Help. Hope. Healing.

Identifying Your Primary Compulsive Cycle

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.


Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Identifying Your Primary Compulsive Cycle

Bart was a successful investment broker and entrepreneur who came in to get help because he was having a more and more difficult time resisting his sexual impulses. As sexual sin became more compelling to Bart, he worked harder than ever to stay busy and productive, hoping that he could distract his thoughts from the temptation that seemed to take center stage so readily now. He discovered, however, that even his extra efforts failed him, and that in fact the pull toward evil seemed to swell in proportion to the energy he exerted to fight it. As a result, he decided to seek counseling. He didn’t understand how most of his life could be so productive–close to perfect, he thought–while this one part seemed to spiral further out of control the harder he worked to correct the problem.

Since he started out in this frame of mind, you can imagine Bart’s shock when I told him that the compulsive cycle he was complaining about was actually not his biggest problem. In fact, I pointed out, it was a secondary compulsive cycle that in no way compared in magnitude or power to a primary compulsive cycle that he had not yet even identified as a problem. It was this primary cycle, I argued, that would be the most challenging for Bart to overcome.

Bart is like many people who are trying to overcome a compulsive behavior, who fail to realize that their compulsive release or indulgence–such as their sexual sins or their overeating–comprise only one component of a compulsive pattern in their life. Only with some coaching and coaxing did he begin to see that his compulsive releases were typically preceded–and in fact made more urgent–by several days of compulsive effort and exertion. In other words, he began to see that his unhealthy drive for release indeed was a secondary cycle that was being fueled by a primary cycle that involved an unhealthy level of control.

At work, for instance, Bart tried to make the most of every minute of every day. No chatting at the water cooler, no useless phone calls. His intense focus had really paid off. Since he was able to spend more time studying, he became more knowledgeable about world markets, and the demand for his services rose accordingly, as did his income. When I worked with Bart, he was 37 and in the past three years he had reduced his work schedule to two days a week so that he would have time to manage a couple of his own business ventures. He was also in the process of building his dream home.

As successful as he had been professionally, however, Bart rarely felt a sense of contentment in his life. His wife complained that, even during their vacations, he was either mentally wrapped up in his work or taking care of some detail by phone or by fax. She also pointed out that he would not hire out hardly any of the work on the home they were building, which meant that he always had a major project to throw himself into at the end of the day. Bart acknowledged that he had a hard time sitting still. “He seem to have two gears,” his wife said, “overdrive and asleep.”

Bart had little patience for those who did not share his work ethic. “He has fired half a dozen secretaries over the years,” his wife confided, “until he has now finally found one who doesn’t even want a personal life.” He was frequently scolding his kids about their schoolwork or their chores.

His thirteen-year-old daughter had recently said, “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you.” Bart also regularly expressed disappointment to his wife that she didn’t keep tidier house and complained that she was “letting herself go” physically because she had not lost all of the weight from her last pregnancy.

I pointed out to Bart that his habit of continually succumbing to his urges to push himself and others was creating a vacuum of sorts–a strong need to release from work and effort and shift into a mode that was rejuvenating rather than draining. No wonder, then, that at times the urge to release would build and build until it overwhelmed him.

As we talked together about his daily life, Bart began to see that part of the problem was that he avoided releases of all kinds, even healthy ones, not only those of an inappropriate sexual nature. His life had become lopsided. It was like a ship listing to one side because it was carrying only one kind of cargo, and all of it had been loaded onto one edge of the deck. Bart’s compulsive behavior, in an odd way, may have represented his soul’s misguided attempt to restore balance. Sexual temptation appealed to the part of Bart’s soul that had been the longest denied and was the most in need. Nothing makes a puddle more appealing than the failure to drink regularly from a crystal-clear spring.

Even though Bart was consciously interested only in increasing his productivity and effectiveness, deep down in the depths of his soul he also knew that he needed balance. He was always working to increase his exertion and effort, but some part of him also thirsted for ease and relaxation. Perhaps he had worked so hard and set so many goals and pushed himself so insistently to be on top of things that his desires for the complementary aspects of life–releasing, letting go, and going with the flow–had been pushed underground. And nothing, as Ernie Larsen explains in his book, Stage Two Recovery, puts an unwanted desire in the driver’s seat quite like trying to push it underground.

