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© Shannon Lynne Sullivan 2017-2019. All rights reserved.

  • Shannon Lynne Sullivan

What is compulsion?



A CrossFit-er, a Koehler trainer and an orchestral violinist walk into a bar…


Ok before I dive into what I think compulsion is, I want to look briefly at why I think it’s valuable to talk about compulsions at all. My goal in working with people, whether in the context of movement or dog training, is to open channels that facilitate valuing and interpreting bodily information while remaining in relationship. I see compulsion as a miscommunication that interrupts this conversation.



This is why I think phenomena of compulsion are worth studying, and why it is worthwhile to spend time honing awareness of and ability to identify compulsions. In my view there are three types of compulsions:

  1. I can’t stop myself from doing (or not doing). I call this a fixated compulsion.

  2. I’m doing because I feel threatened or forced. I call this a coerced compulsion.

  3. I’m just doing what I always do. I call this a habitual compulsion.


I’m choosing words precisely here in to avoid using clinical terminology beyond the scope of my work, and to avoid pathologizing what I see to be everyday phenomena of life and living. In the spirit of clear communication, I’d like to explain what I mean when I use these words.


Fixated Compulsion

“When performing such actions, we become aware of an urge to stop ourselves from doing them. Since the urge to enact them is greater than the urge not to, we enact them compulsively under an emotional pressure. When refraining from performing them, we become aware of an urge to perform them—they are compulsively inhibited. In compulsive behavior, we are aware of inner tension and resistance; we feel strain when acting the way we do.”

--Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self


Ah Moshe--so formal. Fine, let’s get right to it…


By my definition, a fixated compulsion is a behavior or bodily action that:

  1. Is initiated in response to the tension of an unmet need;

  2. Temporarily alleviates or distracts from the tension of the unmet need;

  3. Does not ultimately satisfy the underlying need.

My daily consumption of 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew in college was a fixated compulsion. Ginny’s propensity to bark like a maniac when another dog runs through a tunnel and I don’t let her follow is a fixated compulsion. The tension I still tend to hold in my lower back in response to decades of discomfort is a fixated compulsion.

With a fixated compulsion, an unmet need evokes feelings and sensations that activate our seeking system to look for solutions, that then triggers the compulsion.


Coerced Compulsion

“Compulsion is the name for the art of subjugating another person's will through the use of the One Power.”

--Wheel of Time Wiki


My husband is slowly shaping me into a sci-fi/fantasy geek, and we spent years listening to audiobooks of the epic Wheel of Time series at bedtime. This particular series contains a group of dangerous characters capable of mind control through magic. When they exercised this ability, the author called it Compulsion.


I like the above fandom quote because it points to the foundation of a coerced compulsion--will subjugated by use of force. Coerced compulsions come from threat (violence, humiliation, professional damage, etc.) or overpowering (physical, emotional, financial, legal, etc.)

Walking on eggshells around an emotionally volatile boss, parent or spouse is a coerced compulsion. Obedience behaviors in dogs trained with electronic collar corrections are coerced compulsions. Reliance on caffeine, stress, urgency and adrenaline-driven workouts to get through the day are coerced compulsions where coercer and coercee are one and the same.

Coerced compulsions leverage your innate need for self-defense and have triggers that activate fear, or at least stress. A little bit of this can be useful, it can help optimize your capacity for self-defense--as long as you have the capacity to truly recover. But repetition and/or overuse can cause the compulsion to take up more and more space in your psyche and perspective. Coerced compulsions can come to dominate your attention in certain circumstances or in general.


Habitual Compulsion

“The butter melts out of habit, the toast isn’t even warm.”

--Ani DiFranco


I remember the first time I gave a Functional Integration session to a professional musician. It was my second week of Feldenkrais practitioner training and my “client,” a visitor considering the program himself, was a pianist. My practice involved various techniques for moving the hands, and no matter how subtle or gentle my prompting, my movements sparked his fingers to bounce and press on a virtual piano. (If only I could have heard the music.)


Habitual compulsions are formed through rehearsal. As the old saying should go--Practice Makes Permanent. Acting out a habitual compulsion is just doing what we know because it’s what we know to do--regardless of the immediate situation.


Repetitive movements or postures, like practicing an instrument or sitting for hours on end, create habitual compulsions. Rehearsal of specific emotions or affects, like “keeping a stiff upper lip” or “looking on the bright side”, can create habitual compulsions. Roles and patterns of relating, like deferring to or antagonizing others, can create habitual compulsions.


Habitual compulsions are one reason we use slow movement in Feldenkrais. Moving fast requires already knowing how to move. Speed sets off movements we know and closes the door on learning something new. But this phenomena is true much more generally as well--Increased intensity leads to decreased adaptability in all but the most spectacular of circumstances.


Compulsion Overall

Regardless of type, compulsions occur below your awareness, even when you know what you’re doing. Even if you can temporarily interrupt the pattern, you can’t just decide to not feel compelled. Not to say that compulsions can’t be dissolved, some of them absolutely can, but it’s almost always a process--a series of consistent choices.


Those choices and the ability to make them are important because compulsions come at great cost. They take away your ability to respond directly, spontaneously and sometimes effectively to the immediate circumstances before you. In a way, compulsions are a form of effective ignorance--they block new information from getting in and/or new responses from getting out.


No fun there. So the question becomes, how do we wisen up?


Source images for photo collage from Unsplash, credit to: Reuben MoylerGian.Rene Böhmer, Alora GriffithsFred Ohlander, and  Manuel Nägeli.

#consciousrelationship #consciousness #awareness #behavior #habits #writing #change #openmind #compulsion #shannonlynnesullivan