in the Catholic Mystic Tradition
Psychology of Desire
Do not talk about
as long as you love this world.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch
Fantasies and Distractions |
and Regret |
Forced to Act |
Psychological Motivation |
Pushed by the Drive |
Pulled by Desire |
Levels of Desire |
Understanding Hidden Needs |
Triggers for Impulses |
Desire for the Holy |
The Hidden Desire for Self-destruction |
A Personal Conversation |
Putting It All Together |
With Trials as a Teacher
OU tend to go in the
direction you are looking. Thats a common principle of the psychology
of sensation and perception. According to a similar principle of the
psychology of the unconscious, you will go in the direction of your
desire. If you desire success, you will likely achieve it, but if, somewhere
deep in your heart, you desire failure, all your attempts to achieve success
In the spiritual
sense, this means that if you desire holy things, you will be drawn to heaven
and everlasting life, but if you desire self-serving, transitory things such
as social acceptance, entertainment, sensory pleasures, and material happiness,
you will be drawn into corruption and death.
Now, when some persons perceive
that they are being drawn into a spiritually dangerous place, a combination
of the acknowledgment of what is wrong and a regret for having
done something wrong is sufficient to change their behavior. Once they
know what is wrong they repent it,
confess it, and stop doing it. Its that
simple, because the change is motivated by their love for the
Some individuals, however, persist
in doing things even though they know these things are wrong,
andsurprising as it might soundeven though they dont want
to do these things. In these cases, something more than acknowledgment and
regret is required. An understanding of the psychological concept of
desire is required.
To begin to explain what this
understanding might entail, lets consider the curious statement that
you can persist in doing something even though you dont want to
do it. In some way, that sounds ridiculous, right? If you dont
want to do something, then why would you do it?
Well, consider what would happen
if you encountered a robber. The thief puts a gun to your head and says,
Give me your money or I will kill you. Even though you dont
want to give him your money, you do it anyway, for
fear of the consequences of refusing. Therefore, we
can say that someone might do something he doesnt want to do simply
because he is forced to do it.
Although ďbeing forced to do
something,Ē can be taken in the literal sense of ďcoercion under threat of
death or punishment,Ē it can also be understood in a psychological sense of
being pushed into doing something. To comprehend this concept of being pushed,
letís use a practical example.
Imagine that you are a child
with a small wagon. To move the wagonthat is, to cause it to enter
into motion, or to motivate ityou have two choices: you can
get behind it and push it or you can stand in front of it and pull it. In
this example, pushing and pulling are literal, physical actions.
Pushing and pulling also can
be psychological actions. Psychology describes the motivation that results
from pushing as the psychological concept of drive and the motivation
that results from pulling as the psychological concept of desire. But
before the concept of desire can be explained, the concept of drive must be
Pushed by the
In psychology, a
drive is something very primitive and
fundamental in the human psyche, something that works to ensure our physical
survival. We are all governed by drives for acquiring food, for finding shelter,
for reproduction, and even for staying alive. These drives push us into doing
certain things necessary to stay alive. Thats partly why, when a thief
puts a gun to your head you will most likely give him your money: you have
a drive that pushes you to stay alive.
Have you ever
had a dream in which you are a passenger in a car
while someone else is driving? Thats an
way for you to realize that, in terms of your current behavior, you are being
pushedthat is, drivenby some hidden emotional issue.
The dream may not tell you exactly what the issue is, but it does give you
the clue that, just as you can be driven like a passenger in a car, so your
life is being driven by something outside your conscious awareness. Finding
out what that something might be is the conscious task of
As I said, a drive is
something very primitive and fundamental in the human psyche. But as we grow
up and develop the ability to think and act independently, we begin to attach
symbolic meaning to our drives. We have a drive
to eat, yes, and that keeps us alive; but we can also relate to food according
to how it looks, how it tastes, and how it smells, and so we can crave food
because of its pleasing characteristics, rather than just as something eaten
for survival. As a result, we begin to experience
Desire derives from aspects
of our environment located outside the realm of our immediate survival. Desire,
therefore, has a social origin, rather than a natural origin. The look, taste,
and smell of food, for example, derive from social conventions of cooking. When
we smell an agreeable food odor, we donít really desire the food itself, we desire
the social aspects of that smellóthat is, we desire what that smell means to us
psychologically because of pleasant times from the past. The smell of roasted
meats can remind you of family gatherings at festive dinners, and the smell of
baked goods can remind you of a warm and welcoming kitchen. These associations
to smells occur automatically, without any deliberate conscious effort, and so
this illustrates how desire functions as an
A very old
advertising slogan was, Dont sell the steak, sell the sizzle.
