“Why do I keep doing that?” It’s a common question we ask ourselves regarding our personal sins and less-than-ideal behaviors. Our sins provide us with a way to know that something within us needs our attention. Most people want to change, want to be better, but just can’t seem to do so in the way they desire.
“Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner” (Kimball, Ensign, Aug. 1979, 5). Understanding some of the causes of sin, and developing greater compassion for ourselves, and others, can help us be more effective in coming unto Christ and healing our hearts of our sins and weaknesses.
What Are Your Personal Sins?
We all have our own unique sins. While some may struggle with more obvious or seemingly serious sins, such as alcohol, drug or sexual addictions, each of us carries our own damaging behaviors that keep us from our divine potential.
Becoming aware of our individual sins is necessary to overcome them. Susannah Wesley provided a valuable yardstick to help us determine our specific struggles, “Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself” (Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 278).
What are your sins? What are your weaknesses? Creating a list of your sins and weaknesses can help you become aware of the areas that you need to work on.
Why Do We Sin?
How often do you ask yourself, “Why?”
- “Why can’t I stop viewing pornography?”
- “Why can’t I stop overeating?”
- “Why am I so critical of others?”
- “Why do I get angry so easily?”
- “Why am I a such a workaholic?”
- “Why do I spend so much money?”
- “Why do I feel so much despair?”
In my own efforts to understand what causes these compulsive behaviors and what we can do to overcome, I have become convinced that our sins are generated by three things:
- Unmet emotional needs,
- Negative core beliefs, and
- Touch deprivation
It’s not surprising to see these as underlying causes of sin when you realize that these mental/emotional dimensions are the least addressed aspects of our lives. Physical health and spiritual health are fairly well understood and addressed, but neuro-emotional health and well-being is still largely unknown territory to the general public.
1 — Unmet Emotional Needs
The Savior was able to see deep unmet needs as a cause of sin. If we are to emulate Him, then we too must be able to look more deeply into our hearts, and the hearts of others, and offer compassion instead of judgment and condemnation. This does not mean we excuse the sin, but are striving to respond in a way that is more helpful and more Christ-like. We don’t always get to know others’ real situations, so any time I might be tempted to judge or think poorly of someone for something they have said or done, I remind myself of the many times I have had the opportunity to learn of the full circumstances, and see into their heart, and have instead felt deep compassion for them.
It reminds me of when Elder Henry B. Eyring shared the counsel he had received to always treat others as if they were in serious trouble (or had some significant heartache) and he would be right much of the time (see Eyring, Ensign, May 2004, 16). Treating others as if there is some deep hurt in their hearts allows us to look with greater compassion on others, as the Savior did.
So, what are these unmet needs and what can we do about them? We all have basic needs for love, acceptance, connectedness, and to feel secure, valued and needed. When these needs are not met in the home — within our closest relationships — we seek substitute fulfillment elsewhere.
Sometimes the hurt and longing for these intimate feelings is so great that we will do anything to ease or deaden the pain (though this is often a subconscious process). This is when we become susceptible to all sorts of counterfeit forms of love and acceptance. We become weakened to the point that we will compensate for the deprivation, seek to escape or self-soothe with things such as alcohol, overeating, overspending, pornography, selfishness, excessive reading, sleeping or Internet surfing. We attempt to find ways to cope with the emotional anguish through affairs, anger, abuse, busyness, over-attention to our children, perfectionism or self-righteousness. These behaviors become self-sabotaging, further precluding us from receiving the very things we want and need the most.
If we can look at ourselves with more compassion, considering the factors that cause our vulnerabilities, rather than see our sins as permanent character flaws or inherent personality weaknesses, we can give ourselves the hope needed to change. We can look for ways to address the underlying unmet needs rather than merely condemning the undesirable behavior we’ve used as a substitute. Identifying our unmet needs comes through introspection, pondering and prayer. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Transformation follow[s] introspection” (Maxwell, Ensign, May 2003, 68).
We have a great resource within each of us to teach us and bring all things to our remembrance, which are expedient (see John 14:26, D&C 75:10, D&C 130:22). The Holy Ghost can assist us in our introspection to help us identify what the holes in our heart are about, and what we can do to mend them. Elder James E. Faust spoke of this need for inner healing in a First Presidency Message entitled “Strengthening the Inner Self.” He said, “The healing that we all so often need is the healing of our souls and spirits … If we are to further strengthen the inner person, the inner self must be purged and cleansed [and healed] …” (Faust, Ensign, Feb. 2003, 4?6).
