Gift of Our Compulsions: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Acceptance and Healing

Gift of Our Compulsions: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Acceptance and Healing

by Mary O'Malley

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Everyone is compulsive to some degree. People may worry too much, work too hard, or overindulge in food or alcohol or drug use. Once a compulsion is admitted, the usual option is to try to control the behavior. But this effort typically ends with the problem returning, or a new one taking its place.

In this book based on three decades of research and teaching,

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Everyone is compulsive to some degree. People may worry too much, work too hard, or overindulge in food or alcohol or drug use. Once a compulsion is admitted, the usual option is to try to control the behavior. But this effort typically ends with the problem returning, or a new one taking its place.

In this book based on three decades of research and teaching, Mary O'Malley has crafted a new approach, with simple exercises and techniques and an inspiring tone. People are compulsive for a reason, she says, and by observing the things they are compulsive about and engaging those compulsions, readers can begin to understand them and change their actions around them. The book's exercises help readers in the engagement process by teaching them to ask the right questions and shows why lasting healing comes from being curious rather than controlling, and self-acceptance comes through forgiveness, not shame.

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The Gift of Our Compulsions

A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Acceptance and Healing

By Mary O'Malley

New World Library

Copyright © 2004 Mary O'Malley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-787-6




I trust myself. How long has it been since you have been able to say this? Take a moment and imagine what it would be like to really trust yourself. Trusting yourself is about loving yourself from the inside out, accepting every part of your being. It is about living in your body, connected to an inner wellspring of deep wisdom that supports and guides you every moment of your life. And it is about having a responsive mind, one that is passionately curious about what is happening right here, right now.

I also trust my life.

I know how to wake up each morning and open to the unfolding of my day — both the easy and the difficult parts of it — aware that whatever shows up is a part of my journey into an ever-deepening connection with life. I am much more fascinated with showing up for what is than with trying to make it into what I think it should be. The joy this brings is beyond words.

How have I been fortunate enough to find a deep and wondrous connection with myself and with life when so many people live in reaction, existing in a world of struggle that is usually subtle and sometimes very painful? So many live in the belief that they need to be better or different from what they are to be okay. How do I experience a deep love affair with myself when so many not only do not love themselves but think that if they do they are being selfish? And how did I discover the joy of living in my body when so many live almost exclusively in their heads, believing that their bodies are just vehicles for maneuvering through their lives rather than wellsprings of wisdom, clarity, and support? The amazing thing is that it was my compulsions that brought me to a deep and abiding connection with myself and with life.

It wasn't always that way. As a child I lived in a household where nobody was really there, a familiar experience for many of us. Sure, people were going through the motions of living, but there was no real human contact. There were no playful eyes, no loving arms, no listening hearts that welcomed me into the world and let me know that I was valued for who I was. Children need a sense of connection and support from their caregivers. Being deprived of this essential nutrient of life, I left the world of I am!, in which I was easily and comfortably myself, and instead based my life on the belief that I am not/I should be — that I was not smart enough, beautiful enough, witty enough, that I had to change myself to make myself "better." I became a human doing rather than a human being, and the further I got away from who I really was, the more I lived from fear. I tried to make myself into the right kind of person to get the connection that I so desperately needed, but it was never enough.

By the time I was a teenager, self-judgment and despair filled me to my core, and my life became a never-ending maze of pain. I became vulnerable to anything that promised to make me feel better — and compulsions topped the list. I discovered that they could temporarily free me from the deep unease, struggle, and heartache that made up my inner life. When my cravings were satiated, I could relax all my trying, and for brief moments, I could taste a bit of the deep joy I had known before I had disconnected from myself. But quickly the self-hate and despair (that always came after a wave of compulsive activity) would devour my peace, and I would tumble back into that familiar place of struggle.

For almost half my life, I both hated my compulsions and desperately needed them in order to survive. They numbed my heartache enough so that I could at least function. I was taught that my compulsions were bad, and yet they relieved the pressure of always trying to make myself better or different from what I was. Binging on food is one of the strongest memories of my childhood, as I desperately tried to ingest the love I craved. I can remember when I was twelve years old, coming home from school, putting two pieces of toast in the toaster, and as soon as they popped up, putting in two more. Quickly buttering the finished toast, I stuffed them into my mouth so that I would be ready to butter and eat the next two. On and on I went until the fullness in my stomach temporarily numbed the emptiness in my heart.

I then went on to discover the mind-numbing world of prescription drugs, alcohol, busyness, and even some street drugs. Over time, most of these habits dropped away, but my core compulsion — overeating — remained. My descent into eating hell took many twists and turns over the years, all accompanied by great self-hatred, deep despair, and a sinking feeling that I was just too weak-willed to take control. Every failure at being in charge only fueled more self-disgust, which brought on more eating. After years of failed diets, counseling, shots, pills, hypnosis clinics, fasting, and anything else that promised a way out of this descending spiral, I weighed 220 pounds. I, like everyone else, was trying to heal my compulsion using the only method that was around at that time — control.

