“I especially liked the way you tackled the difficult topic of ambivalence and how our addictive behavior runs counter to the intellectual truth of the matter (common sense). There is a sorrow that the soul must go through in letting go of what it thought it loved. We have to come to the place where we truly get it that what God wants for us is GOOD. To some degree, our resistance to His will reveals that we do not really believe it is good—at least not the kind of “good” we want.” —Fran Leeman, Sr. Pastor, LifeSpring Community Church, Chicago (Plainfield), IL
by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
Ambivalence is the result of feeling pulled in opposite directions. We are motivated to do one thing while simultaneously equally motivated to do the opposite of that thing. Ambivalence is the lack of discrepancy between opposing motivations that fosters resistance against our recovery. To counter resistance, one needs to address and challenge ambivalence in an effort to increase discrepancy between conflicting desires and perceived needs. Authentic recovery requires letting go of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that fuel our addiction to self—MEdom; very hard to do.
What is very real is the sense of loss and discomfort we experience when we’re effective in our letting go. This is due to something referred to as homeostasis. A definition of homeostasis is “the process of maintaining a stable psychological state in the individual under varying psychological pressures or stable social conditions in a group under varying social, environmental, or political factors.” In other words, our psychological well being is constantly in pursuit of balance, what feels right and normal. At some point, as the pattern of irregularity and dysfunction in our lives are repeated enough, they are perceived internally as regular and functional. What is unhealthy is accepted on the inside as healthy. What is commonly known as imbalance eventually is perceived as balance. What might commonly be known as abnormal is believed to be normal.
Let’s back up a bit
We have to back up to the fall of the human condition thousands of years ago. It is a scientific neurobiological reality that we are born into selfishness. So we all struggle with an innate sense of entitlement. The wires in our brains are entangled by sin to want what we want when we want it, which of course is, well… right now. It just is, and on our own there isn’t much we can do about it.
Why are we selfish? Why so entitled?
What is happening when I know what is best for me, but end up giving in—reacting to—what I am feeling in the moment, rather than being more thoughtful in my response to a given situation or circumstance? Even though I get hurt, I repeat these mistakes. It felt good initially, but in the long run caused me pain… and then oops, I did it again. How senseless can I be?
The human brain has so many facets in how it works. The limbic system is an operating system generally seen as the emotional center within the systemic perplexities of one’s process of what to do with experiences. The brain also has within the cerebral cortex it’s more intellectual processors along a region known as the frontal lobes. It is there where most rational thought occurs regarding decisions, problem solving, judgment, planning and other higher forms of intellectual process.
Messages are relayed throughout the activity of the brain through a vast network of neurons relaying messages via neurotransmitters. Neurons are the messengers in the brain transmitting electrical impulses (nuerotransmissions) from neuron (nerve cell) to neuron—some trillion of them—throughout the central nervous system. When neurotransmitters are in balance, intellectual and emotional processes in the brain are operating well together.
The limbic system (emotional mind) involves neurotransmitters associated with the emotional part of the brain having to do with regulating mood and energy, pleasure and reward, anger management, pain modulation, relief and relaxation, contentment and satisfaction, excitement, and so on. It is a critical region of the human anatomy sensitive to trauma and stress; and in particular, sudden stress.
The cerebral frontal cortex (rational mind) involves neurotransmitters relaying signals having to do with thoughtful concern and caution, intellectual (cognitive) function, processing information, memory and recall for learning. When the neurotransmissions from these frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex are in balance with the neurotransmissions from the limbic system, motivation is healthiest and energy is most congruent with temperate emotional health (psychiatric stability).
“The frontal lobes are particularly important in our sense of willfulness and have even been attributed as the seat of the will. And the limbic system is typically regarded as the emotional value areas of the brain.” —Dr. Andrew Newberg, Neuroscientist
So when you hear talk of someone not being wired right or getting their wires crossed, it sound be facetious, but it’s actually the case. People are not electronic machines or robots. We are wonderfully and fearfully (carefully) made by God. God created the science of the human make up and the systemic process within the human brain and central nervous system. He created us to be special beings in the universe.
