Help. Hope. Healing.

Change the Way You Do Your Compulsive Behavior

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.


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

Change the Way You Do Your Compulsive Behavior

We have all made commitments to abstain from tempting behavior. We have also broken such promises–promises to ourselves, promises to our loved ones, and even promises to God. Rather than asking you to promise again, “I won’t do it!” I’d like to encourage you to make a different kind of commitment. Make a promise right now that, if and when you do go back to your tempting behavior again, next time you’ll do it differently.

Plan beforehand how you will go about doing it differently. You may determine that you will do it in a different place than usual, you may decide to mix up the sequence of steps that are involved in the behavior, or you may promise that you will only engage in the behavior after completing another behavior you find difficult or distasteful.

In the coming sections I will share with you all kinds of ideas about different ways this strategy can be implemented. After looking them over, return to this section and make a promise you think might be helpful for you.

My Commitment


How I Will Do My Tempting Behavior Differently





The Principles Behind Pattern Alterations

Imagine that you are one of the dispatch officers on the Chicago police force in the 1970s. It’s a wee morning hour, usually the quiet time of your shift, but as you pick up one call, you watch as the lights begin to come on across the rest of your switchboard. Has there been a major accident, a natural disaster, or some other catastrophe? The first call you take is from a worried resident who says that something “funny” just happened. It was enough to wake her from sleep, but she can’t say precisely what it was. You question her briefly, she can’t offer anything concrete, so you go on to the next caller. He reports that something “strange” just occurred, although he, likewise, is unable to put his finger on exactly what it was. The other calls are from other Chicagoans who are equally concerned and just as vague in their descriptions. What do you do next? Do you dispatch officers to the area and inform them there have been reports of a UTP–an “unidentified troubling phenomenon”?

The mystery was solved when it was discovered that very night the Chicago transit system had discontinued service along one branch of its noisy elevated railway. The bulk of these calls coincided with the time the train would normally have rattled past each caller’s apartment, had it not been discontinued (Reynolds, A. G., & Flagg, P. W. Cognitive psychology, 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974, p. 24).

I tell this story to demonstrate a point: Patterns can be processed unconsciously only when they are an exact repetition of stimulus configurations we have experienced regularly before. This helps explain why, after we have made a habit of standing up, walking over, and turning off our alarm clock and then immediately returning to our bed and going back to sleep, eventually we may get to the point where we can repeat the entire sequence without conscious awareness. Then, when we wake up again later, we may wonder whether our clock is broken, since we are unable to remember the alarm going off. Change the pattern, however, even slightly, and we become conscious of it again. We wake up more readily the first few mornings after getting a new alarm clock . . . or after we have moved it across the room . . . or after we have put the laundry basket between the bed and the clock. Each time a pattern changes, we become conscious again for a time.

Understanding this facet of human nature can aid us in our efforts to overcome bad habits. Once we become aware of a behavior pattern again, it has returned to the realm of choice. It is not insignificant that we say we have “conscious control” over some action. Those two elements–consciousness and control–go together. When we remain in a trance, our actions are controlled as if by an autopilot program; as we become aware again, control over these actions shifts back to manual. In order to develop greater control, then, we must become aware again. We can become aware again by seeking to initiate what the residents of Chicago experienced by accident: an alteration in the patterns that have become so familiar that they have receded from consciousness.

Rather than trying to give up a pornography habit all at once, Arnold started by changing the habit in small ways. “My first rule was to turn every picture upside-down to look at it. It sounds silly but it reminded me that I do have an element of power over something that seemed beyond my control.” Arnold was then able to stop completely, and has been free of his old habit for eight months now. Sometimes, by simply “tweaking” a habit as Arnold first did, we come to realize that we retain more control over it than we thought. Exercising limited control lays the foundation for us to regain more complete control.

The late psychiatrist Milton Erickson was a master at identifying and then tweaking patterns as a way of helping people develop greater self control. He would direct a smoker to put her cigarettes in the attic and her matches in the basement. He once gently and playfully chided a six-year-old thumb-sucker for being unfair to his other digits by not giving them equal time. He sometimes encouraged compulsive hand-washers to change their brand of soap. He told the following story of a successful pattern alteration:

A medically retired policeman told me, “I have emphysema, high blood pressure, and, as you can see, I am grossly overweight. I drink too much, I eat too much, I want a job but my emphysema and high blood pressure prevent that. I would like to cut down on my smoking. I’d like to get rid of it. I’d like to quit drinking about a fifth of whiskey a day and I’d like to eat sensibly.”

I said, “Are you married?”

