I’m not the kind of guy who typically shares my struggles with people, especially when it comes to pornography, masturbation and sexual addiction. If you ask most of my friends they’d tell you I’m an upbeat, positive guy who doesn’t seem to let life get him down. This, I agree is true. However, in the course of any given day “filled with sunshine” I struggle tremendously inside to live what I know to be right. But I am committed to come off conqueror.
In psychology there’s a concept known as dissonance reduction. When reality appears to be different from one’s beliefs or desires it can create internal disharmony or what’s known as cognitive dissonance. A common way that people try to reconcile this uneasy gap between what is and what is wanted is to change one’s beliefs…to bring into harmony one’s desires/beliefs with the perceived reality, being content.
Now at times, contentment can be very helpful and positive, freeing one’s self of flawed self and world views. But, it is worth considering the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the ability to change what I can, accept that which I cannot and the wisdom to know the difference.” The danger with always reducing dissonance by changing our beliefs should be obvious. Without a set of firm and true guiding principles we are likely to be tossed around every time something is difficult and ultimately never achieve greatness.
Life, by design, is meant to engage us in a grand learning experience. Pain or challenge is a great teacher to those seeking truth. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one intentionally seeks out these masterful educators. There is a second way to achieve a reduction of dissonance when reality seems to be separate from our desires.
Assuming that your beliefs are founded on true principles, i.e. they lead you to do good, to help others, to love and give and grow and have inner peace even when external circumstances are bereft of peace, then changing your behaviors or actions to align with your beliefs is at the very center of the principles of growth and change.
If we are here on earth to learn and grow and find and follow truth, which I believe that we are, then it’s a must to know when to change our beliefs to mirror truth and when to change our behaviors to do the same.
Cognitive Dissonance or internal uneasiness is almost like an indicator we can use to gauge our progress on our journeys through life, a life success barometer. Those feelings bring to our attention a basic need, calling to be filled. It’s then up to us to examine it to decide whether a belief needs to be changed or a behavior that needs to more closely fall in alignment with our beliefs.
Through thoughtful consideration and sincere prayer it would be in our best interest to decide whether we need to “stick to our guns” (our beliefs) and “cowboy up” (change our actions) or whether we just need to let go of old and untrue beliefs. It’s my firm conviction that we all have a conscience that, if we listen, can tell us what paths will lead to happiness and what ones will lead to sadness and despair. Therefore, any decision to let go of our beliefs shouldn’t happen just because it’s challenging to live according to them.
When we live truth we will inevitably encounter situations where we are tested in our devotion to it. Peer pressure, popularity of an idea of idea or support of an philosophy by a leader shouldn’t be our yardstick for measuring truth. Truth, when pondered in quiet moments with a sincere desire to live what one learns will “ring true” in some way. Often it comes through a calm or peaceful assurance. I will get excited by the prospects when I feel the clean & pure power of truth. Then it’s up to us to decide how we need to change to fit what we have just learned.
I recently heard someone say that which we focus on expands. I have heard this same idea expressed in other ways over the years and it is something that rings true to me as I’ve observed the things on which I focus. Focus is also how the brain learns and grows. It lays down new connections to reinforce existing connections and the more we study or spend time with a topic the more intricate the network of neurons becomes around that topic.
I have felt the power in this concept as I have been practicing what my pornography recovery program calls gratitude breathing. Each morning and night I spend 20 minutes in a quiet, secluded place. I have written down 5 situations that are fearful or anxiety producing to me. I bring them to mind, one by one, imagining myself in the setting. When I begin to feel the temptation or urge arise to indulge in sexual fantasy I immediately begin deep breathing, in for 6 seconds and out for the same. During my first breathe I ask the Lord for help in seeing things clearly.
While I breathe in I think of something for which I am grateful. While I breathe out I let the gratitude fill my entire body. I repeat this 5 times. As I’ve done this, a powerful calm fill me and I’m able to see the situation more clearly. I then face the temptation and re-frame it by stating aloud what I want it to mean to me.
For example: if the temptation is seeing a woman immodestly dressed and feeling the urge to fantasize about seeing her nude or having sex with her, after clearing my mind and filling my heart with gratitude I may say out loud something like, “What a beautiful woman. I wonder what her hopes and dreams are. I am her brother, a protector of virtue. I love my girlfriend and am excited to give my all to her someday. These powerful feelings I’m having are a gift from God to cement a loving relationship together. I choose to bridle my passions that I may be filled with love and respect for all women.”
This practice has prepared me to face temptations I inevitably have on a daily basis, temptations to align my actions with my feelings and leave behind my values and beliefs. It’s through a sincere study of and praying about the word of the Lord and other good books that I find the truths that can make one happy and it’s through living them that I live after the manner of happiness.