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Employing the “As If” Technique in Behavioral Modification

September 16, 2012

Experience teaches both cognitive therapists and spiritual fathers that it is easier to change concrete actions or to introduce new ones, than it is to change patterns of thinking. In dealing with addictive behavior—whether it be alcohol and drug abuse, gambling, or sexual addictions—the addict needs to learn not only anti-addictive behaviors, but also entirely new ways of behaving, outside of the confining world of constraints and pressures imposed on the addict by the addiction. Ancient Christian Wisdom describes one aspect of this strategy as the “as if” technique. “The ‘as if’ technique involves defining a therapeutic goal and then acting as if that goal were already achieved. For example, the patient who wishes to quit smoking might spend a week acting ‘as if’ he were a non-smoker. For example, he might ask others not to smoke around him, he might exercise, or he might sit in the non-smoking sections of restaurants. . . Related to the ‘as if’ technique is the strategy of having patients get involved with activities that clash with their problems. For example, since substance abuse and sustained exercise are incompatible, the therapist might suggest that the addict begin a regular exercise program to heighten awareness of the disadvantages of substance abuse. The church fathers were certainly aware that perceived incompatibility could spurn the believer away from sinful behavior, and towards virtuous conduct. . .Saint John Chrysostom suggests that those who are annoyed by his sermons on almsgiving and forgiveness try practicing those virtues, so that his homilies might become for them a source of delight, rather than irritation.”

The alcoholic who is tempted to take that drink, the sexual addict who is tempted to look at pornography should immediately practice another constructive behavior that is incompatible with movement towards the object of addiction. In Alcoholics Anonymous, those who are tempted to pick up a drink are always instructed to pick up the phone (not a drink) and call their sponsor. The focus should be on “what concrete steps can I take right now to act as if I’m not going to drink or look at improper material.” If the temptation is entertained, even for a moment, it begins to gain power and the chances of falling back into the old pattern of problematic behavior are multiplied. Time is truly of the essence at the moment of temptation. For the Christian, recourse to sincere prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner” is of paramount importance. And yet with the voices of temptation clamoring in the head, it’s not a matter who shouts loudest, but the extent to which the entire mind turns away from the addiction and towards the Lord Jesus with hope and with assurance that He can offer far more than anything the addiction can promise. It’s also a matter of planning to act in another way on the basis of inspiration from the Lord Who tells us to deny ourselves and take up our Cross and follow Him. Denying ourselves doesn’t mean being austere with ourselves, but thinking of someone else other than ourselves. Addictive behavior is always about me; love is always about someone else.

Thus, we need behavioral change and a commitment to avoid the people, places, and things that have historically served as triggers for impassioned thoughts, desires, addictive behaviors, and sin. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they have a saying, “If you hang out in the barbershop, eventually you’ll get a haircut.” We need to choose our surroundings carefully and modify them in accord with our ultimate aims in life.

In conjunction with the “as-if” technique, one must be vigilant in the arena of thoughts. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “If a carnal desire is aroused after gazing upon a beautiful face, Saint Neilus the Ascetic suggests that the tempted individual make use of the ‘short period of time available for careful reflection, so that he can examine and discern what is harmful and what is beneficial as well as how sorrowful he will feel after engaging in illicit pleasures and how much satisfaction and joy he will have when good thoughts blossom forth.” This is admittedly very difficult for one entangled in the throes of addiction. The addict must be vigilant in replacing those old “people, places, and things” with new, supportive and healthy people, places and things. In addition, the Christian will find the ancient ascetic practices of prayer, fasting, vigils, and frequent and honest confession indispensable in slowly changing behavior.
Our gracious and loving God wants to heal us from our sickness. He wants to restore us to spiritual health so that we might proclaim the glorious works of God. We must only take the small step and act “as-if” we were what we are ultimately called to be, then we can allow Him to accomplish His marvelous work in us.

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