Much of an addict’s life may, in fact, be spent trying to resist the inertia of unwanted desires. In an attempt to keep unacceptable parts of him- or herself under wraps, he or she overcompensates, expending immense amounts of energy in an effort to be in complete control. These efforts are exerted in the addicts public life, in an effort to manage other people’s impressions, and as a result many others may view him or her as a model citizen. The addict’s attempts to be everything to everybody may appear to flow from self-confidence, but they actually mask a sense of shame–“If other people knew who I really am . . .”

The motivation that is driving all of this exertion–the efforts to make good things happen, to achieve success, to measure up and even exceed the expectations of others–eventually wears thin. The individual feels a sense of futility and resents the confinement of their demanding lifestyle (typically failing to see that it is actually self-imposed). “If this is what life is all about, then who needs it,” they may even say to themselves. It is at this point that the primary cycle crashes and the secondary cycle–characterized by release and indulgence–rushes in to fill the vacuum that was created during the time that they were immersed in the control mode.

I should make clear at this point that not every addict’s primary cycle is characterized by the all-work-and-no-play mode that dominated Bart’s life. Some are caught up in impressing others and seeking approval. They may pay inordinate attention to their personal appearance and work unceasingly to anticipate and avoid all criticism. For others, order and organization are the most salient and compelling elements of control, while overwhelming emotions and chaotic environments pose the greatest threat. Our efforts to exert control i n any of these ways can becomeproblematic because we simply cannot control everything we would like to in our lives.

The Lord warns us in 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants that when control, dominion and compulsion are exercised “in any degree of unrighteousness”–to cover our sins or gratify our pride and our vain ambitions–the outcome will always be a loss of power and a failure to influence. For years I thought these verses applied only to leading and persuading others, but they hold an important key to self-management as well. Individuals like Bart eventually discover that their domineering style spoils not only their influence with other people, but also their ability to control themselves. Just like his thirteen-year-old had given up ever pleasing Dad, Bart also felt a sense of futility about keeping up with his self-imposed demands. Just like his wife felt less motivated to clean and exercise when he nagged, there was a part of Bart that felt like abandoning his efforts as well. Just as his eight-year-old dug in his heels when Bart broke out the Cub Scout book to work on awards, there was a part of Bart that was digging in its heels as well.

This section of the Doctrine and Covenants teaches an approach to life that is the opposite of the forceful, effort-intense pattern that characterizes the primary compulsive cycle I have been describing. I love the imagery the Lord uses in an attempt to correct our perspective: “What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (v. 33). The idea could not be expressed with any more clarity than this. We are small and weak; God has all of the power in the universe. He is willing to send it down upon us, and he will never allow another person to divert its flow from us. As plainly as this idea is conveyed, at the end of the 121st section He returns again to this theme, as if to leave no doubt in our minds: The doctrine of the priesthood can distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven, He assures us, and our dominion “shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (v. 45-46). We are the recipients of God’s power, which flows to us or distills upon us; we are not the creators of the power and goodness we receive.

As a way of life, the kind of flow described in scripture was foreign to Bart. Instead, he experienced his existence as a struggle. It seemed that every good thing that came to him only came by way of his exertion of tremendous effort. Because it had brought him so much success, it never occurred to Bart that the struggle in which he was engaged was itself part of the problem. Bart was also blinded by a cultural climate that encourages us to engage in a struggle against life. We are told sternly to “take the bull by the horns” when we are confronted with a challenge. When we experience frustration or failure, we are coaxed to “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps.” After all, “Life is what you make it.” We can become so caught up in the struggles that we fail to see that we may be sinning in our drive to be so self-sufficient.

Most people who seek treatment readily acknowledge that their compulsive attempts to feel good through release or indulgence are, in essence, an idolatry that they turn to instead of turning to God. They recognize the need to change this pattern and most are in fact exerting a great deal of effort in an attempt to stop what they are doing. However, these same individuals are typically blind to the fact that their compulsive attempts to be good through self-will and exertion have become just as powerful an idolatry. Trusting in the arm of flesh–in our own wisdom and strength–in our efforts to be better people can be just as damaging and dangerous as trusting in the arm of flesh to bring us gratification. The third step of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states, we “made the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

When we learn this principle, most of us are eager to surrendering our unrighteous desires to God. When we find ourselves tempted to release or indulge in a compulsive way, we know we need to admit we are powerless, surrender the temptation to Him, and pray for his help at those moments.