How to Become Aware of Unmet Needs
With a notebook we can begin to identify our thoughts and feelings, and become more generally aware of our hopes and desires. I call this a “Self-discovery Journal.” The intent is not to identify someone to blame for our unmet needs, but rather to understand where healing can begin.
Part of identifying our needs is to discover what makes us feel loved. Many people are not even sure what they want or need. Make a list of ten specific things that make you feel loved and cherished. This will enlighten yourself regarding your needs, and be a gift to others who would like to be more effective at loving you meaningfully.
We can’t always turn back time and have our unmet needs filled by those who didn’t fill them in the first place. We can, however, seek to develop healthier relationships now, and create an environment where needs can be filled and hearts can be healed. Human needs are best met within the home, and among our closest, intimate relationships. This is one of the vital reasons for marriage and family.
As adults, we are responsible for our own happiness, which includes learning to fulfill our unmet needs. This can occur by cultivating unconditional love and acceptance for our self, as well as others.
There is a clear link between loving ourselves and loving others, as addressed by the Savior who taught, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31). In this statement “as” could mean: “Love thy neighbor as much as thyself,” or “Love thy neighbor in the way you love yourself.” Few of us may have experienced pure unconditional love, but as we internalize God’s unlimited love for us, we can develop this love for ourselves. Further, by offering this kind of love to others, we can heal our own unmet needs, as well as lift and strengthen others.
We can also heal unmet needs by changing our thoughts and perceptions about them. I once had what I thought was a critical need for my husband to fill. I came to realize that it was not something he was likely to be able to do for me, so instead of dwelling on it I chose to change my beliefs about what I needed, and also sought the Lord’s help to heal that need. Filling unmet needs through changing our beliefs brings us to our second point.
2 — Negative Core Beliefs.
I recently asked a friend what he thought was the cause of sin. He responded that he believed it was a lack of understanding (or faith) in the atonement and the Savior to compensate for our weaknesses and heal us of our sins. Sometimes the way we teach the saving doctrines or “good news” of the Gospel, we leave the impression that we’re on our own to work out our salvation. If we do enough, serve enough, strive enough, maybe we can make it. Then when we realize that our “doings” and our willpower are not enough to stop our sins and weaknesses from overtaking us, we may develop a sense of hopelessness or hyper-vigilance about our “doings” of life.
Having correct beliefs is crucial to our health and well-being. Knowing that the atonement can cleanse us of our sins and weaknesses, as well as heal us of other’s sins, creates a core belief that is needed in order to have hope that our efforts are worth it, and that we can become whole.
When talking with a friend about the serious struggles she was experiencing in her marriage related to having multiple affairs, I asked why she thought she had engaged a second time in an extramarital affair. She told me that she knew she had already screwed up, and believed her marriage was over anyway. She felt there was no use even trying anymore.
This negative core belief about herself, her marriage and her God led to repeated sin. But with a change in her beliefs, grounded in faith, she decided to choose again what her beliefs would be, and instead chose to believe that she could repent, her marriage could be saved, and that the Lord still loved her and could and would heal her. This new belief provided her with hope, desire to change, and the wherewithal to work toward her desired beliefs. Her faith, or strong belief, provides the evidence of something she cannot yet see (see Hebrews 11:1).
Mental Blueprint as Motivating Force
Each of us has an internal motivating force behind all our actions of which we are mostly unaware. It is a “mental blueprint” of our core beliefs about our self, others and life in general. Dr. W. Dean Belnap, LDS neuropsychiatrist, stated, “Whatever thoughts or behaviors you have imprinted yourself, or have allowed others to imprint on your brain, are affecting, directing or controlling everything about you” (Belnap, Meridian Magazine, Mar. 22, 2005). These beliefs are formed from birth by our thoughts and life experiences. We replay our thoughts and experiences over and over in our minds until they form core beliefs.
Whatever thoughts — positive or negative — that we allow on the stage of our mind, develop over time into mental habits or processes, like well-traveled neuro-pathways. Our thoughts and beliefs are the originators of our emotions as well. If allowed to flourish, these mental habits deepen until they become core beliefs on our mental blueprint, determining the direction of our lives. Our core beliefs are sent out, attracting the experiences that fit what we think and believe. If we focus on fear and doubt, we invite experiences that will confirm our fears and doubts. If we can stay mentally focused on joy and gratitude, we invite those experiences instead. It’s like the law of the harvest. What we send out comes back to us multiplied. This applies to our thoughts as well.
All things begin as a thought. Your house was first a thought. The chair you are sitting on was first a thought. Your marriage relationship was first a thought. Our thoughts are powerful creators in our lives. As a man (or woman) thinketh, so is he (see Proverbs 23:7).
