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Why We Can't Stop Ourselves -- Addiction, Willpower and Self-Esteem

(3 minute read)

All of us have friends or family members that persist in doing things that cause terrible harm to themselves. People promise to stop drinking, and break that promise the next day. They swear they’re going to live within their budget, and then splurge. Commit to doing their homework and spend the entire day on social media. Fall off their diet almost as soon as they start it. Sometimes they deny that their behavior is harmful, claiming that their drinking is within their control, that they’re not spending too much money, that school is a waste of time anyway, or that they’re only a bit overweight.

When we see other people do these things, we inevitably judge them. Perhaps we criticize them for lacking will power, or sense that they’re manipulating us and just buying time with their promises. We think they’re blind not to see the damage they’re doing to themselves. We might even believe that they don’t truly want to change, and their their goal in life is to be an alcoholic, or overweight, financially broke or an academic failure.

Sometimes those “other people” doing harm to their lives are us. We find ourselves behaving in ways that we desperately wish we could stop, but somehow can’t. And as harshly as we judge others for their failures, we are even harsher on ourselves. We berate ourselves for our lack of willpower, our laziness, our inability to resist food, alcohol, social media, pornography, drugs, shopping, sex, self-harm, excessive TV, or whatever else is interfering with our lives. We believe we are weak, pathetic, bad people for continuing to fall into those behaviors we abhor. We punish ourselves for our failings, and our punishments are much worse than anything that other people could do to us.

And where does all this self-punishment and self-criticism get us? It makes us feel bad about ourselves, ashamed of our behavior, guilty at the negative impact on others. It makes us feel awful. The problem is that when we feel awful, we look for things to do that are going to make us feel better, at least in the short term. For some people that is reaching for food, for others, drugs or alcohol. Others shop for things they can ill afford, or look for casual sex, zone out on TV or social media or even hurt themselves. In other words, we do the very things that made us angry at ourselves in the first place. We fall into a vicious cycle: The more we criticize ourselves for our behavior, the more we engage in that behavior, and the more we engage in the behavior, the more we criticize ourselves.

This vicious cycle is at the root of many self-destructive behaviors. A husband who comes home drunk sees the impact on his family and experiences such shame that he anesthetizes himself with more alcohol. A student who spends hours on Facebook to avoid studying for an exam experiences such anxiety that she numbs herself with even more hours on Facebook. The man who finds food comforting is so upset with his lack of self control that he calms himself with yet more food. It’s not unusual for people to ask themselves questions like “Why do I let my drinking get out of control so much?” or “I promised myself I’d study all day, so why did I just waste four hours on social media?” or even “How did I end up with this empty tub of ice cream in my hand?”

All behavior has a purpose. We are always either trying to get a reward, or avoid pain, or both. The husband who drinks too much drinks again to avoid the pain of seeing the damage he’s doing and for the short term pleasure of inebriation. The student who is addicted to Facebook avoids the anxiety of schoolwork while getting the short term pleasure of interacting with friends. And the man who comforts himself with food experiences short term relief from self criticism and anxiety.

You may ask how the vicious cycle got started in the first place. What made the husband start drinking? What made the student anxious about her schoolwork? What made the man need to seek comfort in food? Every life is unique and a unique set of circumstances and personality led each person to try to address their problems in the way they did. But whatever got this vicious cycle going in the first place, it is the self-criticism and self-punishment that helps to keep it going.

There is no one, simple answer that will help everyone to escape such a vicious cycle. Everyone finds their own way out, sometimes on their own, sometimes with the help of friends or family and sometimes through therapy. But recognizing that the behavior that we’re trying to stop doesn’t make us bad people, and is just an attempt at finding a solution — well, that is, perhaps, a start in the right direction.

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