We were made to live in this world free of disturbance and distortion. But since neither you or I are God, we’ve taken this amazing instrument of his creation and made some choices that the intentional glitch of free will allow us to make. These choices are independent from the way the system is intended to operate. The result of these flaws written into the program, made by human error, have resulted in the network crashing, leading to disorder and imbalance.
Imbalance in these transmissions between neurons contribute to the experience of anxiety, unmanaged anger and stress, depression, and an overall sense of psychological disarray. Disappointment can decline into a sense of inadequacy and sadness. Sadness can sink into a deeper sense of worthlessness and sorrow. Worthlessness and sorrow can drown into an irrational sense of failure and hopelessness. What can be mystifying is when someone experiencing symptoms of neurochemical imbalance cannot identify stressors that are triggering symptoms.
These two systems of brain functioning need to work really well together in a symbiotic relationship. It needs to be a collaborative effort for healthy daily living for quality of life to be enjoyed. Unfortunately, the accumulation of life experiences can do damage to the relationship between what is often referred to as the rational mind—responding to thoughtful judgment—and the emotional mind—reacting impulsively to the acuity of pleasure and pain, resulting in irrational behavioral decisions when the brain’s emotion-centered circuitry overrides its thought-centered circuits.
“When things are working right, the ‘go’ circuitry and the ‘stop’ circuitry really are interconnected and are really talking to each other to help you weigh the consequences of a decision and decide when to go or not to go… It’s not that they’re separable. They’re interactive. They’re interlinked at all times.” —Dr. Anna Rose Childress, Psychology Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Childress talks about the problem of addictive behavior that complicates the process and compels the ‘go’ circuitry of the brain to go rogue and on it’s own bypass the warnings of the ‘stop’ circuitry as it pursues what it wants when it wants. It’s as though it becomes a force that cannot be stopped so long as what it wants is pleasurable and rewarding. So long as it feels good, it’s all good. The behavior is reinforced.
Until when? Until it stings, that’s when.
Pain is a bummer!
Albert Ellis, in something he calls Rational Emotive Behavioral Theory (REBT), says that all too often we falsely interpret real-life events in our lives and develop irrational beliefs activated by these events. The problem with these irrational beliefs is that when we act on them, we tend to make poor choices that lead to what at times are most dire consequences. It is an irrational belief system that fuels ambivalent feelings that have powerful influence over our choices.
To combat dysfunction we will seek a remedy. When a marital relationship becomes increasingly dysfunctional, one or both spouses might seek out additional relationships for a number of possibilities to remedy the marital dysfunction. Children in dysfunctional family relationships might act out at school, or get involved in gang activity, or become involved with alcohol and drugs. It may or may not be attention-seeking. What it is, is the effort to remedy discomfort and discontent regarding the dysfunction in their home life. Adults may also turn to alcohol, drugs, compulsive gambling, compulsive eating, compulsive spending, and so on. As the behavior is repeated, it becomes “normal” as the systematic routine for attempting to solve problems.
As thought patterns and habitual behavior become so a part of the fabric for “living” that even when one’s life situation improves, the behavior continues, generating a new set of problems and challenges. The obsessive thinking patterns and compulsive behavior (acting out) have evolved into a kind of ritual that must be performed just to feel a sense of normal and balance. Any deviation from the routine will not be tolerated. As the behavior carries with it risk and cost, and attempting to reduce or extinguish the behavior becomes increasingly disruptive and painful, and deemed detrimental to stop it, it is called addiction; the remedy to solving the problem of dissatisfaction.
The conscious effort to change the behavior is recovery. Recovery is incredibly challenging.
As we choose to submit to recovery God’s way, living according to His plan of blessing for us, it can be especially difficult to resist what we have believed we’ve needed to experience contentment. The draw of our irrational belief system can be painful. The loss of what we have believed for so long was precious and of primary importance, will leave us in mourning, grieving for that which we have lost. This ambivalence can jeopardize the sincerest attempt at honest recovery. We still need relief from the stress, both the original stress before recovery, and now the added stress (growing pains) while in recovery.