Well, this explains how advertising works on us unconsciously, through the
principle of desire. A sizzling sound suggests some sort of exciting pleasure
which we can crave unconsciously more than we crave the steak
When we come under the influence
of a desire, we are drawn to it, like someone following a delicious smell
right into a restaurant. Thus desire pulls us forward.
Moreover, this fact that desire
is an unconscious process explains why we can desire something we dont
even want. A want is a desire that has
attained some conscious awareness and has been given conscious approval.
If you see an advertisement for a steak restaurant, not only might you desire
to eat steak, but you might decide to go to that restaurant that day. Thus
you have decided that you want to eat steak at that
Not every desire attains conscious
recognition; some desires make themselves known through the behaviors
they cause. Therefore, finding ourselves acting in a certain way, we might
say, But I dont really want to do that! In other words, the
desire acts on us unconsciouslythat is, outside our conscious
awarenessand we recognize it only through our behaviors, even if we
dont really want to do those things.
between want and desire explains why changing problematic
habits or addictions can be especially difficult. As much as someone might
want to start exercising or stop using drugs or alcohol, for example, there
can be a desire to maintain an old, dysfunctional behavior for the sake of
the familiarity, comfort, hate, or self-punishment the behavior produces.
Consequently, forcing behavioral change with sheer discipline will likely
fail unless the underlying desire to fail is overcome with a different
As astonishing as all this may sound
to someone unfamiliar with the psychology of motivation, things are even more
complicated, because desire can take several forms.
Desire can take several forms.
highest level of desire is the desire
for God. This is a desire that, when properly nurtured, can overrule any
other desire. Evidence of this can be found in the Bible in regard to the
life of Saint Paul, who went from being a murderer of Christians to a missionary
for Christ. In essence, Saint Pauls desire to serve Christ overruled
his desire to puff up his pride with cruel power over others. Similarly,
Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francis of Assisi both allowed their desire
to serve Christ to overrule their desire for military glory.
previous story of the robber? As I said before, part of the reason for your
giving him your money was that you had a drive to stay alive. Now
we can see that another part of the reason for your giving him your money
was that you desired your life more than you desired your
say now that the man with a gun is not a robber but someone who tells you
that unless you deny your faith he will kill you. Now what would you do?
If you had the same desire for God as countless martyrs of the past, you
would die rather than deny your faith. That is, if your desire for God
overruled your desire for material pleasures, you would give up your life
in order to save your faith.
Consider, now, that both Saint Ignatius
of Loyola and Saint Francis of Assisi had the ability to take up the supreme desire
for God and were able to die to themselves and start serving Christ.
Many individuals, however, will
experience severe impediments in trying to surrender their lives to God in the way
that many saints have done. Why? Well, lets see.
Saints Ignatius and Francis had the
ability to take up the supreme desire for God precisely because they previously
had the experience of pursuing other lower forms of desire; that is, they both
became soldiers before they became Christians. This illustrates the psychological
point that once you have attained something, you have the ability to let it go.
Because both of these men had success at serving their own pride, they were able
to let go of that prideóto die to themselvesóand start serving
Therefore, now that you know something
about the highest level of desire, letís look at some of the lower levels of desire.
lowest level of desire is the desire
to fulfill natural needs. Infants, for example, need to be fed, but, as
they grow, they begin to desire food. They need attention, and, as they
grow, they desire attention. They need to sleep, and, as they grow,
they desire sleep. Thus you can see that what begins naturally as a
need grows into a desire.
level of desire is the desire to fulfill acquired needs.
Here we find the desire for alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and erotic pleasure.
These sorts of desires do not exist for an infant, but they can be acquired
as psychological defenses that attempt to provide a physical gratification to
compensate for unfulfilled natural needs from infancy.
