Why Do I Keep Doing This to Myself? - Understanding the Emotional Patterns That Keep Us Stuck.
We all have unwanted habits and patterns of behaviour we can’t seem to break: behaviours that drag us down and create discord in our lives but which we nevertheless keep repeating.
The negative effects of these behaviours are often clear for us and others to see, yet we can feel powerless to change what we're doing. So what's going on? Why do we stay stuck in these patterns even when they’re not really serving us?
For every seeming unhealthy behaviour we have, there is always a pay off or reward.
These pay offs are usually short-term and tend to run counter to what would best serve us in the long run. The consequence of these kinds of short-term pay offs is that, in order to keep indulging in them, we sacrifice our long-term needs and goals. Common examples of these types of behaviours include: procrastination, over-spending, excessive social media use, people pleasing, addictions to food and alcohol, amongst many others.
Most of us aren't stupid. We generally don’t keep repeating patterns of behaviour unless, on some level, we are getting something out of it. For example, I battled for years with depression. It often caused me to withdraw from the world and repeatedly pass over opportunities for work, socialising and travel, amongst other things, because to say yes to those opportunities simply felt too overwhelming. Nothing I did seemed to help much in the long term, no amount of workshops, exercise, changes in diet, medication…It wasn't until the day I started to admit to myself that my depression served me in some ways that things began to change.
After all those years, it felt familiar, it felt safe, even. It gave me a sense of identity: The One Who Struggles with Depression. It was like a blanket I pulled around myself to muffle the world and stop me having to deal with some of the other challenges in my life. Those things felt even more overwhelming than the depression did...but I had a good reason for not facing them: ‘’How can I possibly deal with any of that? I’m too depressed!’’
After a long time, I also realised that depression, paradoxically, gifted me with a positive identity. My daily struggle with life - to be in this world - gave me a sense of being resourceful: look at how much I could endure, how much pain and difficulty I could wade through on a regular basis! I felt stoic. It gave me a sense of myself as capable and resourceful. I’m not saying I experienced any of this on a conscious level. On the surface I often felt miserable and desperate, and I couldn’t understand why life was this way for me.
So, as in my example above, the payoffs for our maladaptive behaviours generally come in two categories.
1. Give us more of something we want: being caught in depression, with its cyclical whirl of negative thought patterns – ‘’I’m no good; what’s wrong with me? Why does everyone else seem to be coping better than me?’’ – whilst extremely unpleasant, gave me a strong sense of identity.
2. Help us to avoid something we don’t want: in my case, avoiding difficult thoughts, numbing difficult emotions, and giving me a get out from situations or tasks that felt overwhelming.
It’s unlikely that any unwanted behaviour only has a single payoff for us. Usually our behaviour contains several different types of payoffs.
Lots of different types of behaviour help us ease feelings of tension and anxiety, at least temporarily. For example, a compulsive spender might experience a temporary high and a sense of fulfilment when they’ve made a new purchase, but after a while the guilt and self-recrimination kick in, together with the fear that comes from being caught in an unsustainable financial situation. It’s important to recognize that stuck behaviour patterns often involve this mixture of desirable and undesirable consequences.
Another kind of payoff might come from distracting ourselves from having to think about difficult or overwhelming areas of our life. For example, disappearing into social media for three or four hours can be a very good way of not having to think about the problems we're having at work. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying time on social media, but if it’s eating up increasing hours of our life at the expense of other, more nourishing or fulfilling activities, then it may be an issue. And of course, the problem will still be waiting for us when we emerge out of our online world.
Safety and security: Sometimes the pay off for our unhealthy behaviour is that it helps us to feel safe or secure in some way. This is one of the most important human needs but so, too, is a sense of fun and adventure. If we are always prioritising feeling safe at the expense of trying new experiences or taking healthy risks, at some point we are going to discover that the spark has gone out of life. Or let’s say we find ourselves consistently over-working in order to provide ourselves with a sense of financial security in excess of what we really need. Consistent over-work can lead to a host of stress-related health problems further down the line, which may, ironically, have a detrimental effect on the very security we were seeking in the first place.
Belonging and feeling accepted: perhaps we regularly engage in behaviour as part of a group that goes against our sense of what's best for us personally. This might involve anything from gossiping about others behind their back, through to more extreme, or even criminal, behaviour. We continue to indulge in these types of behaviour, in spite of the fact that they go against our personal values, because they have the pay off of making us feel like we are accepted and part of the group.
Some types of unwanted behaviour have a physical payoff. Regularly eating sugary snacks that we know are bad for our health, or drinking multiple cups of coffee a day might be a good way of giving ourselves a quick boost of feel-good energy, but they might be doing so at the expense of us feeling how tired we really are underneath, and facing the fact that we need to find ways to slow down and rest more.
Does doing the unwanted behaviour get us out of feeling something we don’t want to feel? It’s common to use unwanted behaviours to avoid feelings of low self-worth, for instance. Procrastination is a good example of this. It can often be linked to a fear of feeling inadequate, or a failure. People with a tendency towards perfectionism tend to procrastinate over certain tasks because, underneath, they are worried that, if they actually do the thing, they might not do it well enough. Better to keep things fixed in the realm of potential and possibility than to risk their own or others’ disappointment. These are just some examples of how the relationship between seemingly unhealthy behaviours and the secret pay offs they contain can work. I'm sure we can all think of more instances in our own lives that haven't been listed here.
So What Next...?
The fundamental precept for changing these patterns in ourselves is that the only time we ever give something up is when we can replace it with something we want more. It’s not enough to try and change through sheer force of will alone – this just leads to even more feelings of deprivation. In reality we need a web of different things – noticing triggers, educating ourselves in order to understand our behaviour better, cultivating positive behaviours, getting support from peers and possibly from a therapist.
We may also need to do some work on understanding what we are doing at the level of surface needs vs deeper goals. Unhelpful behaviours generally operate at the level of short-term gratification. They bring instant satisfaction or relief but often do little to contribute to what we really need out of life. We can become trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling unhappy or dissatisfied because we are failing to meet our deeper needs but then turning again and again to short-term fixes in order to try and make ourselves feel better.
Start to notice your triggers and establish strategies to put some breathing space in place when you feel the compulsion to act out the unwanted behaviour e.g. picking up a book, or making the effort to reach out and contact a friend rather than logging on to Facebook or Instagram.
Consciously cultivate positive behaviours as an antidote to the unwanted behaviours. This way you get to experience what healthy behaviour without the downsides actually feels like, and it starts to become self-reinforcing. As in one of the examples above, this could be experimenting with taking a nap for 15 minutes, or listening to a guided relaxation, to recharge when we feel tired, rather than reaching for that fifth cup of coffee or the sugary snacks.
Buddy up with someone who is dealing with similar issues and make a pact to support each other as you work to change your behaviour. There is strong evidence to show that we are far more likely to stick to positive behaviour if we feel accountable to someone else as well as ourselves. A good example of this is people becoming ‘gym buddies’ – a mutual arrangement where people support each other to stick to an exercise program that they know is doing them good, even when they would rather stay in and eat snacks in front of the TV.
© Gavin Conochie 2021