An example of ambivalence for me is when the alarm sounds in the morning. I am a night owl and tend not to be a morning person in the sense that I am not interested in getting up when the alarm has awakened me. I would prefer to hit the snooze button and sleep another nine minutes. I need to get up out of bed but that does not immediately appeal to me so I am resistant to getting up. The problem with that is that I have come to understand that I get nothing out of those nine minutes. They feel like mere seconds from the time I hit the snooze to the time the alarm sounds again.
When I was young, I believed that I could simulate sleeping in by setting my alarm to go off forty-five minutes before I absolutely had to get up to have sufficient time to get myself ready for school or work. I would hit that snooze button five times every nine minutes. This cat-and-mouse game of chasing sleep was no longer possible when I got married if I wanted to stay married (which I did). Besides, even though it was kind of cool to simulate sleeping in by setting my alarm extra early, I came to realize I was feeling a bit sluggish having deprived myself of some forty-five minutes of legitimate sleep.
The relief I achieved each time was only temporary. It felt good to put my head back down and close my eyes, but then the alarm went off again and with it came that desperate feeling for wanting more sleep. This is an example of the insanity of addictive behavior. I was doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result—that being the avoidance of the discomfort of getting up out of bed. Instead the alarm kept going off.
When my alarm sounds, I have ambivalent feelings. I want to sleep, but I also want to get up because it is necessary to earn a living. If I made it a habit to give in to the occasional euphoria of snoozing those extra nine minutes, it would be at the expense of my livelihood (after getting fired from my job for excessive tardiness). Sleeping in is the opposite motivation to getting up and earning a living so I have to consider both ends of the scale. Do I have more to gain sleeping in or do I have more to gain earning a living? Do I have more to lose with less sleep or do I have more to lose by not getting up to go to work? Is the extra nine minutes of non-productive sleep worth losing a client because I didn’t get to my appointment on time?
This and that?
Ambivalence might be best described as a kind of internal disagreement. Something is fun. Wow, is it ever fun! Over time it becomes less fun. Disagreement grows from within as to how fun the thing really is. What was fun is getting old and no longer fun. What was fun is actually becoming kind of painful. It’s really painful now. Have to stop because it hurts too much. After stopping it still hurts. Decide not to do that thing anymore since it hurts. Over time the thing becomes less painful. In fact, the thing really doesn’t hurt at all anymore. Remember when the thing was fun? Disagreement grows from within that the thing isn’t painful but it might be fun. Doing the thing again because it’s fun… Until it becomes less fun again and becomes increasing painful… and the cycle of ambivalence continues into addiction. Addiction when full grown is permanent destruction and death.
The trick is to use the ambivalence to disagree with the rationale (reasonableness) of addictive behavior that is attached to adverse consequence until it no longer makes sense to continue in it since it hurts too much with a certain degree of permanence. Choosing to challenge ambivalence is to identify beliefs that prove to be irrational and then rationally challenge those beliefs and justifications through recovery. It’s a choice between life and hell. To choose life is to choose to live in the glory and excellence of God’s best, available to all who commit to recovery from selfish ambition God’s way.
The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. Galatians 5:17 (NLT)
As we consider recovery, to not acknowledge our ambivalent feelings about our recovery is to be in denial with a tendency toward resistance to the work of recovery. Ironically enough, the euphoria and relief achieved using alcohol and drugs might not last much longer than nine minutes. Expressing my rage through vengeance against you can provide so much relief for me, even though the relief may not last much longer than nine minutes. That problematic sexual experience might bring incredible pleasure, though maybe not for much more than nine minutes. But those nine minutes can feel so good. Then, when the nine minutes are up, we have the rest of our lives that are so often destroyed as a consequence of indulging in the addiction for those nine minutes. But we still tend to mourn the loss of our nine minutes of pleasure, satisfaction, and relief. The fact that our mourning over this loss can have such impact on us, even as we’re aware of the adverse consequences of the behavior against us and those that we love, is our sickness in addiction to self—MEdom.
