentioned above: I measured the number of times during the day that I felt my emotions instead of giving in to my urges. Then every month I would add up the total number for that month and encourage myself that I was doing well.

I considered any time when I didn’t give in to my urges as progress, even when there were just a handful of times in a month. The numbers fluctuated a lot from day to day and month to month so it was important that I didn’t compare that day or month’s total to previous days or months. Instead I just saw any number – big or small – as a step in the right direction and something more that I could add to the overall total.

I also typed up the nuggets of wisdom that I learnt as I went along and managed to fill seven pages of A4! This was the most successful of the three methods and I was able to stick at it for longer too.

How do you celebrate your successes? Do you find it helpful to keep track of your progress?

Tracking triggering thoughts

Back in May I kept a journal for five days to track the thoughts that preceded the urge to scratch. My compulsion to scratch is different from my other compulsive behaviours in that it also has a physical element in the form of an itch. I believed back then that the itch was purely a physical sensation that came on at random so I was surprised to find a clear pattern, suggesting that my thoughts had more to do with creating the sensation and accompanying urge than I realised. I’ve included a summary below:

19th May

Today I wrote down five thoughts and four of them were shame-based ‘shoulds’, such as ‘I should have done the examen prayer last night,’ and ‘I should start flossing my teeth again,’ and ‘I shouldn’t have gone to that meeting’. The other one was a thought about failure related to this blog, but I didn’t write down what the failure was.

20th May

Today the thoughts that triggered my urge to scratch included shame-based thoughts: ‘I’ll be judged and I won’t fit in for wanting vegan pizza,’ and ‘What will people think of me for going out with unwashed hair.’ It also included several different thoughts about abuse, punishment and objectification, such as: ‘Facebook is so unsafe, I can’t believe they’re asking people to submit nude pictures to them.’

21st May

Today the thoughts that triggered my urge to scratch were less clear, with two anxious thoughts about this blog and one where the trigger was unknown.

22nd May

Today I had the urge to scratch 14 times so there was a variety of triggering thoughts here. Some were clearly based in shame, anxiety or trauma while others were seemingly random. There was one shame-based ‘should’: ‘I should’ve called the police when I found that vulnerable woman when I was 19, instead of letting her go off with that man.’ There were several anxious thoughts about this blog and the website logistics. Many of the triggers were thoughts about what I would say to other people and what they would think about me, for example how I would break it to my church small group that I’d been abused.

I thought several thoughts about abuse and trauma which triggered an urge to scratch, including worrying that any future partner that I have might be disrespectful and not understanding of my past abuse. I can now see that one of the thoughts that seemed random at the time is actually related to abuse but that information only came to light after I wrote the journal.

23rd and 24th May

I’ve combined the two days because I didn’t have much written down for them. The triggers for these days were a bit of a mixed bag: one was imagining what I’d say to a friend while reading an email about trauma (so the trigger could’ve been either of those things). One was: ‘I should’ve started writing the new blog post already.’ One was a thought trauma. One was an anxious thought about this website. I was also triggered after thinking a random thought about doing a meditation.

As I said before, I was genuinely surprised to notice patterns in the thoughts and can see now that the urges are rarely random, even when they may seem to be. I’d also never considered that thoughts could trigger an itch before, but the scratching was always more than just an itch and I was already aware of a link with the emotion of shame which is usually triggered in my thoughts.

(Pie chart showing percentages of thoughts that triggered scratching)

It’s not just my scratching compulsion that’s triggered by thoughts. My other compulsive behaviours all have an element of this too, albeit the thoughts are often subconscious. For example, when I think I’m falling short or not good enough in some way, I feel shame and then I distract and hide from my feelings, usually by browsing the internet. Or when I believe that my life is out of control or my dreams won’t come to pass, I feel anxious and try to control my future by obsessively fantasising about things like my future business or future husband.

‘Should’ thoughts

If I hadn’t tracked my thoughts I would never have known that ‘should’ thoughts are a big trigger for me. In fact, over a quarter of the trigger thoughts that I tracked were ‘should’ thoughts.

So what are ‘should’ thoughts? For me it’s about ownership. Not ownership of my responsibilities as some might think, but instead other people taking ownership of me. Or me allowing their expectations (or my own beliefs about what they expect) to control me, as well as a belief that I owe other people in some way.

