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How to Deal with Mildly Compulsive Behavior

A simple process for avoid compulsions - or endorsing them.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
How to Deal with Mildly Compulsive Behavior

Mildly compulsive behavor punctuates our days. Think:

  • bouncing between smartphone apps
  • endlessly scrolling social media
  • snacking idly

People have the wrong idea about what's wrong with compulsive behavior in the first place, which produces wrong ideas about the fixes. I'm here to set that straight.

Sure, too much snacking will take its toll and smartphone scrolling isn't quite a "highest purpose."

Yet, the essential problem with compulsive behavior isn't those behaviors per se.

Instead, the problem is that compulsive behaviors are not freely and deliberately chosen.

When you don't freely and deliberately choose the behaviors that fill your time, you are likely to end up feeling:

  • guilt over making a bad choice, even semi-accidentally
  • regret over sending that time down the toilet forever
  • self-anger over doing that AGAIN
  • shame over the whole lame mess

Well I decided to write this post because just yesterday I dealt with this problem myself. I dealt with it poorly, that is.

After dinner I found myself in a slump, thought I'd paint my nails and watch something on my computer until it was late enough to go to bed.

I was feeling vaguely anxious about another rough night with the baby, and also my dog was acting a little sick. Instead of really watching what I'd put on, I also opened several browser tabs shopping for yet another backpack that I don't need (and fortunately didn't actually buy). I distracted myself so throughly I was forced to rewind my show a few times too.

End result: two evening hours spent semi-scrambled instead of "unwinding." Ugh.

Then, of course I was annoyed with myself and a little worked up when I went to bed, instead of properly tired and calm.

So here's the general question:

What can you do to prevent the negative emotional spiral (and wasted time) associated with mildly compulsive behavior?

How can you transmute shameful compulsive habits into mere occasional mistakes?

Here's how:

  1. Notice what you're doing, name it for what it is either out loud or at least in your head(You likely do this already, except you don't know what to do next - so you just keep going along the path of least resistance)
  2. Notice why you're doing that(There's like to be an emotional trigger - such as my anxiety about the dog being sick, anxiety about an email you just received, etc)
  3. Take a moment to imagine the alternatives. Do any of them attend to your emotional and other needs better than what you're currently doing?(Last night, I could have picked up a book if I had wanted to do something more active, I could have tried just going to bed, I could have done light housework instead of nervously staring at the screen, etc)
  4. Choose what to do next, put an expiration time on it if desired.(I could have chosen to continue window-shopping for backpacks online for the next 15 minutes only, then gone back to show or picked up a book).

Ta-da! When you do freely and deliberately choose a behavior that turns out to have been bad or a waste, it's merely a discrete mistake. Mere mistakes are specific, educational, and redeemable - no emotional wallowing or self-loathing necessary.

Even if you choose to do the "compulsive" thing you had previously started doing, now it's not compulsive - basically by definition. But this is no mere semantic change, it's not the money laundering of intentional activities. Instead, you've actually decidedwhat you want to do. Something about you out in the world changed, and for the better.

That 4-step decision-making process gives you ample opportunity to opt out of the compulsive behavior or limit how much it can disrupt your day.

But maybe, on balance, you don't want to! That's ok too, as long as you recognize the opportunity cost of compulsions (more of one thing necessarily means less of another).

And anything works better than the dismal school of "ugh I suck I'm never doing THAT again I swear" behavior change.

Want help refining this process? I can help.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.