Just Stop—Why we Engage in Harmful or Unhealthy Behavior
It seems simple enough.
If something is bad for us, we should stop doing it. Of course it’s not that simple—people have addictions, compulsions, and desires (hereafter referred to as compulsions), and it may seem almost impossible not to submit to them. The two forces—the compulsions and the knowledge of their negative consequences—are in a constant battle to control our behavior. The “voice” of our compulsions can be quite strong and very crafty. We’ve all had times when we’ve rationalized having one more drink (“It’s a special occasion!”) or junk food (“Just while I’m watching the movie.”), and, at those times, our rationales have seemed perfectly sound. We’ve also had periods when the voice of reason has been dominant. We clearly see the connections between our behavior and its negative consequences, and we’re able to control ourselves. So why does this battle take place—why can’t we see the healthy and logical path and just follow it? If we could answer these questions, we’d find a clear path to healthy, positive behaviors.
Learn to recognize your compulsion voice
When they feel a compulsion to engage in harmful or unhealthy behavior, many people don’t even realize that they’re responding to a compulsion. They don’t recognize the rationalizations for what they are; they just engage in the behaviors. Again, the voice of compulsion can be crafty—it drives us toward a path on which harmful behaviors seem like just a natural part of our lives. The logic of the voice can seem irreproachable. To challenge this voice, we first have to develop the ability to recognize it for what it is. We need to be intentional about what behaviors we want in our lives and what behaviors we want to curtail or discontinue. Once we do this, we need to develop an approach to ingrain this change into our psyche. This may involve the daily practice of writing down our intentions or finding times during the day when we can state our intentions to ourselves. The intentions don’t have to be complicated or elaborate. They can be as simple as “Today, I will eat according to my plan,” or “Alcohol is not a part of my life.” Then, when the compulsion voice speaks up (and it will always speak up again), we will immediately see that it is not consistent with our intentions, we will see that it is contrary to our desired behaviors. Developing awareness of our compulsions is only one step. Of course, it will not solve these challenges on its own, but it is a necessary first step.
Why “lack of willpower” is such a dangerous idea
When faced with a compulsion, many people—maybe even most people—address it as if it’s something they can easily control if they only put their mind to it. Their friends and family may treat it even more lightly (“Why don’t you just stop?”). It’s viewed as a lack of willpower or, even worse, some deficiency in moral fiber. Our social attitudes and public policy toward compulsions, obesity, and substance abuse, for example, have been similarly cavalier—we don’t treat them as mental health issues but as personal failingsor, in the case of drug addiction, as criminal issues.
We need to treat compulsions with the seriousness they deserve and make help available to those who need it as soon as the compulsions are identified. This starts with removing the stigma associated with having compulsions (along with any other form of mental illness) and treating them as we would any other kind of health challenge. This doesn’t mean we should run to a psychiatrist every time we eat too many chips. Rather, we should adopt a response that’s appropriate to the issue. Again, this is similar to other health issues. If we have slight indigestion, we do not go to a doctor, but if the problem becomes chronic or severe, we do. The same should be true of compulsions. If we have one too many drinks on rare occasions, we might not need to seek professional help, but, when the behavior becomes a problem—if we feel we can’t control it, if it affects our health, or if it damages our relationships—it’s important to take serious steps toward addressing the compulsion. If we dismiss it as a lack of willpower, say that we just have to get on top of it and we’ll be fine, we’ll give our compulsion voice free rein to continue to manipulate us.
Dangerous or criminal compulsions
One of the reasons why it’s so important to treat compulsions with the seriousness they deserve is because some of them are harmful or lethal to the people who experience them or to others. When we feel strong compulsions, we may go to extremes in order to satisfy those urges. Heroin addicts will do anything it takes to get their next fix, including theft and assault. These more serious compulsions destroy families, ruin lives, and often lead to serious crimes. The compulsions of some people are extremely harmful and criminal, for instance, those involving rape and pedophilia. They are related to mental health, but it’s important to also treat extreme cases such as these as criminal matters. Yes, society must do what it can to rehabilitate those with these compulsions, but the first priority is the safety of those they attack. Such compulsions fall outside the scope of what I am addressing here, but I didn’t want to pretend they didn’t exist.
My eating and drinking story
The topic of compulsions is a personal one to me. I’ve been facing compulsions related to binge eating and alcohol my whole life. I’ve been twenty-to-thirty-pounds overweight, with brief periods of being slender, for my entire adult life. I love to eat, and I go through regular episodes of binge eating, wolfing down enormous amounts of ice cream, cookies, or chocolates. It fires up the pleasure center of my brain like few other things. I’ve only gone through brief periods of being what I would call obese, so I’ve rationalized my situation by telling myself,“This is my natural weight,” or “I’m still healthy.” But the fact is that I’m not as healthy as I could be, and I don’t look the way I want to look. As I write this, I am going through one of my weight loss periods (which has motivated me to write this), but it remains a significant challenge.
Drinking is also something I struggle with. For most of my life, I drank alcohol every day. I’ve gone through periods where it’s been less frequent and others where it’s been more frequent, as well as periods when it’s been wine and others where it’s been mostly whiskey. Alcohol also fires up the pleasure center in my brain and provides me with relief from stress and anxiety. I acknowledge that I’m an alcoholic, albeit a high-functioning one. I’ve been able to do my job, exercise, and live a meaningful life, but each of these efforts would have been better without alcohol (or without as much alcohol). Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to stick to “a plan” for drinking, but it’s still too much. A few years ago, my then 19-year old son challenged me to stop drinking for a while—to take a break and see how it went. With much trepidation, I agreed to take on the challenge. I didn’t drink anything for two weeks, and, shockingly, I lived to tell the tale. Since then, I’ve been drinking only on weekends and significantly less than before. I desperately hope that I can stick to this as it allows me to experience much more clear thinking, lets me interact with the people in my life on a deeper level, and helps me to eat less (good habits feed on each other!). I still have the compulsion voice in my life—as loud and insistent as ever—but that guy doesn’t have as much sway as he used to. I plan on keeping it that way.
Take the time to reflect
Before you engage in compulsive behaviors, stop!
Just for a moment.
Give yourself some time to think about what you’re doing and your motivations for doing it. Just a pause can help you to see the two voices battling with each other in your mind and the implications of the behaviors associated with each voice. You’ll be able to see the voice of your compulsion for what it is and why it’s there. You’ll be able to hear the voice of reason clearly and visualize the path it proposes. It is hard to resist your compulsions, and a pause may not result in your taking the path you ultimately want to take, but you’ll at least be taking the path of compulsion with your eyes wide open—without grasping onto rationalizations and knee-jerk impulses. Whenever you can, take the time to fully reflect on your compulsions—why they are there, where they come from, and what the consequences are of acting on them. Take the time to visualize the path you want to take—free of your compulsive behavior. When you reflect, be specific about what is negative about your compulsive behaviors and what is beneficial about your alternative path. Hold onto those images and create a clear picture of them in your mind.
Only you can decide what path you’ll take—don’t be influenced by voices that would take you off it.