Why We Engage in Self-Defeating Behavior

In North America obesity is widespread and rage is rampant. Why are people engaged in these and other forms of self-defeating behavior? Don’t they realize anger robs them of their happiness and morbid obesity destroys their physical and mental health? Why do they continue on a self-destructive path? Don’t they want to get better? The answers to these questions will help us to better understand ourselves and others.

What do you do when you feel bad or are in pain? You seek relief, right? Well, there are two ways to seek relief. First, there is the rational way, which is to find the cause of the pain, learn what the options are for alleviating or removing the pain, and finally to do whatever you can to improve the situation.

The second way of behaving is to ignore the cause and just numb the pain by doing something that provides temporary relief. Why would we consider temporary relief? Because pain is always associated with emotions. And emotions fuel our behavior. That is, when we are overcome by an emotion, we usually react with an automatic response, rather than act rationally.

Here’s an example. Suppose Tom and Harry get into an argument

What is the result? They both get angry. How will Harry behave after the argument? If he is like most people, he will leave in a huff. That is an emotional response, not a rational one. A rational response would be to recognize the importance of maintaining friendships, and, therefore, to apologize to Tom and come to an agreement where they can prevent future arguments.

What can we do to increase the likelihood that we will respond to pain rationally? A good way to begin is by understanding the nature of emotions. All emotions are good. They are like the dials, lights, and gauges found on a pilot’s instrument panel, for their purpose is to help and guide us. For example, anger is a flashing red light that signals the angry person believes he or she is being treated unfairly. It is like a warning, “Attention!

Attention! You believe you are being treated unfairly. To make the bad feeling go away, do something to correct the situation and make it fair once again.” Once Harry understands this, he can use his anger in a positive way by apologizing to Tom and reconciling.

Now, let’s take a deeper look and see how, if we are not careful, we can become ensnared in prolonged or chronic self-defeating behavior. I will use Roger as an example.

Roger is an office worker who feels overworked, stressed, and burned out. He feels unhappy in his job and feels trapped. He feels resentful. He doesn’t understand the purpose of our feelings, so he doesn’t think of trying to decipher the message his feelings are sending him. Instead, he seeks relief for his pain by visiting the pub after work and drinking. The alcohol causes him to forget about his unhappiness and provides temporary relief.

But, of course, drinking doesn’t address the cause of his problem. On the contrary, over time it makes matters worse. For sometimes he arrives at work with a severe hangover, making him less efficient and less likely to catch up with his work. The fact that he is falling further behind increases his stress (pain) and leads him to drinking more than ever. You can see where this is leading. He is a prime candidate for becoming an alcoholic, which could very well lead to his dismissal.

But wait a minute, I’m not finished yet. You see, his repeated attempts to make the pain go away by drinking always ends in failure. So, he now experiences a new emotion: frustration. It adds more pain to the pain he is already experiencing. He now needs more relief, which means even more drinking. So, his situation is deteriorating from bad to worse. Too bad Roger doesn’t realize that frustration is a helpful emotion screaming at him, “Stop! Stop! What you are doing doesn’t work! You need to do something different!”

If Roger isn’t careful or doesn’t seek help quickly, he may sink to the next and final level. The body and mind can only take so much abuse. They can tolerate the combination of the original pain and the pain of frustration only for a certain period of time. When the limit has been reached, they shut down. They say, “We can’t take this any more. We’re taking a break until you find something that will work.” This state is called depression. Yes, this emotional state is also good because it is a protective mechanism. Rather than go insane by repeatedly doing what doesn’t work, the body and mind just quit trying.

An outsider looking at Roger may say, “What’s wrong with him?

Doesn’t he want to get better?” It’s not a matter of not wanting to get better, but a fear of trying. For each attempt only leads to failure, frustration, and more pain.

Well, then, how can Roger break out of the trap he finds himself in? There are three steps he needs to take:

1. Instead of reaching for another drink, Roger needs to stop and ask himself, “What emotions are driving me to do this? WHAT AM I FEELING?” The answer may be, “I feel overwhelmed. I feel like it’s impossible to do all that I’m expected to do. This makes me angry, resentful, and frustrated.”

2. Roger needs to cool headedly analyze the situation and ask himself, “WHAT CAUSES ME TO FEEL THIS WAY.” At first he may think he feels that way because the boss is giving him too much to do.

But after further reflection he may realize that his coworkers are not only keeping up with the work flow, but are not complaining. This indicates that they may know something that he doesn’t and that he may be doing something wrong.

3. Instead of running away from the problem, Roger needs to face it and FIND A SATISFYING RESPONSE. Roger decides to get the advice of his coworkers. One who was particularly helpful asked him if he knew anything about the GTD system. “No, I don’t,” said Roger, “what’s that?” Well,” his friend explained, “it’s a system that allows you to accomplish MORE while experiencing LESS stress. As you master the system, which easily comes with practice, rather than feeling burned out at the end of the day, you’ll feel exhilarated. And after work, instead of downing 15 beers to numb your pain, you’ll be drinking one beer – with me, I hope – to celebrate your success!” Roger asked, “How can I learn about the system?” His friend replied, “Just pick up a copy of David Allen’s book, GETTING THINGS DONE, The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, Penguin Books, 2001. Tell you what, let’s go to the bookstore together and I’ll help you find the book. Afterward we can celebrate your new beginning with one beer — or a coffee, if you prefer.”

Perhaps this simple explanation points out how important it is to avoid slipping into a perilous downward spiral of pain avoidance, pain-numbing temporary pleasure, frustration, and perhaps even depression. Instead we need to be attuned to our feelings and decipher the message they are relaying. When we are feeling good, the message is simply, “You’re doing a good job. Keep doing it.”

In the case of negative feelings, we need to identify the specific emotion that is troubling us, find the cause of that feeling, learn what steps we can take to improve the situation, and finally, to take appropriate action.