Why do we humans do things that we know are bad for us, like smoking, eating junk food, and drinking alcohol to excess?
It’s a simple enough question, but for millennia 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.
It’s occupied me quite a lot too, as you may have guessed from the number of articles I’ve written about habit change and what gets in its way. But here’s what I think it all boils down to: we will keep on doing things that we know are bad for us, no matter how much they hurt us and no matter how aware we are that they’re hurting us, until we relieve the pain that drove us 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? Any type of pain you care to name. 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 of my clients 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 and 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 that in some way involves numbing their feelings.
The easiest, most socially acceptable and most readily available means for numbing painful feelings – especially in childhood, when obtaining drugs and alcohol isn’t normally that easy – is overeating. Specifically, overeating junk food (or even calorie-dense whole natural foods such as dates and peanut butter), since, as best as 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, shared with me her experiences of using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT, or ‘tapping’) in her everyday life. Suzanna had become 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 every time she got in the car, which she spends several hours each day driving for work purposes, she experienced an ungovernable urge to eat. Suzanna is very particular about her food choices, but realised that she was still managing to overeat healthy (but more energy-dense) foods.
She felt unable to tell whether she was genuinely hungry, and also when she’d had enough to eat – a problem that many of my clients report to me, and that I thinks is very strongly linked to the habitual, unconscious use of emotional numbing strategies. Since we experience our feelings as physical sensations (a lump in the throat, tightness in the stomach, an ache in the heart region), it makes sense that if we chronically block our awareness of our emotions, we might block other physical feedback from our bodies too.
After I taught her EFT, Suzanna began to tap each time she noticed the 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, so she tapped on that. As she was tapping, 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 form of EFT called Matrix Reimprinting that allows individuals to ‘reprocess’ their traumatic experiences. Afterwards, Suzanna felt not just relief that the memory no longer caused distress, but also a surge of excitement that she had finally found a way to release herself from past trauma.
I’ve observed this over and over again. Tapping provides a tool for you to access emotions, and emotion-laden memories, that you learned to ‘bury’ in early life because you didn’t have the internal and external resources to handle those emotions at the time. Once unearthed, tapping then empowers you to process those emotions and memories in a non-threatening way. Whatever you were afraid of feeling, isn’t so scary anymore because now you know how to handle it. The monster under the bed turns out to be just a shadow.
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?
Want to learn more about using EFT and Matrix Reimprinting to overcome self-destructive behaviour and live your best life? Apply for a Roadmap to Optimal Health consultation today.