Our brain will believe whatever we tell it. Life experiences, comments or labels get imprinted on our heart and mind, teaching us what to think and believe about ourselves. If our beliefs are positive and productive they will lead us in the way of goodness and righteousness. If our beliefs are negative or unproductive they will lead us to do things that are self-sabotaging and sinful. If you wonder what your core beliefs are, look at your life…What are you getting? What are you creating? That will tell you what your core beliefs are.
Developing the ability to think about our thinking is a unique human characteristic. If we can become more aware of our thoughts, and choose our thoughts more wisely, we can harness a great power to create righteousness in our lives.
We Can Master Our Mental Compass
The exciting news is that we are or can be the master of our mental compass. Our actions are based upon our agency, and moral agency is intricately connected to our mastery, or control, over our thoughts. Our agency is limited only by our beliefs and faith. The Savior taught, “If ye will have faith in me [or strong belief] ye shall have power to do whatsoever thing is expedient in me” (Moroni 7:33, see also 1 Nephi 7:12, Moroni 7:26).
Harnessing the power of agency requires that we take charge of our mental blueprint by consciously choosing, directing and redirecting our thoughts to create our desired outcomes. If we do not control our thoughts, we can lose our agency and become victim to our addictions. President Boyd K. Packer taught, “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency. It can rob one of the power to decide” (Packer, Ensign, Nov. 1989, 14).
We can choose to behave better, but we first must believe it is possible, or that we deserve it. In visiting with a couple regarding their marriage, I asked the husband if he believed there was any hope for him and his wife to create a mutually fulfilling and joyful relationship. He wasn’t sure there was any hope, and I reminded him that if he could not find a way to believe it, then it would not likely be possible to create it. Our thoughts are powerful creators. By changing his belief to the possibility that a 30-year marriage of pain and struggle could actually become a happy and healthy marriage, he was then able to open that very door.
This newly acquired belief continues to provide the impetus for the marriage of his dreams to be created before his eyes.
Our behavior follows our beliefs, not the other way around. Analyzing and addressing our thoughts and beliefs are key components of conquering the habits and behaviors that seem to hold us hostage. We all have a few compulsive or reactionary behaviors that run when our mind is on autopilot. Some of us may compulsively yell, gamble, criticize, eat, or view pornography. With determined effort and sufficient self-awareness we can develop the mental discipline to choose again and change our thoughts and core beliefs. This change in our mental operating system can unlock the mentally imposed chains that bind us to our compulsive behaviors and the unsatisfactory life circumstances in which we may currently find ourselves.
One of the best ways to uncover your automatic thoughts and deeply ingrained core beliefs is to frequently write in your self-discovery journal. At the front of this notebook title it “My Self-discovery Journal.” On the last page title it “My Positive Beliefs List to Reprogram.” Keep this notebook with you, and spend some time every day, or as often as possible pondering your life. Write down questions you’d like to know about yourself, like “What are these sad feelings really about?” or “What seems to trigger me to binge?” Then brainstorm some answers by free-writing everything that comes to your mind. Do not judge anything. Just let the thoughts flow and be okay. Ask and expect the Lord to bring to your awareness whatever is expedient for you to know or understand.
As you begin to identify negative thoughts, emotions, and beliefs turn to the back of the notebook and begin to choose a new more productive belief to replace the negative one. If you find that you have a belief that “Nothing ever turns out right for me,” ask yourself what you would like to experience or believe instead. Write down something like, “I experience the perfect life experiences for me to learn and grow,” “I find joy in each moment of my life,” and/or “Everything turns out just right for my mortal experience.” Some of the most recent positive beliefs I have added to my reprogramming list are: “I am the designer and creator of my life.” “My life is abundantly fulfilling.”
As you uncover new negative beliefs, continually add to your reprogramming list. Read or record your positive beliefs, so that you can replay them in your mind until the new program is thoroughly ingrained. At first this process will be a little difficult or awkward as you clear new pathways in the forest of your mind. Over time you will get better at automatically directing the traffic along your new neuro-pathways. As the overgrowth of negative underbrush is removed and replaced with paved highways, you will have broken the power of the subconscious forces that used to rule your life.
How Unmet Needs Create Negative Core Beliefs
Let’s go back to the concept of unmet emotional needs and how they can translate into negative thoughts and core beliefs. If, as a child, your need for time and attention from your father was ignored because he was too busy or didn’t know how to connect emotionally with others, then you might grow up thinking you are somehow not really loveable. This core belief will play itself out over and over in your life and in how you respond to others. It will be the hidden motivating force behind seeking love in all the wrong places. It may also lead you into problems with forming healthy, lasting relationships, because you subconsciously can’t believe that anyone would ever really love you anyway.
