Why We Hurt Ourselves and Others — and How to Stop

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. Even worse, we aren’t always willing to acknowledge the damage we cause to our own well-being. For example, imagine a man whose upbringing was overshadowed by a parent’s alcoholism. He determined he wouldn’t fall into the same addictive patterns, yet he thinks nothing of drinking daily as an adult. When someone points out that having two — or three or four — daily drinks might be unwise, the man denies having a problem. After all, he’s high-functioning in his work and relationships. He refuses to acknowledge the connection between having a family history of addiction and being at greater risk of becoming addicted. Consider the woman who has multiple convictions for driving under the influence, at the expense of her license, her job, and her finances. She’s been mandated by court to seek treatment, following incarceration and probation. When her therapist asks if she’s willing to maintain sobriety, she shakes her head. “Oh, I just won’t drink and drive,” she responds, unable to conceive of giving up her substance despite all it’s cost her. Take a man who watched his parents die from smoking-related illness, yet nonetheless continues to chain smoke, unwilling to discuss the devastating impact cigarettes have on his health when loved ones bring up their concerns.

Why Don’t They Just Stop?

There are a few reasons people start or continue to indulge in behaviors they know are harmful. One of the most powerful is denial. Since smoking and drinking don’t directly cause death right away, the person indulging can ignore —for a little while — the long-term effect these behaviors will have on his or her health. Cognitive dissonance, which is similar to denial, can convince some people that they can justify or compensate for their behavior with other life choices. For example, a person might say, “My drinking, smoking or using isn’t so bad because I can still get through a workout.” Addictions can also be a form of companionship for some people. Because cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol are always available, some people come to see them as “friends” — ones that can’t abandon them. Additionally, peer pressure is a powerful influence. When someone spends time with people who glorify drinking, abusing drugs, or smoking, these behaviors become part of a social culture. Consider how many people smoke outside of meetings or on breaks at work. Some people might fear losing control. They indulge in the harmful because they know they can. When loved ones bring up the issue, no matter how loving or compassionate their approach, these people might become defensive and cling to the behavior as if it’s a security blanket. Additionally, refusing to admit the substance’s hold on the user often keeps the addiction — and the person in its grip — at the center of attention. Many people also find that breaking long-established habits is difficult, or they believe myths about substance use, including the misconceptions that abusing drugs makes life more fun, because “everyone else is doing it,” or that substance use is an acceptable part of socializing. Finally, some people continue to engage in behaviors they know can hurt them because they lack a healthy amount of love themselves. Would someone who truly loved himself or herself continually poison his or her own body? Of course not.

Getting Your Self-Control — and Life — Back

Some next steps to take:

  • Decide who’s in control. Do you want to be at the mercy of an inanimate object, family history, peer pressure, brain chemistry, impulses or neurological wiring?
  • Seek support. This can come in the form of inpatient or outpatient treatment, recovery rooms, sober family and friends, enjoyable activities, time in nature, meditation, yoga, writing, or spiritual endeavors.
  • Remember it’s never too late. Once you become willing to address your harmful behaviors and why you continue to engage in them, you’re on your way to taking your life back.

By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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