What we usually don’t recognize until much later, if at all, is the need to surrender our more righteous desires to God as well. In order to overcome the primary compulsive cycle, we must develop the habit of admitting we are powerless not only when we’re discouraged, but when we feel on top of the world and like we can overcome all of our weaknesses on our own. We must surrender to God not only the temptation to rely on our own ways of releasing in order to feel good, but the temptation to rely on our own ways of exerting in order to be good. In other words, we must develop the habit of turning to God both when we know we need Him and when we think we don’t. After all, the third step encourages us to turn over our entire “lives” and “will,” and not just our dark side.

Alma provides a wonderful example of this kind of Humility. He turns to God in the midst of feeling the kind of enthusiasm that makes him feel as though he might conquer the world. “O that I were an angel,” he begins, and in the next two verses describes his desire to cry repentance and preach the Gospel to every soul “with the trump of God” and “with the voice of thunder” so that every soul “should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (Alma 29:1-2). Then, however, Alma checks himself: “But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.” He then spends the entire remainder of the chapter describing the way the Lord has blessed their missionary work and God’s goodness in granting his children their agency so that they can decide for themselves whether or not they will enjoy the blessings of the gospel.

After getting caught up for a moment in his desire to be better than he was, to wield a more powerful influence over others than he then did, Alma quickly recognized his need to humbly accept other people’s choices and whatever the Lord had in store for him. He acknowledges his true position relative to God, rather than staying caught up in his drive to do more and be more. Here we are taught that even the most righteous end in the world–the saving of souls–does not justify compulsory means.

The primary cycle is characterized not only by compulsion but also by pride. When we try to exercise self-control over unwanted desires and behaviors, often we do so in an attempt to restore the sense of pride we feel regarding our lives. We want to achieve self-mastery. We don’t want to be bound down by weaknesses and sins. So we fight them with all our might. But what if our combat tactics are misguided? C. Terry Warner has said, “Satan does not need to overpower us in order to win the war. He only needs to get us to adopt his way of fighting it.” What if the prideful, controlling way we sometimes battle temptation is Satan’s way? C. S. Lewis is convinced that it is:

The essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. It is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.

Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. . . . many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper . . . by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride–just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer. . . .

If pride is truly spiritual cancer, then perhaps it is a blessing when our pride fails us. When pride no longer works to “beat down the simpler vices.” When our secondary compulsion at times breaks the bands of our willpower and effort to remind us that all is not yet well in our lives. What would be worse than relapsing again and again to one of the “simpler vices”? Living a life of smug satisfaction that we conquered those simpler vices through our own efforts, goodness, and power. Maintaining the illusion that, in important ways, we have been our own savior. For Bart, it was painful to even acknowledge how big a role pride had been playing in his life. “I don’t see myself as a control freak,” he said one day as we talked, “I just want to achieve and encourage excellence. Nonetheless,” he acknowledged, “this primary cycle you’re describing fits 90% of my life.”

“What about the other 10%?” I asked.

“That’s the time I spend wrapped up in the secondary release cycle,” he said, shaking his head.

Now Bart could see that the sexual temptation of which he initially complained was not his only problem. He knew that his unrelenting emphasis on productivity and effectiveness, goals and outcomes, was an even more pervasive problem in his life. He was also relieved to hear that his efforts to overcome this primary compulsive cycle (a topic we will address in a later recovery tip) would help undermine his secondary cycle and drain away much of the power of the sexual temptations he was experiencing.

Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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3 Responses to “Identifying Your Primary Compulsive Cycle”

  1. A Guy Named Matt said:

    Dr. Chamberlain,
    You know me. I have seen you off and on for the past several years. I relapsed last week. I feel sick. What you’ve quoted above from CS Lewis is my problem. I think I am better than everyone else, and the exception to the rule. I’m full of CRAP. How do I get over this?
    A Guy Named Matt

  2. Rex Goode said:


    I want to point out that Dr. Chamberlain gave us these tips for use on the web site, but he isn’t actually here on our blog. I do not have a current email address or phone number, but I would encourage you to contact him if you need to.

    I also suffer from thinking I am better than everyone else.


  3. Tim B said:

    Matt — Why not bring those questions over to the Support Forums (especially Daily Journal) and get some feedback there.

    I very much like what you’ve got to say about thinking you’re better than everybody else, that you’re an exception to the rule, and being full of crap. If I haven’t said the same thing repeatedly, I should have. I’d like to talk with you about that, but I think the Support Forums would be a better place for that kind of conversation. We’re not all that scary (although Rex might tell you about my skill with the ClueX4), and we’ve got lots of experience working with folks who slipped in the past week.

    Like me.

    So jump in. The water’s fine.

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