Note here that
having natural or acquired desires does not provide any help to someone seeking
to develop a desire for God. Natural desires come, well, naturally, and acquired
desires are, well, acquired passively and not attained through dedicated
effort. In neither of these desires is anything attained; thus neither of
these sorts of desires fits into the paradigm of being able to let
go of something once you have attained it.
Consider, then, a
third level of desirethe desire
for accomplishment. This desire is illustrated by wanting to get an
education, wanting to plant a garden, wanting to redecorate a room, wanting
to learn a language, wanting to play a musical instrument, and so on. This
sort of desire requires an active dedication to work and practice. Saints
Ignatius and Francis, for example, became soldiers because of this
sort of desire.
dysfunctional families, however, often stifle
this sort of desire. Exposed to the chaos of their family environments, these
children quickly discover that bad thingssuch as criticism, punishment,
or humiliationwill afflict them if they allow themselves any desires
of accomplishment, and so they learn to exist at the lowest level of desire
might even get educations, plant gardens, redecorate rooms, learn languages,
and play musical instruments, but they do these things more to satisfy the
desire of their parents than for the sake of their own desire.
If this has
afflicted you, you might find it extremely difficult to develop the desire
for God. Consequently, it will be necessary for you to develop a desire for
accomplishment before you can fully pursue a holy life. So find good and
productivenot sinfulthings that you want to do and, with prayer,
set about accomplishing them. Discover how it feels to do something because
you really want to do it, rather than just do something because you
have to do it or because someone is pushing you to do it.
As you do this,
though, be careful not to dwell on resentment for what you didnt
receive or dont have. Such resentment will only poison your
ambitions and keep you stuck in self-defeating behaviors. To overcome this
resentment, as you look forward to what you want to accomplish, at the same
time work on nurturing gratitude for what you do have. At the very least,
at the beginning and at the end of every day thank God for all that He has
given you. Even better, make short prayers of gratitude constantly throughout
the day as well. If you practice expressing gratitude for all that you
experience and accomplish, you will develop the positive attitude necessary to
grow in a holy desire for God.
and Misdirected Desires
I said before that an understanding
of the psychological concept of desire is required in order for you
to stop doing sinful things and start living a holy life. Well, now that
we have defined the terms, we can say that, for you to stop doing things
you dont want to do, it will be necessary for you to understand the
lower levels of desire that motivate you to do sinful things.
For example, if you, as a child,
did not receive healthy nurturance and guidance from your parents, then, as
an adult, you could now be starved, so to speak, for emotional experiences such
as attention, respect, admiration, soothing, and so on. Your current misdirected
behavior carries with it a symbolic yearning to fulfill these hidden needs, but,
nevertheless, it fails to lead you to an authentic fulfillment of what is
That is, if the comfort of real love
from a parent was, and still is, actually missing in your life, you can desire food,
alcohol, drugs, sexual pleasure, and so on, all as a form of misdirected behavior
yearning for comfort.
When you are drawn to any unwanted,
misdirected behaviorsóespecially self-gratifying sinful behavioró you have sinful
impulses. Traditional theological language calls these impulses temptations.
Whatever their name, they are desires created unconsciously in the hope of fulfilling
natural or acquired needs.
Note that in
her writings, Saint Teresa of Avila also spoke about impulses. She used the
word impulse, however, in a very specific theological sense. For her,
an impulse was not a psychological urge to do something; rather, it was a
sudden, overwhelming, divinely inspired feeling of
Sinful impulses, then, are misdirected
desires; that is, instead of desiring the true fulfillment of all needs in divine
love, we deceive ourselves into desiring the partial
fulfillment of needs through behavior that turns away from divine love.
To understand your impulses,
then, it will be important to examine very carefully the psychological
experiences that occur beforei.e., that triggerthem.