‘Should’ thoughts almost always lead to shame for me: ‘I can never meet everyone’s/society’s expectations of me therefore I’m never good enough.’ Then because I feel ashamed I often give in to what I think other people want from me, which usually leads to more shame because I’ve compromised my convictions.

Here’s an example that I’ve taken from the thoughts listed above:

The circumstance is me going out for pizza and wanting to order a vegan pizza. The thought is that I shouldn’t be different to others and should do exactly what other people expect me to do. Then that leads to a feeling of shame and not being good enough. Although I often just give in and go with what I think everyone else wants me to do, on this occasion I did actually order the vegan pizza, though I did worry about it for hours first.

One way that I can spot that I’ve been thinking a ‘should’ thought is if I then obsessively imagine how I would justify my decisions to others. Using the pizza example, I spent a long time beforehand imagining how I’d explain why I went vegetarian and the fact that I’m lactose intolerant as well as not wanting to eat milk-based products for ethical reasons. In reality, I don’t ever need to justify decisions about my own health and body to anyone else.

By changing that thought from ‘I should do what other people expect me to do,’ to ‘They don’t own me,’ I feel confident and strong in my decisions and take the action that I want to take, regardless of what other people think of me.

And this is where the urge to scratch has actually benefited me. It was only when I had an urge to scratch that I was able to spot the ‘should’ in this case and recognise the spiraling thoughts that resulted from it, and then interrupt it with the thought that other people don’t own me.

I can’t count the number of times when I’ve pleaded with God to take away the itch. But now I can see the greater purpose in all this. There may be a long journey ahead to get free of this still but this journey isn’t just about getting free from the scratching but about getting free from the shame, trauma and boundarylessness that’s behind it.

So I have a choice now. I can choose to be annoyed with myself and hard on myself for scratching, as I used to do, or I can lean in to learn the wisdom that my urges are teaching me. I know I can learn so much more about myself through this process. And now that I can see it that way, I’m actually in a strange way grateful for my compulsive behaviours and the lessons I’m learning from them.

Have you ever kept track of the thoughts or feelings that trigger your compulsions? What unhelpful thought patterns do you struggle with the most and do they trigger unwanted behaviours? Can you learn more about yourself through your compulsive urges.

Discovering the root cause of my compulsive behaviours

A week after journalling my triggering thoughts, I unexpectedly found out more information about why I scratch. This is what I wrote in my journal:

When worshiping I kept picturing the outside of [one of my abusers’] house and the hallway, and that brought on such an urge to scratch and I felt so unsafe. I also found out why I scratch! Thank you God. It’s chronic pain caused by my brain and not based on skin problems or cuts etc. I…need to keep reiterating that it’s not caused by broken skin or anything else physical, but it’s an ordinary signal being translated by my brain as unsafe and pain. My brain is amazing!

My journal, 31st May 2022

It makes perfect sense that this compulsion to scratch stems from what was done to me. My traumatised brain still regularly anticipates abuse so it associates that area of my body with being unsafe, unclean and tainted.

The biggest factor in overcoming this is my self-talk. I start by showing myself compassion – telling myself that the pain I’m feeling is just as bad as if it were caused by injury, and that it’s understandable that my brain’s interpreting normal nerve sensations as dangerous, considering the trauma I’ve been through. But then I remind myself that it’s caused by my brain telling me that ordinary sensations are unsafe and doesn’t have a physical cause. I tell myself that I’m safe and clean, and that the sensations I feel don’t make me unsafe or unclean.

Looking back, it seems that all of my compulsive behaviours stem from sexual abuse, either in my childhood or – as with the scratching compulsion – in my teens. My distraction and fantasy behaviours manifested early on as an obsession with reading that went far beyond just being bookish. Books were my refuge and hiding place from all the painful emotions that churned inside. I also spent a lot of my childhood caught up in daydreams and fantasies, and spent hours alone in my room pretending to be at school or surrounded by friends. With hindsight I can see that this was an escape, and this has continued into my present-day fantasies about my future life and meeting a husband.