Learning to Listen

Thank God that controlling my compulsion didn't work for me. Stripped of any illusion that I was powerful enough to be in charge of these deep forces that would come roaring through me, I began to hear, as if over a very fuzzy phone line, a deep knowing inside me. This knowing said that lasting healing comes from being curious rather than controlling, that it comes from mercy rather than manipulation, from responding rather than reacting. It is about opening what has been closed, reclaiming what has been hidden, and remembering what has been forgotten.

I began to work with a woman who deeply understood these truths, and like a comet returning from the depths of outer space, I began the journey back to myself. One of the first things she invited me to do was to let go of the violence of dieting. This was like asking me to jump off the end of the world. I just knew that I would gain a thousand pounds in a month. But after a small weight gain, things began to settle down. As the clouds of my controlling mind began to lift a little, I could see that it was in listening to what was going on inside me when I was compulsive, rather than living in the endless cycles of reaction, that I would be healed.

So I began to listen.

Even though the compulsive eater within me would still rage through my life, leaving great devastation in its wake, I was becoming curious about what exactly was going on when I wanted to overeat. Slowly and surely, rather than hating my compulsion, I began to feel a bit of respect for it. Watching it in action, I realized that it was an old survival tool that I had picked up when I was young. I truly believed that if I ignored, denied, or ran away from anything unpleasant in my life, everything would be okay. When I finally began to truly listen, I could see not only that this did not work, but also that the exact opposite was happening. When I felt anxiety, I would numb out by overeating, and then I would feel more fear. (I will never be able to control myself, and I will just get fatter!) When I felt self-judgment, I would overeat, and then I would feel deep shame. (You are such a failure for not being able to control yourself!)

Noticing that my compulsions never brought me the deep peace I longed for and that trying to control them only made them worse, I began to become truly curious. Even just a few moments of being curious when a wave of compulsion arrived dramatically lessened my compulsive urges, and for years these bouts of uncontrolled eating lessened. I was no longer fighting them, so they weren't fighting me. My body discovered the weight it was comfortable at, and I ate mostly what I wanted, when I wanted. I can still remember the first autumn when sweets didn't look interesting. All the soccer candy, Girl Scout cookies, and Halloween junk didn't capture my attention. I was amazed!

There were times when the urge to eat everything in sight — and then some — would return, but it was more like a big ocean wave passing through than the devastation of a tsunami. Sometimes I could be curious for a moment or two while the wave of compulsion was passing through, but most of the time I could not bring any curiosity to bear until the wave had stopped. Even though I had received so much healing from learning how not to fight my compulsion, I hadn't yet learned how to meet and explore all the hidden feelings that fueled my periodic binges.

That was soon to change. After a number of glorious years of being in balance with food, my health began to deteriorate in my late thirties. My doctors suggested some fairly heavy dietary restrictions, and I began to re-experience all the feelings that were frozen inside me from being on a restricted diet when I was young. I had been born highly allergic to wheat, eggs, chocolate, and dairy products. If you think about it for a moment, you will realize that I couldn't eat "kid food" — no birthday cakes, cookies, hot dogs, sandwiches, or Hershey bars. In other words, I was always on the outside looking in, whether it was at birthday parties, the school cafeteria, or eating with my family. This created feelings of isolation, rage at being left out, and a sense that something was wrong with me. These feelings were a core part of my childhood and a hidden part of my adulthood. I finally rebelled as a teenager and had been eating unskillfully since then.

Now the doctors were telling me I had to go back to the food restrictions of my childhood! The compulsive eater inside me woke up and was having none of this. It didn't want to experience again all those agonizing feelings that come from a severely limited choice of foods. When I was told that wheat was poison to my body and that I should never eat it again, I went out and ate lots and lots of wheat — toast, cookies, whatever.

In reaction, I desperately tried to hold on to control, even though I knew somewhere deep inside me that it would only make matters worse. This time I didn't use diets. Instead I used eating programs whose focus was about health rather than weight loss. My intent in following these programs was more benevolent than my previous intent to lose weight. Yet I still was looking to somebody else's ideas about how I should eat rather than learning how to listen to myself. I hadn't yet discovered that only my body can tell me what I need to maintain balance and health.

After experiencing again the devastation of trying to control these urges only to have them control me, my curiosity kicked in again. I could now see that my core compulsion was to struggle, and my other compulsions had all been an attempt to numb out from the chaos, confusion, and despair that came from struggling. So rather than struggling with my compulsions, which only created more struggle, I began to listen when the old urges would come. I began to listen so deeply that I was able to see what I was trying to run away from when I was compulsive. And (big surprise!) all the feelings of being left out, defective, and hopeless that had been buried deep inside me since I was young were there when I wanted to binge. I could finally recognize why I was overeating. This was pay dirt.