He said, “No, I’m a bachelor. I usually do my own cooking, but there’s a handy little restaurant around the corner that I often visit.”

“So, there’s a handy little restaurant around the corner where you can dine. Where do you buy your cigarettes?”

He bought two cartons at a time. I said, “In other words, you buy cigarettes not for today but for the future. Now, since you do most of your own cooking, where do you shop?”

“Fortunately, there is a little grocery right around the corner. That’s where I get my groceries and my cigarettes.”

“Where do you get your liquor?”

“Fortunately, there is a nice liquor store right next to that grocery.”

“So, you have a handy restaurant right around the corner, a handy grocery store right around the corner, and a handy liquor store right around the corner. And you want to jog and you know you can’t jog. Now, your problem is very simple. You want to jog but you can’t. But you can walk. All right, buy your cigarettes one pack at a time. Walk across town to buy your pack. That will start to get you in shape. As for your groceries, don’t shop at the handy grocery around the corner. Go to a grocery a half a mile away and buy just enough for each meal. That means three nice walks a day. As for your liquor, you can drink all you want to. Take your first drink at a bar at least a mile away. If you want a second drink, find another bar that is at least a mile away. If you want a third, find another bar a mile away.”

He looked at me with the greatest of anger. He swore at me. He left raging.

About a month later a new patient came in. He said, “A retired policeman referred me to you. He said you are the one psychiatrist who knows what he is doing.”

The policeman couldn’t buy a carton of cigarettes after that! And he knew that walking to the grocery store was a conscious act. He had control of it. Now, I didn’t take food away from him. I didn’t take tobacco away. I didn’t take liquor away. I gave him the opportunity to walk. (Rosen, 1982, pp. 149-150)

Every addictive behavior pattern has its own set of unwritten rules. If we can violate those rules, then we undermine the entire pattern, make it more flexible, and gain more control over it. Instead of resisting the full force of an addictive behavior, when we first tweak a pattern our goal is to simply repeat the behavior we would eventually like to avoid, but to violate some unwritten rule as we do so. If we eat compulsively, we might identify carrots and spinach as foods we never overeat and insert them into our next binge. If we argue too much at home, we might limit our fighting to one room in the house–perhaps the bathroom. If we have a drinking problem we might sip, measure, dilute or space our drinks. Or we might become more conscious of the way our drinking pattern fits into our life by simply recording the details of daily events in a drinking diary. Some pattern tweaks like these will facilitate improvement in the problem pattern and some won’t. As Brian Cade and Bill O’Hanlon point out, “As with music, there will often be countless variations on a theme that can be played such that the basic underlying theme remains the same. What needs to be introduced are some variations outside that range, variations that can introduce a new theme. In a new and unfamiliar pattern, all sorts of unexpected things can happen.” (A Brief Guide to Brief Therapy, p. 125)

Using Talk Bubbles

One of the most useful pattern alterations I have used with my clients was inspired by a story I heard on a talk tape by Brad Wilcox entitled Pornography: Satan’s Counterfeit. He recalls:

I once attended a youth conference and I was being hosted in the home of one of the stake leaders. As we went up to the bedroom of his son, the stake leader says, “Brother Wilcox, I kind of need to warn you my son has a very interesting, you know, taste in posters in his room and you may be a little bit shocked by some of the things he’s chosen to put up on his wall. We’ve talked to him. We’ve told him we don’t agree. We’ve told him this isn’t something we would like to have him do. But he says he has his free agency, and he says that it’s not bugging him and all of his friends do it and it’s no big deal and to lay off. I just want to warn you that you may not like everything that you see in the bedroom.” I walked into the bedroom, I put my bags down, I looked up at the walls and the ceiling. The entire place was covered with beautiful women who were not wearing not much more than smiles. Beautiful smiles, beautiful dental work all around me on the walls. I thought, “Oh, my goodness, how does this child sleep at night?” And I put my bags down and we went to the youth conference.

I came home that night and got ready for bed. I knelt down at this young man’s bed and I started to say my prayers and there I was, praying in front of all of this beautiful dental work. I thought, “This young kid has no idea what he’s doing.” No, they weren’t naked, but he was crossing lines that he just didn’t want to cross. He was stepping into situations and circumstances that he just didn’t want to put himself in. He was playing with fire that he just didn’t want to get close to. And I thought, “How am I going to communicate this to him?” So I got creative and I thought, “I’m going to put clothes on every one of those girls. Just like Barbies, you know, I’m going to cut out the clothes and I am going to put those paper clothes up on those girls. But I thought that it would take me all night.” So finally, I thought, “Let’s see. I have another idea.” I cut out little cartoon bubbles, little circles out of paper with a little arrow coming out of the mouth. You have probably seen the bubbles that come out of cartoon character mouths in the newspaper. I cut out a bunch of bubbles and I put one by every mouth of every girl in that room. And in the bubbles I wrote messages like: “I am a daughter of Heavenly Father, I love him and he loves me.” And in the next bubble I wrote, “I’m a child of God.” In the next bubble I wrote, “I am only going to marry a returned missionary.” In the next bubble I wrote, “I love to see the temple. I’m going there some day.”

