Until you can see where you are, what is happening around you, and where you are going, you will likely stumble blindly along, feeling miserable and purposeless as you repeat the same mistakes or sinful acts over and over again, even though each time, you vow that you will never do it again. You likely struggle to overcome, only to give in again to the next temptation in the area of your greatest weakness. This is usually followed by deep feelings of guilt, suffering of soul, and despair of ever changing. It’s a cyclic pattern—that pattern of your sin.
Recognizing the pattern sin takes in your own life is one great step in learning how to overcome it. It is like studying the enemy’s movements enough to know what he will do and how to outwit him in his own battle. You can become the master of the situation by learning how to predict the next move and use effective strategies or techniques to counterattack or even to prevent attack altogether. Until you can do this with your pattern of sinning, you likely will feel vulnerable and unable to cope with a self-defeating behavior (SDB) and allow it to sweep over you without much resistance.
All sins are defeating to the true self—the person you were created to be. Whether yours is a sexual sin, a sin in defiance of social law, such as stealing, embezzling, or fraudulently representing yourself or others, or whether it is in the category of physical abuse to self or others through acts of violence or through drug or alcohol misuse, the underlying pattern is much the same.
The following strategy has helped many to take control over their self-defeating habits or feelings. First, on a sheet of paper draw a straight road with a fork turning off at the upper side. Under the road draw an arrow from left to right pointing to the right. This indicates the direction of travel on this road. Let’s call this “My Road of Life.” As you will soon see, it is the only road on which you can really travel. It may well be the most important road map you ever refer to.
Now, to complete it. Think of a recurring sinful act that you have not stopped doing. This may be a habit of some kind as stated before. Next, write the word Situation at the point in the road where the turnoff is located. This represents in your daily life any situation that demands that a choice be made. It may be a tempting situation to you, one that triggers your doing your sinful behavior. These situations may come up as frequently as many times a day, or as infrequently as once a week or once a month along your road of life. They will likely always be there, but what you choose to do about them is what counts.
Now, label the upper fork in the road “SDB,” representing the self-defeating behavior route you choose to follow whenever you commit this sin. Near the end of the SDB route, draw or write something to represent the sin you are trying to eliminate. This is a reminder of the fact that if you choose to take the SDB route, you will end up doing the sin again.
Now, just at the right of the place marked “Sin,” indicate all the adverse results, consequences, or prices that must be paid by you or others for going in that direction. You could show these by drawing dollar signs on price tags at that point. Some price tags may include bad feelings, anxieties, guilt, fears, rejection, expenses, lack of spirit, or depression. The lower straight road is your non-self-defeating route and is the road you were created to travel upon. It leads to greater happiness, creativity, openness, more freedom, and joy. Label it “Best Self.”
You have likely noticed that the best-self route was drawn straight ahead. Nephi stated: “O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.” (2 Ne. 9:41. Ital. added.)
In everyday living, before you travel anywhere you make an inner choice to get there or you would not end up where you do. This is especially true of a route you have taken many times before. Your self-defeating sin or habit is like this because it is a direct result of a series of choices that you alone make. It is true that these choices may become so automatic that you are not wholly aware that you are making them.
There seem to be at least five choices you make before committing a sin or habitual act again.
The first choice is called an “inner choice.” This is done in a split second and sometime before you get to the situation. The inner choice is in the form of an urge, a hankering, a thought, or sometimes it is a deliberate plan. For some, this inner choice is made so quickly that the person doing it tends to think no choice was made but that it just happened automatically.
For most sins, just the thought of doing it is not enough to get it done. Other choices are needed to carry out this mental plan or inner choice. These other choices are made in moments of time, also, and are more evident in your physical acts that lead to doing the sin; for example, an inner choice to commit a sexual sin must first have the thought about doing it at some time or another before the act can be committed. Then one would have had to scheme and plan to support that inner choice—by thoughts or by some additional behavior leading to the act itself. We could call these kinds of choices that support an inner choice, the “outer choices,” the second step to SDB. These outer choices occur on the road map of life somewhere between the inner choice and the completion of the act. They may be in the form of looking at pornographic literature or x-rated movies, or keeping sexual thoughts in mind.
The third choice we make along this pathway to sin is to decide to minimize or hide from ourselves the bad consequences that we know from past experience will result from doing it again. We choose to minimize the consequences by telling ourselves, “One more time won’t hurt,” or “This one won’t matter,” or “What is one?” or “Nobody knows,” or “I don’t care what happens,” etc. All of these are irrational ways of thinking that only help support the sin. It’s as if when you make an inner choice to do it again, you look down the self-defeating route and see some warning signals but choose to ignore them and take the consequences anyway.
Of course, telling yourself there will be no consequences is a big lie. There is no way to minimize the reality of those results except in the imagination. The real results will continue to be there until the sin is totally repented of, until you accept the payment made by the Savior who atoned for the sin, but even then, only on the condition that you choose to follow Him by going on the non-SDB or best-self route and forsaking the sin. There is no way possible to be saved from the consequences of the sin as long as you continue to do it. These consequences are inseparably connected to doing the sin and must be suffered for. There is no escaping them as long as you choose to go in that direction and do the sin.
