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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

The Psychology of Desire

 Do not talk about Jesus Christ
 as long as you love this world.

—Saint Ignatius of Antioch

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Acknowledgment 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

YOU tend to go in the direction you are looking. That’s 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 will fail.


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. It’s that simple, because the change is motivated by their love for the good.

Some individuals, however, persist in doing things even though they know these things are wrong, and—surprising as it might sound—even though they don’t 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.

Forced to Act

To begin to explain what this understanding might entail, let’s consider the curious statement that you can persist in doing something even though you don’t want to do it. In some way, that sounds ridiculous, right? If you don’t 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 don’t 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 doesn’t want to do simply because he is forced to do it.

Psychological Motivation

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 wagon—that is, to cause it to enter into motion, or to motivate it—you 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 examined.

Pushed by the Drive

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. That’s 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? That’s an unconscious way for you to realize that, in terms of your current behavior, you are being pushed—that is, “driven”—by 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 interpreting that dream.


Pulled by Desire

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.

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 unconscious process.


A very old advertising slogan was, “Don’t 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 itself.


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 don’t 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 restaurant.

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 don’t really want to do that!” In other words, the desire acts on us unconsciously—that is, outside our conscious awareness—and we recognize it only through our behaviors, even if we don’t really want to do those things.


This 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.


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.

Levels of Desire

Desire can take several forms.

The 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 Paul’s 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.


Remember the 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 money.

Well, let’s 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, let’s 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 Christ. 


Read about Christ as the supreme desire, from a homily
by Saint Macarius, bishop


Therefore, now that you know something about the highest level of desire, letís look at some of the lower levels of desire.

The 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.

A second 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 desire—the 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.


Children from dysfunctional families, however, often stifle this sort of desire. Exposed to the chaos of their family environments, these children quickly discover that bad things—such as criticism, punishment, or humiliation—will afflict them if they allow themselves any desires of accomplishment, and so they learn to exist at the lowest level of desire only.

Such children 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 productive—not sinful—things 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 didn’t receive or don’t 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.


Understanding Hidden Needs
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 don’t 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 actually missing.

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 love.

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.

Triggers for Impulses

To understand your impulses, then, it will be important to examine very carefully the psychological experiences that occur before—i.e., that “trigger”—them. 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.

Learn to recognize 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 explain 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.


Whatever the circumstances that trigger your feelings, remind yourself 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 didn’t 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 away—i.e., to “get rid of it.” Moreover, do not merely tolerate it stoically. Rather, endeavor to endure it as Christ Himself endured His pain: willingly, not as a victim. With a full understanding of how much you don’t want to do something, do it anyway, for the love of God—for 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 them.


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 experiences—your psychological “enemies”—so that you can understand and learn from them in the hope of growing in holiness.


Desire for the Holy

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. But—and see if you can follow this logic now—you can’t push yourself into increasing your desire for the holy. Do you see? You can’t 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, irresponsibility, rudeness, competition, hate, and revenge—pernicious desires that drive holiness away from you—endeavor to begin a lifestyle of detachment from the sinful world around you. Learn to see sinful impulses for the illusions they really are.


Conceptualize 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 you.


So even if your sinful impulses are about sex, alcohol, or anger, 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 prayer, confession, 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 doesn’t matter if you’re not there yet. It doesn’t matter how far you have to go. Just keep your heart focused on God, and let hope guide your progress.


A Psychological-Spiritual Hitch:
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 impediment—a hidden desire—working 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 “not-knowing,” a lack of guidance, and feelings of loneliness, you could have developed a hidden desire to punish, sabotage, and destroy yourself.

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, it’s at this point that victim 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.

Some Examples


SOME individual’s lives are plagued by stuckness, self-sabotage, and a lack of success. Now, where does this desire for self-destruction “come from”?

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 neglect.

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 humiliation.

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 self-disgust.

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 isolation.

However it may originate—in the womb, as an infant, throughout childhood—the child’s 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 productive—not sinful—things 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 unconscious meanings.


What does it mean to explore a desire? Well, consider how someone would explore a park. Walking through it casually and thinking, “That’s 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 thing—if you practice.

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 don’t want you.”

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 family’s 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 it.

It’s like 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, it’s 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 doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes. It’s your desire to get to your destination that allows you to get there. Well, fuel is like grace. Without the Father’s 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. It’s 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 Father’s 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 you desire.

With Trials as a Teacher

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.”


—Saint John of the Cross
The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 2.27

Continue reading to learn
how to overcome self-sabotaging distractions

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.

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