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Practice 3: Change Some Aspect of Your Ritual

When choosing this practice, you decide to change any of a variety of characteristics within your compulsive pattern. To do so, you first need to analyze the specific manner in which you ritualize.


Change Some Aspect of the Ritual

  1. Select one ritual
  2. List all its characteristics (specific actions, order, repetitions, physical stance, etc.)
  3. Begin altering some elements of your ritual
  4. Practice those changes regularly over the next few days
  5. Every three or four days, modify the ritual pattern again
  6. When ready, let go of the ritual completely and tolerate the distress that follows

Choose one ritual and analyze its characteristics. Take a pencil and paper and jot down all the specific details you can think of. Describe your exact motions and thoughts, in the order they occur. After you've done this then go back and consider the following characteristics. List the particulars of your ritual based on each of these categories:

  • your specific actions
  • specific thoughts you have
  • the order of the action
  • the number of repetitions needed, if any
  • the particular objects you use
  • how you stand or sit during the ritual
  • how you're feeling, and
  • any triggering thoughts or events.

Look over your list. Just look at how many different opportunities you have to make a small change in your ritual. Each item you listed offers another opportunity. Begin altering some elements of your rituals, and practice those changes regularly over the next few days. This process will be the beginning of bringing this seemingly involuntary behavior under your voluntary control - not by totally stopping the ritual but by consciously manipulating it.

Here are some examples:

Change the order in which you ritualize. For instance, if when you shower you start by washing your feet and methodically working your way up to your head, reverse your order by beginning with your head and working your way down.

Change the frequency. If counting is part of your ritual, alter the numbers and the repetitions you require to complete the ritual. If you always do ten sets of four counts, do twelve sets of three counts. If you must put three and only three packs of sugar into your coffee cup, the put two half packs in and throw the rest away.

Change the objects you use. If you wash with a particular soap, change brands. If you tap your finger in repetitions on your calculator, tap the table just next to the calculator instead.

Change where or how you ritualize. If you have to dress and undress repeatedly, do each set in a different room. Change your posture during the ritual. If you always stand while ritualizing, then sit. If you always have your eyes open, then try your compulsion with your eyes closed.

These are just a few examples. For each component of your ritual, there are as many ways to modify it. Be creative in your ideas for small changes.

There are three benefits to this practice.

First, as is true for the other two practices in the section, you will be able to alter your compulsions without the great difficulty involved in trying to stop them altogether.

Second, by changing important aspects of the ritualistic pattern, you are likely to break the powerful hold of the rituals. You might find out, for instance, that the ritual brings temporary relief even when not performed perfectly. Hence, you introduce flexibility into the pattern. This disruption in the ritual is the beginning of its destruction.

Third, this practice enhances your conscious awareness of when and how you perform your rituals. When you are ready to completely give up ritualizing, this awareness will enable you to recognize the first signs of your urge to ritualize and to stop yourself just before you automatically begin to do so.

Here's an example of how one person applies this technique. We'll call her Ruth. Ruth was a twenty-four-year-old housewife who repeated actions in order to circumvent bad luck. Her rituals were pervasive, involving almost all daily activity. There was hardly a time that she didn't ritualize or worry that she wasn't ritualizing. For example, when cleaning countertops or washing dishes, Ruth became stuck squeezing the sponge in several sets of ten.

In her practice of changing the ritual, she continued squeezing the sponge, but now with each squeeze she passed the sponge from one hand to the other. This change caused considerable distress for Ruth, since she feared that the new routine would fail to protect herself and her loved ones. Nevertheless, she was determined to implement the change. After two weeks, instead of squeezing the sponge, Ruth started a new routine on her own. Now she simply tossed the sponge in the air from one hand to the other ten times. Soon thereafter she was able to resist the urge to squeeze altogether and could clean the counter in a normal manner.

You can see that this practice requires that you create new habits. These new actions are incompatible with your tendency to keep your original rituals unchanged. It is impossible to keep rigid rituals and at the same time continue to change them. This is why it is important to implement this practice. Changing your rituals is a big step toward giving them up entirely.