When the young man came home to his room I apologized for taking liberty and redecorating his room. He walked in, looked at it, and then he started laughing. “Oh my gosh. This is so cool. This is so funny. I am going to invite all the kids from youth conference to come and see.” . . . I thought the boy had not understood my efforts until I got a letter that assured me that he did. He wrote, “At first, I took what you did in my room as a big joke. I even invited a bunch of kids from youth conference to come and see your masterpieces. Everyone thought they were pretty funny. But then I started to really think about what you’d written on those papers. It’s true. Those girls are daughters of Heavenly Father and I certainly hadn’t been looking at them that way. To see words about temple marriage on those kinds of posters seemed so inconsistent. Suddenly it hit me that by having those pictures up on my walls I was being inconsistent too. Needless to say the posters came down.”

Here’s how I have been using Brad Wilcox’s creative idea with my clients: On a sheet of paper I drew talk bubbles containing statements like the ones he mentions, and added a few others, like “Satan has done a great job of deceiving me. Is he deceiving you right now, too?” “I am someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and I have hopes and dreams of my own.” and “I need your faith and prayers.” I then made a dozen photocopies of the sheet and cut out the talk bubbles, placing them in individual envelopes that I can hand out to clients.

I usually take out one of these envelopes during my first or second session with a client. I hold it carefully in my hands for a time before giving it to them, hoping to increase the sense of mystery about what’s in it and pique their curiosity about this new tool I have for them to use in their efforts to free themselves from tempting sexual behavior. Then I say, “I’m only going to give you this envelop if you’ll make me a promise. You may be wondering, how is this promise going to be any different? Over and over again, you have made a commitment to change your ways. Then, at some point following each and every resolve you have made thus far, you have ended up breaking down and breaking your promises. You may have broken promises to yourself, promises to loved ones, and even promises to God. So why am I convinced that a promise made to me, your therapist, might have more effect on you, more power to help you change, than all of the promises you have made so far? Well, I’m not going to ask you to make one of the same old promises you have always made before. I’m not going to ask you to promise to abstain from the behavior you find most tempting. I know you might not be able to keep that promise. But I am going to ask you to make a commitment that if you do engage in such behavior, you will do it differently than you have ever done it before, different in a way that I will tell you about in a moment. Will you make that commitment to me?”

After clients promise that they will follow my instructions, I give them their envelope and have them look over what’s written on the talk bubbles. “Next time you do look at pornography, place one of the talk bubbles against the computer screen, magazine page, or TV screen, just above the face of the person whose body you are viewing. Go back and forth, looking at the picture and then reading the talk bubble, at least a couple of times before you move on to another image. For each new image you look at, get out another talk bubble and repeat the process. More than one of my clients has reported that this procedure works almost as well with fantasy images as it does with visual pornography.

My clients report that using the talk bubbles sometimes helps them break the addictive trance and “come to their senses.” The talk bubble next to the person whose body they are viewing makes it more difficult to keep viewing that individual as a sex object. They are then in more of a position to appreciate such people for who they are: beloved children of our Father in Heaven. This process encourages us to view individuals from the widest-angle lens possible, instead of from a narrow perspective focused on the single dimension of body parts or sexual acts.

Making an Ordeal of Our Tempting Behavior

Vincent, one of the clients I work with in group therapy, told me about a pattern alteration he was assigned by his individual therapist, Kent Allen, who practices in Ogden, Utah. I thought it sounded very powerful, so I have tried it with other clients and some of them have also found it to be quite helpful as well. I call it “Making an Ordeal of Masturbation”

To lay the groundwork for using the technique, first determine what task or chore around the house or office you find most distasteful, tedious, or disgusting. For Vincent, this was cleaning out his car. For another client it was scrubbing the bathroom floor. Then, make a list of all of the negative consequences you can think of-both past and potential-that may result from engaging in your compulsive behavior. For Vincent these included guilt, loss of self-respect, wasted time, potential job loss if he were to be caught at work, interference with his progress toward marriage, problems in a future marriage, and the eventual escalation of such behavior into sexual involvement with other people. Finally, write out a check for a generous amount, payable to some charitable organization or cause. Give the check to a close friend, counselor, or ecclesiastical leader who is supporting you in your struggle. Tell them that they are to keep the check forever, unless at some point you inform them that you failed to follow your new rules for masturbating.