My sexual thoughts, fantasies and behaviours also started young, and knowing that they stem from abuse has helped me to move past them. I remember reading that our sexual fantasies and behaviours tell us the truth about our pasts that we’re trying to suppress and I’m living proof of this. I honestly thought that my sexual fantasies were just a matter of personal preference and desire. I won’t go into detail for obvious reasons but I now know that those fantasies were a way of subconsciously making sense of what happened to me. There was never anything directly related to my abuse so it was hard to see a link at first, but as soon as the abuse started to come to light the fantasies stopped completely. I also used to battle with masturbation from a very young age and had a lot of sexual intrusive thoughts. All of these have stopped as well.

Do you know the cause of your compulsive behaviours? Does knowing the root of the problem help you in your journey to get free?

Seeking satisfaction

I’ve talked about how I act compulsively in response to negative thoughts and feelings, but what I haven’t yet talked about is the element of seeking satisfaction – looking for the dopamine hit it will give me. Obviously causing physical harm to my body through scratching, and wasting my time through fantasy and distraction, aren’t healthy ways to get the satisfaction I crave – there are much healthier ways out there. Just recognising that my urges are communicating a need – something deeper than just momentary enjoyment or relief of pain – brings me back to the present moment and helps me to be aware of what I’m truly craving.

I believe that the main things I crave when I feel urges to distract, fantasise, scratch or act on sexual impulses are love, connection and safety. And those are the exact needs that I have when I feel ashamed or traumatised, which makes sense because, as I mentionned earlier, I discovered that shame and trauma are the main triggers for my scratching and other compulsions.

A couple of years ago, while desperately seeking to overcome distraction, I read a book about struggles with overeating called Made to Crave by Lysa Terkheurst. Overeating has never been too much of a battle for me but the truths I learnt in that book applied perfectly to all my other compulsions, especially distraction and fantasy.

The book talks about how, as humans, we’re created to crave love and intimacy with God, but that our cravings can turn unhealthy when we make them about food (or for me, things like scratching, distraction, fantasy and sexual thoughts and behaviours).

She described her issues with food as being like a huge impenetrable tower but that every time she chose to cry out to God for help instead of give into the craving she took one brick from the tower and placed it on the path towards intimacy with God. It helped me to see that my tiny choices matter and that this journey is about far more than overcoming compulsive behaviours but can lead me straight into the arms of God and the intimacy that I so crave. It helped me to reframe my battle with compulsion – instead of seeing it as an aimless struggle, I saw it as a pursuit of intimacy, which meant that my urges were helpful prompts rather than a hindrance.

One thing that I think could help me with this but that I haven’t yet done is asking those close to me to hold me to account – not by shaming me when I go wrong but by encouraging me, praying for me and listening to me in my daily battles. I really believe that this can increase my intimacy with others, as well as with myself and God.

What do you crave the most? What are your compulsive behaviours trying to tell you about what you need? What is your motivation for getting free of compulsive behaviours?

Busting strongholds with truth

Back in 2018 I took part a course at my church called “Freedom in Christ”. It’s all about learning the truth of who we really are and how God sees us. One part of the course is called “stronghold busting”. A stronghold is anything that persistently comes between you and God, like compulsive behaviours. To ‘bust a stronghold’, the course leaders had us identifying lies that were behind our strongholds, writing out truths that come against the lies and turning it into a declaration. We then said the declaration out loud for 40 days or until the stronghold went.

Here’s my ‘stronghold buster’ from back then:

I renounce the lie that I have to give in to my compulsive urges and I announce the truth that I’m not controlled by them. God’s given me a spirit of self-control and I choose to exercise it. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, I’m not my own but God’s. What matters is not my instant gratification but my long-term growth in becoming more like Christ. Instant gratification may feel good at the time but self-control will benefit me for eternity. I choose to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me. I choose to let God satisfy my thirsty soul. If I make these choices today, I can become completely free of these habits and walk into my future. I choose to sacrifice my present comfort for a harvest of righteousness and peace.

My stronghold buster, July 2018

I actually declared the above words for longer than 40 days – probably 60 days or more. It helped me in three ways. First, it helped me to change my mindset and look at the long term benefits of not giving in to my urges rather than the short term gratification that I’d been focused on previously. Second, it helped me to see that it’s totally possible to break free from compulsive behaviours and that I’m stronger and more capable than I think. Third, it helped me to declare my intentions ahead of time, which helped me to make the right choice and stay strong in moments of weakness when I feel tempted to give in.

