Psychological Self-Help

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When we have an overpowering bad habit that runs amuck and out
of control, surely it's wise to weaken if not destroy it. But, how? One
way is to simply expose oneself to the situations that give rise to the
urge and resist the temptation to give in. This is also called "cue
exposure" (Hodgson and Miller, 1982) or going "cold turkey" or "total
abstinence." For instance, a compulsive hand washer might
deliberately touch a door knob, their own underclothes, someone
else's underclothes, a dirty dust cloth, etc. without washing his/her
hands afterwards. This is a process of extinction which eliminates the
irrational reduction of distress or disgust (negative reinforcement)
after touching something by washing. It also forces us to do some
reality testing to find out that nothing awful happens when one doesn't
A craving or compulsion or addiction or habit often helps us
immediately avoid some disagreeable feeling or situation. Negative
reinforcement (reducing some unpleasant feeling) strengthens the
unwanted habit. Examples: Food helps some of us forget loneliness,
alcohol helps us avoid fears and feel powerful, working enables the
workaholic to reduce anxiety, repetitive checking of locks reduces fear,
compulsive masturbation may help us forget our troubles and self-
doubts even though it may add guilt, street drugs alleviate depression
or stress or boredom, cigarettes relax us, etc. None of these purposes
is bad, but the long-range consequences of these stopgap "solutions"
are likely to be catastrophic. 
St Augustine, an early religious leader, was, as a young man, a
compulsive masturbator. He wrote that an unchecked desire produces
a habit, and an unbridled habit leads to a compulsive urge. True,
modern learning theory says a satisfied desire reinforces the preceding
behavior. So, why aren't we all masturbating and eating compulsively?
Is it because some of us try harder to restrict the behavior? Is it
because more needs are met in some people than in others? We don't
know. Also, unfortunately, we do not know all the feelings that were
relieved by St Augustine's masturbation, almost certainly he didn't
Hodgson and Miller tell of a married man who masturbated once or
twice a day. He was concerned about the compulsive aspects (he
couldn't stop it), the religious aspect (he often thought of the
crucifixion while masturbating) and the unfaithful aspects (he also
looked at pornography or at prostitutes on the streets). The therapists
recommended that he expose himself to the situations that often
preceded masturbating: being criticized at work, feeling depressed,
being home alone, watching a sexy neighbor, and the situations
mentioned above that concerned him. But he was instructed not to
masturbate. At first he did this in front of the therapist, which
presumably helped inhibit masturbating. Later, he did these things
alone. After a year he was masturbating only once a week. 
Take the risky situations identified in step one (see Marlatt &
Parks, 1982, in chapter 4) and arrange them from low-risk to high-
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