With these preparations completed, you are ready for the heat of the moment. In the course of your day-to-day life, once you reach a point where you decide you are going to give in to temptation, take the following steps:

Step One: You must engage in your most disliked chore for thirty minutes. (Think about the advantages of this strategy: even if you later go on to masturbate, at least you will have a clean bathroom!)

Step Two: If you still want to masturbate, break out the list of negative consequences and read over it, imagining each item on the list as vividly as you can.

Step Three: If you still want to masturbate, go into the bathroom, lock the door, and take off your clothing, one item at a time, folding each one neatly as you go, until you are completely naked.

Step Four: Then, if you still want to masturbate, you can begin. However, once you begin, you must continue non-stop for at least a half-hour.

If you masturbate without “following the rules” by going through the above steps, inform your supporter within 24-hours that they are to turn the check in to the designated charity.

Creative Variations: One of my clients decided that, after he was completely undressed, he would lay down in the bathtub to masturbate. He found that the cold porcelain against his backside was just the kind of wake-up call-a cold slap on the cheeks, so to speak-that he needed in the heat of the moment. For clients who use internet pornography as a prelude to masturbation, it’s helpful to add a rule or two about the viewing the pornography. For instance, one decided that he could only look at images after he had completed steps one and two above. He could then look at a tempting image on the computer screen. Following that first image, however, he would have to look up ten websites about topics beginning with the letter A (For instance, Aardvarks, Acid Rain, Atmospheric Pressure, Anaconda, Appalachian Mountains, Alabama, Aftershave, Altitude Sickness, Abdominal Discomfort, and Apples) before he could look at another erotic image. Then, after that second image, if he wanted to view another, he was to first look up ten websites about nonsexual topics beginning with the letter B.

As we come to an end of this discussion, I must admit that it is with some trepidation that I have written this. Some may find it disturbing that I help people think about different ways to engage in their tempting behavior. I can hear the complaints already. “Instead of teaching people not to masturbate, you just tell people to masturbate in new and bizarre ways! Shouldn’t your only goal be to help them stop engaging in that behavior?” As I think about possible reactions, I feel sort of like an ammunition supplier, worrying that the package isn’t very pretty as I send off a box to the troops on the front line. Regardless of how it looks, though, if this material might help people in the trenches I want them to have it. Our goal, indeed, is to avoid problematic behavior, not simply change the way we do it, and this method is by no means a fail-safe way to prevent masturbation or other kinds of tempting behavior. However, since awareness of what we are doing is a prerequisite for control, and since changing the way we do our compulsive behavior can be a creative way to bring an ingrained habit back into the realm of conscious awareness and control, I have found that it is sometimes a step in the right direction.


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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2 Responses to “Change the Way You Do Your Compulsive Behavior”

  1. kahuna said:

    You had me until it got to the part about making an ordeal out of it. I tried that stuff. I sure had a lot of the wrong kind of fun that way.

  2. Rex Goode said:

    kahuna, I can relate to that a little. I had a therapist who was a behaviorist, partially. He gave me this paper that had instructions for dealing with unwanted thoughts. The thing being suggested was that I was to create in my mind a very vivid vomiting scene about myself. Then, whenever I thought inappropriately about men or wanted to act out in some way, I was to play that scene in my mind as graphically as I could.

    I took the paper home and procrastinated doing it until the next week. I wasn’t just procrastinating. I had serious doubts about it being a good thing.

    When I got there the next week, my therapist asked if I had been doing it. I said that I hadn’t.

    He said, “Good. I talked to my supervisor and he told me to not go that route with you.”

    I was relieved. I saw that exercise as something that would warp me more than help me.

    While I never did as Dr. C suggests, I tried a great many things to do my acting out differently. Sometimes I made it something painful or inconvenient, and sometimes I just tried rearranging my ritual. None of that worked, but I did end up acting out a whole lot more when I was trying so many ways to stop than I did when I made the spiritual my priority.

    That doesn’t mean I discount Dr. C’s suggestion. I know him and he wouldn’t put it out there if it wouldn’t help someone. My point is, we’re all different, and there is a lot of merit in what he suggests for some people, even the part you object to. As they say in AA and other 12-step fellowships, “Take what you like and leave the rest.”

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