Rather than merely act on an impulse automatically and without conscious deliberation,
teach yourself to understand the subtle mental images, thoughts, and emotions that
come upon you just before an impulse leads you into temptation.
those images, thoughts, and feelings as soon as they occur. As you begin this
learning process, there might be a long delay between your falling into
a temptation and your discovering its triggers, but with practice you can shorten
the delay; eventually, you will be able to recognize your particular triggers
almost immediately. In any case, sooner or later, notice how they manifest in
your particular circumstances. Are they a matter of your being overwhelmed with
obligations, without proper guidance and assistance, so that you feel weary
and lonely? Are they a matter of your being obstructed and hindered by others,
so that you feel insulted and neglected? Are they a matter of your
own inner confusion and lack of confidence (which often result from some
lack in your father), so that you feel
frustrated and stuck? Or are they a matter of something else?
Put the feelings
into language; that is, consciously
to yourself how these feelings connect to similar feelings from your childhood.
Remember the actual childhood events that precipitated the feelings and describe
them in detail.
circumstances that trigger your feelings,
not to take it personally. For example, even if a store clerk is rude to
you, and even though you may feel that the rudeness is directed at you
personally, struggle to remember that all rudeness
is a sin inflicted on Christ, not on you directly. Yes, the insult passes
through you, and it cuts deeply as it passes, but the fuming rage you feel
(and the violent tantrum you are in danger of throwing) is really a reaction
to the times when your parents wounded you with their failures to perceive
your childhood needs. And even then, your parents didnt neglect you
because you deserved it; they neglected you because their parents
neglected them. Thus, a lack of healing
was passed down from parent to child, generation after generation. But it
can stop with you, if you desire to be the one to stop it.
After you have
identified the real pain tormenting you, do not try to push it awayi.e.,
to get rid of it. Moreover, do not merely tolerate it stoically.
Rather, endeavor to
as Christ Himself endured His pain: willingly, not as a
victim. With a full understanding of how much
you dont want to do something, do it anyway, for the love of
Godfor the love of Love. For the love of
Love, we make sacrifices for the sake of our neighbors salvation. For
the love of Love we work out our own salvation.
For the love of Love, all needs are fulfilled. For the love of Love,
suffering is given meaning.
Recognizing and overcoming triggers
to impulses is hard work, but the point is that all the mental images, thoughts,
and emotions that come upon you just before an impulse carry profound clues as to
what your desires really are, and it takes prayerful meditation to learn from
Note that certain
forms of meditation, such as in Buddhism, tell you to let your mental images,
thoughts, and feelings pass before you without your taking any interest in
them. But Christian meditation relies on developing a desire for God. Rather
than ignore your mental experiences, or try to get rid of
them, in Christ you are called to notice and embrace those mental
experiencesyour psychological enemiesso that you can
understand and learn from them in the hope of growing in holiness.
Desire for the
To do this work of mental
examination, it will be necessary to nurture a state of mind that is receptive
to understanding. That is, do anything it takes to increase your desire for
the holy. Butand see if you can follow this logic nowyou
cant push yourself into increasing your desire for the holy. Do
you see? You cant push yourself to be pulled. Only desire itself can
increase your desire.
So what can you do?
Well, you can do what it takes
to remove whatever in your life obstructs your desire for the holy.
Because ordinary distractions of the world such as social media, TV, movies,
video games, sports, newspapers, magazines, and so on not only block any experience
of the holy but also infect you with desires for self-indulgence,
immodesty, lust, sensuality,
and revengepernicious desires that drive holiness
away from youendeavor to begin a lifestyle of
detachment from the sinful
world around you. Learn to see sinful impulses for the
illusions they really are.
this detachment from the world not as an attempt to show others that you
are better than the world around you but as a private, prayerful understanding
that God offers you something better than what the world offers
So even if your sinful impulses
are about sex, alcohol,
for example, and you keep falling back into them, pare away everything
else in your life that does not nurture a holy lifestyle. Aside from
your need to work for a living, focus your attention on
Mass attendance, holy reading,
and mental examination.
Let the prayer
underlying all of this be for enlightenment, wisdom, understanding, and courage,
rather than preoccupy yourself with asking God to change somebody
else, fix something,
give you something material.
Just keep your
heart focused on your destination. It doesnt matter if youre not
there yet. It doesnt matter how far you have to go. Just keep your
heart focused on God, and let hope guide your progress.