Addiction is the process of continuing a pattern of destructive behavior despite adverse consequences even when the behavior and its destruction are out of control. Addiction is hitting the snooze button again and again even though it really accomplishes nothing and can result in destroying one’s livelihood. How many of us are willing to destroy ourselves and the people we love over a lousy nine minutes? We do it all the time.
I ask my clients to list all of the benefits and consequences of using alcohol and drugs (i.e., pleasure, euphoria, relief, courage, escape, using relationships), and then I have them list all of the benefits and costs of abstaining from using alcohol and drugs (physical and mental health concerns, trust issues, legal and financial concerns, marriage and family issues, spiritual aspects). I have them list every emotion and feeling they have, and every relationship they value that are affected on both sides of the isle of using and abstaining from their drug of choice. Then after they have developed their lists, I ask them to rate each issue, emotion and relationship on a value scale from one to one-hundred. We add together the benefits of using with the consequences of abstaining from alcohol and drug use. Then we add together the benefits of abstaining with the consequences of using alcohol and drugs. This gives us a ‘using’ score and an ‘abstinence’ score. I have yet to have a single client whose abstinence score wasn’t at least double their using score. This exercise might settle the matter of ambivalence on an intellectual level but it assures no one that they will decide in favor of recovery from their addictive problems.
The problem is that discovery and revelation of our destructive addictive nature does not change our addictive sin nature. It has by nature control over us. The benefit of an extra nine minutes of sleep is never in actuality advantageous. The benefit of recovery may outweigh the benefit of our addiction by a million to one, yet so often our addiction wins out and destroys us.
We continue to hold on to the thing that is killing us, even when we know how it is killing us and understand why it is killing us. Somehow, we cannot seem to overcome our addiction. Even when the benefit of freedom clearly outweighs the cost of captivity, we tend to continue to choose to remain captive. Paul described his own ambivalence to his Roman friends when he said, “I do the things I don’t want to do, and I don’t do the things I want to do. I continue to do those things I hate.” He was disgusted by his behavior and felt miserable about it but continued the behavior just as we do. It made no sense to him until he proclaimed that “it is no longer I that do it but the sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:20)
There is a continual battle between our sinful addictive flesh (attitudes and behaviors) and God’s Spirit of recovery that is alive in us. We have on the one side that which we have to gain and lose in our addictive sin, and on the other side in recovery that which we have to gain and lose when we turn our will and lifestyle over to God to work out his purpose in us. These ambivalent feelings provide the dilemma between living recovery our way versus living recovery God’s way. We may have little to gain going our own way and have a great deal to lose, and may have little to lose going God’s way with everything to gain, yet so often we yield to our selfish independent nature and stay on our own course; that is until consequences become severe enough that hopefully we come to our senses and realize we’re hurting real badly and want God’s help.
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. Romans 7:21-25 (NLT)
Jesus had occasion to heal a man who had been paralyzed for almost 40 years (John 4:1-15). We don’t know what happened that the man could not walk. The Scripture does not tell us that he was born that way. It is entirely possible that something happened to the man that left him paralyzed. It could have been a bad fall, or perhaps the man contracted a horrific disease that rendered him paralyzed. It’s possible that his condition was the result of bad behavior. Maybe he was brutally beaten as a very young man.
In any case, aware that the man had been laid up for a long time, Jesus approached him at the pool of Bethesda and asked, “Would you like to get well?” (John 4:6) This may seem like a peculiar question, but think about it in the context of this article about resistent recovery. The man went on to rationalize as to why he’d been unable to find the appropriate help to obtain the remedy required for his healing. The man didn’t yet know who Jesus was, so his elaborate response to a simple question was also a bit odd. Jesus then said to the man,
“Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.” Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking! John 4:8-9
The man had a physically transformative experience. He was healed, and he knew it.