Some try to minimize these results by saying that they have done it before and nothing too bad happened to them—they are still alive. But they ignore a large truth looming in the distance: That there is coming to each one of us a real, personal, and final judgment. King Benjamin pointed out that “if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, … even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish.” (Mosiah 4:30.)
Alma also pointed out that if we are unrepentant when we are “brought before the bar of God, to be judged according to our works.
“… then will our state be awful, for then we shall be condemned.
“For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; … and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God;
“… we must come forth and stand before him in his glory … and acknowledge … that all his judgments are just; … that he has all power to save every man that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance.” (Alma 12:12–15.)
In view of these ultimate consequences, is it not foolish to continue to deceive oneself into believing that you can get away with anything? There is no way yet invented to fool the Holy Ghost. Even SDB’s done in secret are known to our Father in heaven: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.” (Matt. 10:26.) “And Jesus knew their thoughts.” (Matt. 12:25.)
The fourth choice that must be made somewhere along the life road is to abandon what is best in you in order to go along the SDB route and commit a sin again. Since you are literally “begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:24), you have within you the potential to become as he is, and anything you do or say that goes against that inborn divinity defeats you in your eternal purpose. Could it be that the commonly known lie detector test works because of this truth? Even telling a lie goes against your spiritual self. It can be measured in your physical body in the changes in pulse, breathing, and glandular responses.
The fifth choice that you must make to do the SDB sin is to choose to behave irresponsibly in moments of time. It is at this time that you complete the SDB cycle again.
These five choices, then, are all needed in order to keep a sin going: (1) inner choices, (2) outer choices that support the inner choice, (3) the choice to minimize or imagine that the results are less than what they really are, (4) the choice to abandon who you really are, your best self, and (5) the choice to behave irresponsibly long enough to do the act again.
It is within your power to take charge over all of these choices and to select alternatives that are self-enhancing rather than self-defeating. Free agency is given to all. It comes in moments of time that are meted out to us evenly as long as we live. It is in these small units of time that we exercise our agency and do our choosing. Because of these, we are in total charge over the moment in which we do the choosing, even when we choose to be out of control. Those who exercise their agency to choose to go straight ahead on the road of life reap happiness and joy. Those who continually choose to go the SDB route reap sorrow, misery, illness, and even an early death.
These two routes will always be open to us at each tempting situation. If not, we would have no agency to choose. As Nephi pointed out, “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) God has jealously guarded the sacred gift of agency.
When you realize that the power is already within you to choose to follow the best-self route, then you can take control over your SDB, over your sin, and make certain that you end up receiving the blessing you really want for yourself and your loved ones.
You may find it helpful to keep yourself on the best-self route by taking a few minutes to meditate and imagine yourself meeting the usual tempting or trying situation, but as your best self. By this method you can use this reflective moment to took ahead and see greater happiness and freedom on the non-SDB route. This kind of thinking ahead in a positive way is called pre-experiencing.
It helps to take the strangeness and fear out of going down the best-self route when you have not been there for a long time. For example, just before going on a date, you can stop and imagine ahead of time that you are behaving as your best and most competent self on that date, feeling good about keeping your thoughts and acts clean and pure. Then when you are there in reality, you will find it easier to do, just as people who perform in athletic events usually do much better when they pre-experience themselves performing in a perfect way.
You may have some momentary anxieties or fears about what will happen to you if you really give up the old pattern of sin and go straight ahead just being your best self without it. You can face those fears when you come to them. They are usually nothing more than future projections down the best-self road and are based on some past experiences that are most likely to never happen again in the way that you have imagined them. They are called “mythical fears” because they do not come to pass, and you use them to scare you into making a detour to stay in your own pattern of sin. You may find that you cleverly put obstacles in your own path to keep from going on that route.
You can break through the barriers there, and face whatever fears you need to face, and go straight ahead as your best self.
It is because you have a choice that no temptation can be too much for you to withstand. You can always choose not to do the thing you are tempted to do. But you need to be aware that once you have set into motion your inner choice, followed by your outer choices to keep going in the direction of your sin, the closer you come, the harder it is to change tracks to the best-self route, and the more momentum you build up until you say to yourself, “I can’t help it; I am out of control.”
These two routes could possibly be likened to conveyor belts in a factory assembly line that run continuously. At different points along the line, each worker assembles parts of the object being built. Each makes a contribution toward the completion of the finished product. The end result can only be the total sum of all that was placed on the line.
You are in charge of most of the contributions that affect your own behavioral outcomes. For this reason, the final judgement will be totally fair. You cannot end up in either direction by chance. Only by choice can you end up in the celestial kingdom. Only by choice can you end up in any other lesser kingdom. God said of us in the council in heaven, “We will prove them … to see if they will [choose to] do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
“And they who [choose to] keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who [choose to] keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who [choose to] keep their first estate; and they who [choose to] keep their second estate [this earth life] shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abr. 3:25–26.)
“But, I don’t seem to have enough will power,” you may argue. What is will power? It is nothing more than a combination of two major ingredients—time and agency. Do you have any less of these two ingredients than anyone else? Or any more? You have been given time in which to make choices. And you have been given the ability to choose between alternative courses of action. Therefore, you already have within you all that is needed to follow the path that leads to happiness. “Happiness is the purpose and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof if we follow the path that leads to it.” (Joseph Smith.) Which path will you take? The choice is yours.