The Hidden Desire for Self-destruction
Even though you might say that
you want to love God more than anything else, there can be a powerful
impedimenta hidden desireworking against you. Whether you come
from a dysfunctional family and, as a child suffered the emotional chaos
of outright criticism, punishment, and humiliation, or whether you suffered
more ordinary childhood experiences of
lack of guidance, and feelings of loneliness, you
could have developed a hidden desire to punish, sabotage, and destroy
Similar to parasites that can
ultimately kill the host, this self-destructive desire can lurk in the
unconscious as a constant background wish. Infected with this secret
desire, an individual, even though wanting to live a holy life, will constantly
encounter an obstruction that overrules the desire for God.
Moreover, its at this point
anger emerges, for the desire for self-destruction is really a veiled
attempt to get revenge on the victimizer(s). With every self-destructive
act, with every failure, you say to the Other, Look at what you made
me do to myself! Thus you can fall into the trap of
sending yourself to hell in order to prove
to others how much they have hurt you.
individuals lives are plagued by stuckness, self-sabotage, and a lack
of success. Now, where does this desire for self-destruction come
It can come from a
conception in lust, in which the parentsí raw erotic pleasure is stripped of any
responsibility to reproduction, leaving the child to encounter the lonely reality
of being an ďaccident.Ē
It can come from a
mother who is so emotionally wounded by her own childhood that she is inattentive
to her childís needs, leaving the child to encounter the dark terror of its
It can come from a
controlling, narcissistic mother who criticizes the child for everything the child
does, leaving the child to encounter the hopeless destiny of constant
It can come from a
father so fixated on his work that he is emotionally absent from the family,
leaving the child to encounter the repetitive agony of silently crying out, ďTalk
to me! Guide me! Protect me! Love me!Ē
It can come from parents
or teachers who look scornfully upon every mistake the child makes, saying, ďYouíre
bad!Ē and thus leaving the child to encounter the mental paralysis of wallowing in
It can come from a
step-parent in a ďblended familyĒ who rejects the child in favor of the
step-parentís biological children, leaving the child to encounter the despair of
However it may
originatein the womb, as an infant, throughout childhoodthe
childs unconscious desire will be to destroy itself in fulfillment
of the rejection it feels from its parents. And that desire will persist
even into adult despair, where it will wreak its own secret havoc, unless
it is recognized and healed.
In cases like this, two things
will be necessary for spiritual growth.
Once you understand that you
have desires and how they function, work on nurturing desires for
accomplishment. Find good and productivenot sinfulthings
that you want to do and, with prayer, set about accomplishing them. Discover
how it feels to do something because you really want to do it, rather
than doing something because you have to do it or because someone else is
pushing you to do it. You will find that these desires for accomplishment
will be able to overrule lower desires.
Rather than keep the desire for
self-destruction something secret and feared, explore it
therapeutically. You may need professional help to do this, but learn
to think about it (in prayer) and talk about it openly (with a psychologist
or spiritual director), not with the intent to dwell upon it for morbid
satisfaction but to discover its
What does it
mean to explore a desire? Well, consider how someone would explore a park. Walking
through it casually and thinking, Thats nice is not
exploring. To explore the park it is necessary to make repeated visits
and note carefully how things are related: where the various trails lead,
what vegetations grow in various locations, and what wildlife lives in
various habitats. In essence, you make a map of the park in your
imagination, so that you can navigate the terrain of the park.
In a similar
way, when dealing with psychological matters, you map out the terrain of
your memories and desires. You can do this by noting the various associations
that arise unconsciously when you are willing to speak about a particular
problem, repeatedly, over time, until its meaning becomes clear to you.
Putting It All Together
Saints are not born holy, they are
simply individuals who have made the heartfelt decision to live holy lives.
Therefore, even the saints were always subject to temptation. When they encountered
temptation, though, they were able to assert to themselves, with heartfelt truth,
that they did not want what was tempting them. This means that they (a) understood
the impulses that were being triggered in them; (b) knew that they were being pulled
by lower-level desires (or even self-destructive desires); and (c) were able to
overcome the lower-level desire with a desire for the holy.
