If you have ever indulged in something painful – a story, an emotion, or behaviour – you might notice something very strange. You are being torn in two directions; a part of you doesn’t want to stop. This post is an attempt to answer: Why?
In Your Life
Before we begin, think of something you have been struggling with. Don’t restrict yourself. Think across the four levels of your being: your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and relationships. This can apply to a day spent moping at home, to years indulging in guilt or hatred, to constantly believing that you are unlovable, to always being with the wrong lover.
Then look through the following list. Do any of them apply?
1. Blocking Out Something Worse
Evan from Well Being and Health provides the first few reasons. The first: it removes another, more painful, one. Hating and blaming others is a great example. Sometimes I think back to a past fight, and I am adamant that I was wronged, that I did nothing wrong. But occasionally the thought comes into my head: I was wrong too! Guilt is a more threatening emotion, and I instinctively switch to hating the other person. If this applies to you on the emotional level, it is tremendously freeing to identify the emotion you are blocking off, and sit with that, feeling it fully, until it has passed.
The possibilities are endless, however. Let’s look at relationships. Why would someone remain in a bad relationship? What would you be blocking off? Perhaps you are afraid of loneliness, or that you are unlovable and can’t find someone else. Your reward would be blocking off those feelings.
2. Reliving the Familiar
Evan also offered the possibility that we are reliving certain states or emotions, most likely from childhood. Freud called this the “repetition compulsion”. We seek out what we are familiar with, even if it is painful. Many people who were abused as children repeat the same patterns as grown-ups by subconsciously choosing abusive lovers.
The applications of this apply across all four levels of our being. If we suffer an injustice and remain quiet instead of doing something about it, what are we reliving? An old behaviour – just run away and hope it goes away? A belief – we deserve it? Perhaps an emotion – hurt and sadness?
If the last one doesn’t make sense, I am reminded of a story Hale Dwoskin (teacher of the Sedona Method ) told of the audio course: some people took up the offer of a refund because they were getting too happy too quick! In Behaviourist terms, we are rewarded with the “safety” of being in a familiar place, whether physical or mental.
3. Social Needs and Approval
We are all familiar with social pressure. A teenager goes shoplifting in order to look cool in front of his friends. We join in when a friend is making fun of someone else in order to fit in, or simply to go along with the flow. In Self-Esteem, the authors expand on this: if we are the one that is being criticised, we carry on that attack mentally even when they’ve stopped – because we want to fit in with them! This is especially true if the ones who hurt us are our parents or other loved ones.
This tendency can work in other directions. If we can’t let go of our contempt for someone, what will we be giving up? Perhaps a sibling also hates them, and if we stop, we might feel like a traitor, or we don’t feel like a supportive friend. We could also put ourselves in the shoes of the sibling: he might be getting sympathy and attention for his sadness.
Some people use their suffering as a spiritual or religious bargaining chip, perhaps subconsciously. They believe that each day builds up “credit” in the afterlife, or that their pain will get them the attention of a higher power.
4. Internal Rewards
The next possibility is exceedingly common, and perhaps the most dangerous: we are rewarded for the painful emotion we are indulging in. The most common rewards are “winning” and “being right”, although there are others.
Let’s look at hatred as an example again. Logically, we all know that it hurts us to be angry and hateful. There is much research that links chronic anger to health problems, including cancer. So why do we take pleasure in obsessing over the bad luck of someone we hate, why do we indulge in revenge fantasies? Once in a while, we get a feeling of vindication. Sometimes the fantasy gets so perfect and so spiteful that we feel like we have won, that we are right, that the injustice we have suffered has been “evened out”.
But there are other rewards. If we constantly worry about something, a rare reward might be actually getting a workable solution, one that we have not previously thought of in our months of obsessing.
Let’s look at behaviour: say, constantly belittling or criticising others. This is a sign of low self-esteem, and the pay-off is obvious: once in a while, we actually feel superior to those we are criticising and blaming.
We previously discussed the variable reinforcement schedule. If the reward comes at random times, the whole process gets much more addictive, just like gambling. The bad news of course, is that these rewards:
Can be gotten even more efficiently without the pain, or
Are not worth the pain, or
Are only temporary, and
Are only in our heads!
The next explanation is the numbness we get from over-indulging in the emotion. In anger, for example, we might eventually lose our cool and let it all hang out. We hurt someone in the process, but we are rewarded with a temporary relief from the tension. It is the same with grief or depression: we replay the loss in our heads repeatedly until we break from the strain and cry it all out, until we are numb and have nothing left. The bad news, of course, is that numbness is always temporary.
(If this doesn’t make sense to you, please keep in mind that this mostly applies to people who are almost permanently in that emotional state, and not particularly to the occasional bout.)
The last possibility is the relationship dynamic. All the above apply, but to a larger unit. To get a feel for this, all the above apply to you alone. You are numbing your anger. You are reliving your past. Change them around and see how it applies to you and your close relationships. You are numbing your father’s anger, or expressing your wife’s repressed sexuality. Who would be in this larger unit? Those closest to you, whether current or in the past – your spouse and family are the most common examples.
A good example: the psychotherapist Bill DeFoore, in his fantastic book Anger, tells of a teenage patient who was a rageaholic, but with no discernible reasons. The teen was actually venting for his entire family – his parents had never allowed themselves to show any anger in any form, and he was subconsciously acting out what they never dared to. And because the anger was repressed, it came through in an unhealthy form – rage.
This post is a brief overview for the various ways we reward ourselves in our self-defeating patterns. I’ve picked out some of the stranger ones, in order to stimulate your own explorations. The next post will give more techniques in exploration, but for now, what do we do with our pairings once we have found them?
In the previous post in the Behaviourism series, I gave 4 different techniques, ranging from releasing our desires to cognitive techniques, for breaking these pairings. Please refer to the “Reinforcement for Behaviours We Wish to Break” section of Melting Away Your Self-Defeating Behaviours with Behaviourism.