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During a coaching session this week my client and I were discussing agency and how language matters in the way that we perceive our struggles and engage with our trials.
As we were talking about pornography we were going over the different ways that we deal with other things that we abstain from. In particular, beer.
I think i’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but I’ll just touch on it briefly here. If you want to go into the way you’re thinking about things in depth, the membership and individual coaching are great ways to really dig in and actually apply these concepts to your life.
Most of us have been offered a beer in our lives. When I worked for an insurance company, I even had a coworker tell me that he was going to get me to drink as if it was a badge of honor. To be fair, we lived in Wisconsin at the time which has a deep tradition and culture of drinking. It is the home of a number of major breweries and Milwaukee, the biggest city, has more bars per person than any other city in the country. Basically, drinking beer is a way of life in Wisconsin. Totally unrelated to this story, two fun facts, In Wisconsin, you can take your 12 year old to the bar with you and they will serve them beer if the parent consents and your first seven drunk driving offenses were misdomeners until just recently. That’s how big beer is in WI.
In that interaction with my coworker, I was polite and happy to banter with him, but I wasn’t going to drink a beer with him. I would say things like, I don’t drink and that’s just not something for me.
As he pressed me, saying “oh, you’re not allowed to drink because your church says so.” I found myself double-checking my reasons for not drinking. It was never really in doubt, it was simply a check at my core of why it was that I had never had a beer.
I didn’t feel like I wasn’t allowed to drink. I didn’t feel like my church would cast me off if I did. I didn’t feel like my wife would be upset and leave me if I had a beer. (some of you may remember that Darcy joined the church as a teen and her family aren’t members)
It came down to this. I felt like I could drink a beer with this coworker if I wanted. But I didn’t want to and so I choose not to. It was my choice. It wasn’t something I wasn’t allowed.
So, I simply said, I could drink, I just choose not to.
As I was coaching my client we were talking about agency, which is essential to our ability to own and make decisions. I talk about agency in-depth in my first episode Agency and Addictive behaviors and episode 82 Easter, the Atonement, and Agency, I would highly recommend you go back and listen to those episodes and get a sense of how agency works.
As we were discussing his sense of whether he was choosing this and how agency plays into the way we act, he said, “I found that if I say, I’m never going to do this again, it puts the decisions into such a big picture that it’s hard to make choices from that long term [perspective].”
I don’t know if you are hearing this the way that I did in that moment. But it was a profound lesson for me. It was this lightbulb moment that made my conversations with my coworker make more sense about who I was and how retaining our agency is such an essential tool that any time we become rigid and inflexible in our sense of what we will and won’t do, begin to lose our agency and we begin to lose the battle of our choices.
When someone has asked me why I can’t drink, I’ve always said, “I can, but I choose not to”.
I don’t intend to ever drink, I don’t think I ever will. But, I’ve also retained my agency, even while saying no thanks to alcohol.
I didn’t say, “I’ll never drink”
I regularly use an example in my coaching that helps people understand their agency and how it works.
After we establish the idea that most of us can get behind that we can drink beer but we choose not to, I take my clients on a thought experiment. I say, what if I could come up with a scenario where I can almost guarantee that you will drink beer.
I say, what if you were stranded on a deserted island and on that island was a case of beer. And that case of beer is the only thing between you and certain death. You can either drink the beer and live as long as possible and maybe get rescued. Or you can not drink the beer and die pretty quickly. What would you do?
I know, for me, I would drink the beer.
I wouldn’t feel bad about it. I would simply do it and make the best of a horrible situation.
I think it is easy to see, in a life or death situation, how we can shift our priorities and values to best help us move forward and grow in this life. This is the mental flexibility I talked about in episodes 108 and 109 on values.
Porn is not life or death so we don’t acknowledge our agency the same way with it. With porn, how many of us have said, “I’m never going to do that again.”
We try very hard to be as rigid as possible about the way we think about pornography. That it is unequivocally bad, that it is never ok to choose, and that we are addicted if we do choose it.
Now, if you want to believe those things and I’m certain many of you do, then there is nothing wrong with that. My question would be, has it helped you solve the problem you are facing?
Has saying, “Never” helped you resolve the issue, or has it made you feel helpless, small, and incapable in the face of such a monumental task?
I remember clearly the day that I left never behind.
I was in the bathroom at the house next door to this one. We owned that house before we bought the one we live in now.
I was standing there, with my phone, going to the bathroom and my brain offered me the idea that i was alone and no one was home and I could check out some pornography.
It was a quick thought, maybe not even a full sentence like the one that I just described, but it was full of meaning to me.
This would have been a fight usually. I would have exercised as much willpower as I could to keep from going down the path. I would have phoned a friend or called Darcy to rescue me.
But I was tired of the fight. I was tired of the struggle and the neediness of having to rely on others to help me manage my brain, knowing that, in the end, they really couldn’t.
So, I simply said, I can do that. I can look at all the porn I want to. I can stand here and search until I explode. But, if I want to, I’ll do it later.
It was kind of magic. Not because there were wands or fairy dust or any special effects.
The magic was that the battle stopped. It was quiet and I didn’t have to fight or run the way we often talk about our pornography struggle.
In our efforts to reassert our agency, never isn’t a word that seems very useful. The phrase, “I can” holds immense power.
It is the power to choose, even if we can make choices that don’t live up to our moral standards.
But that power to choose gives us the capacity to learn from our mistakes and choose differently the next time.
Without it, we will not succeed at overcoming pornography for good.
If you’re thinking it is a little scary to have that power and that you might mess it up. You’re not alone. You’re actually having the same discussion that I think our Heavenly Father had when his children were given the choice to accept His plan or the plan of the son of the morning.
You once made the choice to take on agency. Make that choice again.