You, too, can do the same thingif
If you practice with all your mind and
heart and strength to increase your desire for the holy, you, too, will be able to
look temptation in the eye and say, However attractive you appear, I dont
A Personal Conversation
Jesus, I want to come
back to You. I wish I trusted You and found comfort in prayer rather then feeling as
though I need to masturbate and eat junk food to cope. It must be so offensive to You
to watch me treating my body in an animalistic way and stripping it of all dignity and
forcing the Holy Spirit to flee. A part of me is sorry and a part of me is like, well,
what else do You expect me to do? This is all Iíve known my whole life. . . .
I am still infected with my parents influence, and I can clearly see that I am
angry with them and with You. Iím vulnerable to falling into sabotage and I blame You
for allowing it to happen. How could you let it? why didnít You give me the graces I
need to overcome them? You keep letting me fall. It makes me think, what is the point
in hoping in You? In trusting in You? You just let me fall. Iím deluding myself in
thinking You will protect and save me. I have to save myself. If I have to do this
myself then what do I need You for? . . . You know that this is what
I have done since I was 2 or 3 years old. It was the only way I knew how to cope, and
because of my familys influence Iím still vulnerable to it. You did nothing to
protect or enlighten me. You let me fall into my childish ways. I blame You for
driving a car. You have to drive it yourself. You have to plan the route, you have
to be alert to traffic, you have to make decisions. Yes, its all you. But what
about the fuel? Without the fuel you would go nowhere. Did you make it yourself? Did
you create it from nothing? No, you had to buy it. But even with a full tank of fuel
you can still make a wrong turn or lose your way. The fuel doesnt prevent you
from making mistakes. Its your desire to get to your destination that allows you
to get there. Well, fuel is like grace. Without the Fathers grace you go nowhere.
You have to buy it. And how do you buy it? With prayer. But even with grace you can still
fall. Its your desire to get up even if you fall that keeps you safe on course.
Knowing this is protection and enlightenment. But remember: without the Fathers
grace there is no desire.
Thatís the thing; I
donít desire to be healed. I donít care about myself. I hate them for hating me and
I hate myself and want to destroy myself.
If you donít desire to be healed, thatís
proof that you really canít do it all yourself. Thatís proof of your need for God.
With divine grace, you can be inspired to desire healing. But if you have never learned
to care about yourself, you donít care about much at allóand when you donít care about
much at all, you end up desiring failure. You can remain in this place of not caring and
just keep on walking to your destruction. Or, if you were to notice that God has been
trying to get your attention, you would know that there is more than destruction,
something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing could resist its pull: hate.
So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a choice between the ugliness
of hatred and the beauty of God. That decision has to come from you. You will go where
With Trials as
You might wonder why some persons
grow to such great spiritual heights and why others make so little progress.
Well, Saint John of the Cross explains it.
And here it ought to be pointed
out why so few reach this high state of perfect union with God. It should
be known that the reason is not that God wishes only a few of these spirits
to be so elevated; He would rather want all to be perfect, but He finds few
vessels that will endure so lofty and sublime a work. . . .
There are many who desire to advance and persistently beseech God to bring
them to this state of perfection. Yet when God wills to conduct them through
the initial trials and mortifications, as is necessary, they are unwilling
to suffer them and they shun them, flee from the narrow road of life [Mt.
7:14] and seek the broad road of their own consolation, which is that of
their own perdition [Mt. 7:13]; thus they do not allow God to begin to grant
their petition. They are like useless containers, for although they desire
to reach the state of the perfect they do not want to be guided by the path
of trials that leads to it.
of the Cross
Flame of Love, Stanza 2.27
Desire and Distraction
A Catholic Perspective on Behavioral Change and Its Subversion
by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
Includes the text of this webpage plus much additional information.
The psychological relationship
between want and desire explains why changing problematic habits or
addictions can be especially difficult. As much as someone might want to start
exercising or stop using drugs or alcohol, for example, there can be a desire to
maintain an old, dysfunctional behavior for the sake of the familiarity, comfort,
hate, or self-punishment the behavior produces. Consequently, forcing behavioral
change with sheer discipline will likely fail unless the underlying desire to fail
is overcome with a different desire.
So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a choice between failure
and success. That decision has to come from you.
You will go where you desire.