As you’ve probably already guessed, the stronghold buster didn’t get rid of my compulsive behaviours, though it did help me to resist through pure willpower for a couple of months. I believe the main reason it didn’t work in the long term is that I didn’t know what was causing the compulsion to scratch. I believed it was just a physical sensation that I needed to resist with all the strength I could muster, when in reality no amount of willpower could’ve taken away the itch. I think it would be more effective if I added on the words I say to myself about being safe and clean, and about the sensation being created by my brain in response to trauma, and not broken skin or any physical cause.

Would you find declaring truths helpful? If so, what truths can you declare that can help you with your journey to get free from compulsive behaviours?

Next steps and learning to embrace failure

Where am I at now? I’m not where I’d like to be, that’s for sure. About six months ago, I ended my goal of feeling my emotions instead of giving into my urges, thinking I was mostly in control of my urges by that point. Unfortunately it was too soon and once the door was open all the compulsive behaviours rushed back in. I feel like I’m back at square one. Except that I’m not – I have a lot more wisdom and insight about how to tackle these compulsions now and I’m confident that I can still overcome them.

These song lyrics have been going around and around in my head this morning and I think God’s telling me that I need to pick myself back up and start again. It won’t be easy but my freedom is worth fighting for:

No, I won’t accept defeat
At the hands of guilt and shame
Or these burdens that I’ve carried far too long

Rend Collective, My Advocate

I realise that I have some mindsets that I need to deal with and some lies that I’ve been believing that have been stopping me from fully giving this my all. Lies like: ‘I’ll never get free from this,’ and: ‘It’s too hard,’ and even: ‘I don’t deserve to invest in myself by doing the work to get myself free from this.’

The lies that have had the biggest impact on stopping me from progressing with this though have been about failure. The thought that I’m obviously just not motivated enough because I gave up last time led to me feeling like a failure which led to inaction. The thought that I’ll just fall back into old habits or forget that I’m supposed to be resisting my urges and just give in anyway led to a feeling of powerlessness and more inaction. The consequences from both of those thoughts and feelings were more compulsion and less motivation.

But deliberately changing my thoughts to one of acceptance helps me to turn it around. Instead of thinking that failure signals the end of all my progress and messes everything up, I’m choosing to think that if I go off track, fail, forget, lose motivation or give up, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. I learn best from my failures and get stronger when I fail and pick myself back up again. I give myself permission to fail and I know it won’t be the end of my goal. Failure doesn’t mean losing all my progress. The important thing is to just keep doing it, whether I fail or succeed, and learn the wisdom that comes from it.

Those thoughts lead to a feeling of self-acceptance and knowing that I accept myself even if I fail. The action that comes from it is doing my best and accepting whatever the results may be. And the consequence is that I keep doing it for a year, whether or not I get fully free in that time.

I’ve been accepting defeat at the hands of guilt and shame and it needs to stop right here, right now. So here’s my action plan:

  1. feel my emotions instead of giving in to the urge, and soothe myself with truths about love and safety, speaking comforting words and being aware of my breathing and body sensations.
  2. get free from the lies by declaring truths that I can do this and I do have self-control through my stronghold buster declaration;
  3. pray for help every time I have an urge and ask myself what I truly need in that moment;
  4. ask close friends and family to hold me to account and support me;
  5. start tracking my thoughts, including ‘shoulds’;
  6. intentionally celebrate my progress, however small, on a daily basis by acknowledging my progress to myself and sharing my achievements with others;
  7. Pick myself up when I fail and show myself love and kindness instead of being hard on myself or giving up entirely.

None of the steps in the action plan are new to me. I’ve tried every one of them, each with some success, but I’ve only ever done one at a time. The more I’ve learnt about my compulsions the less straightforward they seem, so it makes sense that more than one approach might be needed. For example, my scratching urge sits at a crossroads between self-harm, compulsion, shame, trauma and chronic pain. My action plan will combine all the tactics that I’ve tried so far and I can always add in more as I learn more about what causes the scratching, or remove any that aren’t working.

The main component here is time. I was going to give myself a year last time I tried to overcome this but when I saw success I ended the goal too soon. This time I will actually give myself a year and I’m going to schedule in monthly check-ins in advance to help me stick to it. I also think that accountability from others will help me here too.

What methods do you find the most helpful in overcoming compulsive behaviours?