I began to develop a relationship with the feelings that were fueling my eating binges. What I was doing with these feelings was probably different from anything I had tried before. I wasn't so much feeling these feelings as I was meeting them. There is a huge difference between these two things. In feeling a feeling you can get lost in the middle of it. Meeting a feeling is about relating to the feeling, giving it the attention and understanding it needs to be transformed back into free-flowing energy. As I met each of the old, frozen feelings that were fueling these binges, meeting them with my compassionate attention, they lost their power over me.

Through this willingness to listen to my compulsion and the feelings it was trying to manage, my compulsive eater and I became partners in my healing. When I committed to being present for my compulsion in a nonviolent way, it showed me all the parts of me that needed the healing of my curious and compassionate heart. As I met my feelings, I no longer needed to numb myself. Overeating became less and less a part of my life, as more and more parts of me became healed through my compassionate attention.

Being Present for Yourself

If you have ever been taken over by something that you cannot control — whether it is overeating, overdrinking, overspending, overworrying, or overworking — you will understand the intense gratitude I felt in learning how to come back into balance. At the time, I believed that was the extent of my healing. Little did I know that I had just begun to taste the joy of coming back to myself. As I became more able to be present for myself during a wave of compulsion, I began to be present at other times as well. Instead of that heavy, constantly struggling mode of existence I had lived in most of my life, I began to feel lighter. The tiny flicker of joy that used to be hidden deep inside me began to grow into a flame and then eventually into a warm and toasty fire that warmed me from my core.

I was becoming myself — not an idea of what I should be, not an ongoing project that always needed to be better or different, but truly and authentically myself. I was moving into a place of pure being — alive, joyous, trusting, and full of love. I was connected to an inner wellspring of deep knowing that supported and guided me. I finally saw that it was never food that I was hungry for. Rather, what I was really longing for was a deep and abiding relationship with who I truly am. This concept felt totally new to me, for even though all children know a rudimentary form of this kind of connection when they are young, as an adult I have no memories of it. Very early on I had lost connection with myself, pulling myself up and out of my body and becoming lost in my head. Being that disconnected, I lost trust in myself and in life. I had even lost the knowing that I had lost anything!

Being present for my compulsion helped me to meet all the parts of myself I had rejected, taking me step-by-step back into wholeness I had never known. I no longer live in a mind at war with itself. I know the joy of loving myself from the inside out, and being connected to my body again puts me in contact with the wellspring of joy and wisdom that resides there. Every once in a while I still get scared and my compulsion looks interesting, but in a very gentle way. And because these little waves of compulsion always take me another step into a deeper connection with myself and with life, now I even trust them.

I am telling you this story because it isn't mine alone. I am not just one of the lucky few who have healed and been healed by their compulsions. More and more of us have learned all that we can from trying to manage our compulsions, finally realizing that controlling them will never bring us the deep healing we long for. We are now ready for the next step — to heal and be healed by our compulsions. We are also beginning to comprehend that it is our birthright to make the journey back home — back to ourselves, back to our essence, which is the wellspring of joy, peace, creativity, and trust within us. The wonderful thing is that this type of healing, reclaiming the truth of who you really are, doesn't affect just you. As you heal yourself, you heal the world. For the mind-set that fuels our compulsions and then fights with what it has created is the same mind-set that has caused such heartache all over the world. This compulsion to struggle with life shows up in the sense of incompleteness and isolation that is the undercurrent of most people's lives. You can see it in the power games that are the hallmark of most relationships, whether between people, businesses, or countries. It also shows up in the political, religious, and ideological confrontations that are sadly so rampant on our planet.

When we hate and fear our compulsions, and when we judge ourselves for having them, that aggression spills out into our world, adding to the unconsciousness of humanity. When we learn how to be curious and merciful with ourselves and our compulsions, we bring equanimity and kindness to all that we are and do. In this new way of relating to ourselves, we become a part of the healing of this planet.

As more and more of us move beyond our compulsive need to do life — always trying to make it be different from what it is — and instead allowing ourselves to be life, just like drops of water filling a pond, one day the pond of human consciousness will overflow and the Earth will know the deep peace it longs for. You are reading this book because you are ready to ripen into a full and deep connection with yourself and your life. You are ready to heal at your core and, in that healing, become a part of the healing of our planet.

Let us now explore what took us away from the deep connection with ourselves and what it would be like to return there again.


Excerpted from The Gift of Our Compulsions by Mary O'Malley. Copyright © 2004 Mary O'Malley. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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