If you had parents who were too busy trying to fill their own empty buckets to meet your needs, you may develop the belief that you are not important or not valued, and spend the rest of your life trying to prove that you are important and of value — even to your own detriment. Instead of dwelling on these experiences and the resulting beliefs, you can awaken to the impact of your inner blueprint and choose new beliefs. The mind can be reprogrammed, as if erasing an old software program on your computer’s hard drive and installing a new one.
While it may be easy to slip into feelings of guilt for the ways we have contributed to others’ unmet needs, or our own, it is merely another unproductive belief that will not serve us. A healthier response is to consciously choose to believe that you’ve done the best you could at any given moment of your life, considering everything. Add to your positive beliefs list, “I always do the best I can, and my best is good enough.” Having compassion for your weaknesses will make it easier to engage in the personal growth, which your sins invite you to make.
3 — Touch Deprivation
Touch deprivation is closely related to unmet emotional needs, but warrants its own category because of its significance in breeding sin. We all have a universal, biological need for physical touch. It provides physical, psychological (mental/emotional), social and communicative value and nourishment in our lives. You’ve heard of the studies done on orphanages where babies that were not touched enough developed marasmus (failure to thrive) and died. You’ve probably seen the LDS film The Cipher in The Snow, where a young boy of little apparent consequence steps off a bus and dies. The need for love and affection (physical touch) are intimately related to each other, and are essential to one’s well-being and survival. Our need for touch begins at birth and doesn’t end until death — even though the amount of touch we receive tends to taper off in childhood, nearly ceasing altogether by puberty.
Touch deprivation or “skin hunger” generates a desire to be touched, a yearning for physical contact, or a need to be held. One woman told me that she felt so hungry for touch that she would surreptitiously brush up against people just to feel the physical contact. Studies have shown that children will misbehave and receive a spanking just to get any form of physical touch and attention. Negative touch seems to be better than no touch at all when it comes to our universal need for touch.
It’s not like we can quantify the amount of loving touch that’s needed as a prescription to heal touch deprivation. But, one study sheds some light on the particular lack of touch in the American culture. Sets of American, French and Puerto Rican friends were observed in a coffee shop over the course of an hour to determine how frequently physical contact occurs. U.S. friends tend to touch each other an average of only twice an hour, whereas French friends touch 110 times, and Puerto Rican friends touch 180 times (see Davis, Power of Touch, 80). Warm and frequent expressions of touch have been culturally conditioned out of us.
Maybe we can learn something from the little song my kindergartener is singing for his school play:
Nobody gets enough hugs a day
‘Cuz the minimum number is four.
Now, if you haven’t got four hugs today,
Then you better get some more.
Four hugs a day
That’s the minimum
Four hugs a day
Not the maximum …
The problem with touch deprivation is that we often confuse these restless feelings for non-sexual touch with sexual desire or even stomach hunger, and seek to satisfy ourselves without even realizing what the real need is we’re trying to fill (see Davis, Power of Touch, 111). So we go about striving to fill the need with all kinds of substitutes that never fully satisfy.
When it comes to sexual sins in particular, touch deprivation is an especially significant factor in one’s susceptibility to temptation. If you have youth or single individuals who are particularly deprived of sufficient loving touch from their parents or other loved ones, it’s easy to see the potential susceptibility they will have to sexual temptation. A counselor who reviewed this article mused about the lack of therapeutic focus on touch deprivation as a factor in sexual offenses, as well as healthy, loving touch as a means of healing. In some ways, to need or to ask for a hug (especially for boys/men) is culturally unacceptable, whereas to engage in immoral sexual behavior is somehow more passable in society.
Being aware of this need for touch and seeking to give and receive non-sexual touch and affection more freely can help fill our touch deficits and reduce the danger of sexual temptations. If we wonder why we keep doing things that we wish we could stop, we might consider the possibility of touch deprivation as a source of our compulsive behaviors.
Parents can take the advice in the little song above, and be sure to give four hugs a day to their children. Individuals might want to count how many times a day they currently touch their spouse, friends or loved ones in a given day and strive to touch more often. The great thing for all of us is that we can fill our need for touch by giving as well as receiving loving touch. With so many appropriate ways to show affection for each other, we don’t have to wait around for someone to touch or hug us to fulfill our needs.