The thing is: what if the man contracted a disease on account of his own behavior that had resulted ultimately in his paralysis? I ask the question because we can often invite tragic consequences into our circumstances as the direct result of our choices and behavior. This man went from being an invalid to heading right back into harm’s way. At least that is what Jesus thought.
But afterward Jesus found him in the temple and told him, “Now you are well; so stop sinning, or something even worse may happen to you.” John 5:14
Something “even worse” than paralysis? What could be worse than that? Temples in Bible times were often a den for prostitution. What if, as a young man, this fellow contracted a disease from a prostitute that at that time may have led to his paralysis? It appears as though Jesus went looking for the man, as though the job of the man’s recovery was incomplete. Sure enough, the man may have been after the thing he had been missing for 38 years. Could it be that he was in the process of repeating the same immoral behavior that may have cost him fellowship with God? Not so much as a punishment for sin, but because he broke fellowship with God in favor of his selfish pursuits. Isn’t that how we break fellowship with God in our lives, since we cannot worship ourselves and God at the same time? We are blessed with the Spirit of God and the Word of God, but this man had neither at that time, so Jesus sought him out physically.
Just when like we relapse back into patterns of addictive ‘me’dom thinking and behavior, so did this man. But Jesus pursued him, found him, and warned him of the danger of returning to that life. He had given the man new life through the use of his legs. Was the man going to take the blessing of a new life and take it back into his old life? Jesus made Himself known to the man so that relationship could be established beyond the physical transformation. Jesus addressed this time the man’s need for spiritual transformation. Something “even worse” than the worst of this world would be missing out on the best of the life God has for us in this life and beyond.
In the movie, “No Country for Old Men”, the villain tells a man that he has a choice concerning a coin flip. The choice for the man was to choose heads or tails as the villain held out a coin. He told the man his chances were 50-50. “You have to choose.” The man, fearing the unknown of random chance of a random consequence resulting from his choice—a consequence not made known by the villain—was completely torn and did not want to choose. Since we are free to choose to accept or reject God’s help we must indeed choose. Christ is heads and selfish ‘me’dom is tails. This time, though, it isn’t the flip of a coin; you just get to choose. You can simply choose heads and it’s done.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” The word “Lord” means authority. Jesus Christ has authority over all things everywhere. In his authority as God, Jesus has, by his grace, afforded you the ability to decide for yourself where you’re going to go and what you’re going to do and when you’re going where you’re going to do it. The thing is it’s a big bad world out there. There is a devil roaming the earth seeking whom he may devour. There is also a very selfish inner voice—your inner voice—whispering to your thoughts what you need to think and do to get your own way, even at great risk. Your inner voice is subject to the master that is sin. Ask Christ to be the one to influence your inner voice. As you submit to the voice of God in your life your chances of making it fare far better than 50-50. Otherwise, you can do a lot of damage in nine minutes.
“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life.“ Dueternomy 30:19-20 (NLT)
To experience freedom in your recovery from having to constantly negotiate between what your sinful flesh demands and pursuing the will of God in your life, requires the action of repentance. Standing in the middle looking to the right and to the left is not going to get it done. Because that little devil on your left, may not be a devil at all. It is your selfish sin nature dragging you back into an addictive pattern of thinking and living. Repentance occurs when you are finally broken in your struggle for what is truly best and realize that you cannot survive on your own. Once you admit that you are not in control, that your selfishness is controlling you, and submit your brokenness into the hands of God, believing He can and will empower you to repentance, you will be given the grace to turn completely from your selfish sin and pursue real relationship with Jesus Christ.
When you are submitted in your commitment to God—in relationship with Him, not as a religious undertaking—you do not have to worry that something “even worse” can happen to you. As you focus on your commitment to the One with the authority and willingness to empower you, you are transformed and renewed, free from the enslaving power of self-centered sin (read Romans 6-8). That is a promise, and you can know for certain in your heart, mind, and soul that, when it comes to promises, God is good for it.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. Psalm 51:12, 17 (NLT)