Why do we humans do things we know are bad for us – like smoking, eating junk food or drinking alcohol to excess?
It’s a simple enough question, but for decades it’s occupied the minds of philosophers, researchers, public health officials, psychologists, writers… and of course, countless people who are frustrated with their inability to break bad habits, despite their best intentions.
We asked Hopewood Lifestyle contributor, Robyn Chuter, how she would answer this question.
She thinks it all boils down to the fact that people will keep on doing things they know are bad for them, despite how aware they are of the hurt they are causing themselves, until they relieve the issue that drove them to do those self-destructive things in the first place.
What kinds of pain drive people to engage in behaviours that they know are harmful? Many many things. Physical pain from an unhealed hip injury apparently drove the legendary musician Prince to overuse the synthetic opioid painkiller Fentanyl to the point that it killed him, despite his well-publicised commitment to healthy living.
Far more commonly though, psychological pain is the driving force. It’s easy to imagine how a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, or a returned soldier haunted by intrusive memories of the horrors of combat, might feel driven to seek oblivion in a bottle of alcohol or pills.
But many people can’t grasp how their fairly ordinary and common life experiences – growing up with emotionally unavailable parents; being bullied by mean kids at school; business failure; relationship break-ups, a sense of not having yet found one’s path in life and so on – could possibly be related to their compulsive overeating, smoking, drinking and inability to stop binge-watching Game of Thrones to go outside for a walk.
After all, doesn’t everyone have bad things happen to them in life? Sure they do. That’s the human condition. But some people – either because of genetic differences, or experiences in utero, or their Mum and Dad’s parenting style, or early life events, or some other factor or combination of factors that we currently don’t understand – will develop a coping mechanism for psychological pain.
The easiest, most socially acceptable and most readily available means – is overeating. Specifically, overeating junk food (or even calorie-dense whole natural foods such as dates and peanut butter). I’ve been able to establish over 22 years in clinical practice, no one ever binges on alfalfa sprouts!
One of my clients, whom I’ll call Suzanna, became intensely frustrated that despite achieving success in so many domains of her life – business, athletics, charity work – her eating felt completely out of control. In particular, every time she got in the car, she experienced an ungovernable urge to eat. She had to spend several hours each day driving for work. Suzanna is very particular about her food choices, but realised she was still managing to overeat healthy (but more energy-dense) foods.
She was unable to tell whether she was genuinely hungry, or when she’d had enough to eat. This is not uncommon when if we are blocking other physical feedback from our bodies too.
I taught her to really focus on what was driving her compulsion to stick something in her mouth. The first thing she noticed was a sense of agitation that came up when she didn’t succumb to the urge to eat. As she focussed on that, memories of painful childhood experiences – both physically and emotionally painful – came flooding into her awareness.
We chose one of these memories to work on together using a technique called Matrix Reimprinting, which allows individuals to ‘reprocess’ their traumatic experiences. Afterwards, Suzanna found the memory no longer caused distress, but she also felt a surge of excitement that she had released herself from the past trauma.
And when you’re no longer afraid of your own emotions, you just don’t experience the need to stifle them with food, booze, cigarettes, drug, compulsively checking your phone or email, buying stuff you don’t need, or any other behaviour that undermines your health and happiness. Reclaiming your ability to feel allows you to live a richer, fuller life. And isn’t that the point of paying attention to your health?