(For more information about touch deprivation and the need for non-sexual, as well as sexual touch, within the marital relationship see Chapter 12 “Becoming ONE — Physical Intimacy” in the book And They Were Not Ashamed
Developing Greater Compassion for Self and Others
Because we all sin differently, but sin nevertheless, it is wise to avoid judging each other’s sins or categorizing them into degrees of seriousness. I once asked a friend who had struggled with an alcohol addiction if it was possible that the feelings of self-disgust that I experienced after succumbing to food for self-comfort were similar to the feelings she had experienced after succumbing to alcohol. She affirmed that it was very likely a similar feeling. This gave me greater understanding and compassion for others who sin differently than I do.
We may be tempted to think less of someone who has different sins, not understanding the individual vulnerabilities that make their sins unique to them, yet no less damning than our own. I remember the tender experience Sister Camille Fronk shared in her 1998 Education Week address, where a visitor to their Sunday School class shared his belief that the greatest of Satan’s devilish designs was bottled caffeinated water. She silently chuckled at the prospect of such an evil. Later he revealed that due to his struggles with substance abuse, caffeinated water was indeed a dangerous potential catalyst to whirl him away back into the downward spiral of his addiction. She was awakened to a profound sense of empathy and compassion for another’s sins.
Maybe we don’t have obvious or morally reprehensible sins, but our sins are still as serious in stopping our eternal progression as anyone else’s sins. One’s sin of self-righteousness keeps them at arms length to God, just as another’s sin of pornography does. We learn from the church video “The Prodigal Son” that the son who strayed into serious sin as well as the son who stayed, but developed pride and bitterness, both needed the power of the atonement to heal them of their individual sins, and to heal their hearts.
My purposes in writing this article have been to provide some helpful insights to those who are seeking to understand “why they keep doing that” and to free themselves from sin. In addition I hope to encourage us all to have greater compassion not only for others and their sins, but also for ourselves, and our sins. The Savior saw sinful behavior as wrong, but was able to see it as springing from deep, unmet needs on the part of the sinner. If we can strive to see as the Savior sees, then we will be able to have greater empathy and compassion. This allows us to be more useful in helping ourselves, and others, overcome sin.
Elder Joe J. Christensen taught us of the need for compassion regarding sin when he said, “Generally each of us is painfully aware of our weaknesses, and we don’t need frequent reminders. Few people have ever changed for the better as a result of constant criticism or nagging” (Ensign, May 1995, 64?65).
In our efforts to overcome sin, we can look to the underlying factors and address those inner issues, rather than merely focusing on the outward behavior. Even if we are successful at overcoming a sinful behavior temporarily, if we do not address the underlying unmet needs, negative core beliefs and touch deprivation, it can easily return or sprout up as a new problem behavior elsewhere.
Remember also the words of the prophet Joseph Smith, “Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind” (see Hales, Ensign, May 1999, 32). The scriptures remind us, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity preventeth a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 JST).
The Savior has exquisite empathy and understanding of our weaknesses and our sins. He can and will comfort and uplift us (see Alma 7:12). He knows our hearts and has great compassion on each of us. He knows that there is a reason for our weaknesses, and a lesson for us to learn from them, as we undertake our earthly refiner’s fire. He tenderly watches over us, loves us, and hopes we will seek His guidance and healing, as we strive to overcome our individual sins and weaknesses.
Belnap, W. Dean. “A Brain Gone Wrong: The Essence of Agency” Meridian Magazine, Mar. 22, 2005
Benson, Ezra Taft. Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988.
Christensen, Joe J. “Marriage and the Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, May 1995.
Davis, Phyllis K. The Power of Touch: The Basis for Survival, Health, Intimacy, and Emotional Well-Being.
Carlsbad: Hay House, 1999.
Eyring, Henry B. “In the Strength of the Lord,” Ensign, May 2004.
Faust, James E. “Strengthening the Inner Self,” Ensign, Feb. 2003.
Hales, Robert D. “Strengthening Families: Our Sacred Duty,” Ensign, May 1999.
Kimball, Spencer W. “Jesus: The Perfect Leader,” Ensign, Aug. 1979.
Maxwell, Neal A. “Care for the Life of the Soul,” Ensign, May 2003.
Packer, Boyd K. “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov. 1989.
Laura M. Brotherson is a marriage and family life educator (CFLE) certified by the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), and is the author of a groundbreaking new book on sexual intimacy and marital ONEness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed – Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. For more information visit http://www.StrengtheningMarriage.com . Laura welcomes your comments at Laura@StrengtheningMarriage.com .