Do you ever feel haunted by compulsive, self-defeating behaviors? These can range from obviously self-destructive patterns of alcohol or drug abuse to more subtly unhealthy relationships with food, people, work, or even exercise.
All too often, we’re faced with a temptation to indulge in some type of instant gratification that we know – deep down inside – is ultimately unhealthy for us.
Now there’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence – in moderation. But it can be difficult to stay on the right side of the fine line between bringing a moment of joy into our lives and over-indulging in a rush of sensory pleasure that ultimately leads to an unpleasant crash.
When a part of us knows that a choice is going to make us feel bad in the long run, but we do it anyway, that is a compulsive behavior. Whether it’s smoking a cigarette, eating a pint of ice cream, or emotionally over-investing in a relationship, sometimes we know we’re going to regret a choice, but we just can’t help ourselves. When we regularly succumb to a compulsive behavior, it becomes a self-defeating pattern.
If we’re caught in one of these self-defeating patterns, it’s common to believe this means we’re weak-willed, undisciplined, or sinful, and the reason we keep doing this to ourselves is because there is something wrong with us. However, modern theories from cognitive science suggest an alternate explanation: the compulsive behavior is caused by a root emotion deep inside us that drives us to make these unproductive choices.
According to one modern model of how the mind works, behaviors are driven by thoughts, and thoughts are driven by feelings. We may think that we are logical, rational, reason-based beings, but recent evidence suggests emotions, not thoughts, are the principle cause of our behaviors. (See chapter 5 of Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright, for more information on the modular model of the mind.)
So when we’re trapped in the thrall of a compulsive behavior, it’s because there is a deep-seated emotion driving the behavior, and this emotion is stronger than any other emotions driving more beneficial behaviors. Often, that underlying emotion is pain from an unresolved core emotional wound, and the compulsive behavior is a distraction from that pain.
Rather than attempting to use thought-based will-power and discipline to resist unhealthy behaviors (which often only makes us feel worse about ourselves when we fail to break out of the feeling-thought-behavior cycle), we can pursue an alternate, two-step approach: weaken the negative feeling of the core emotional wound and strengthen an alternate, positive feeling: Love.
Psychotherapy and other healing modalities are valuable paths to heal our core emotional wounds and reduce the painful emotion driving the compulsive behavior. We all have underlying core emotional wounds from our upbringing, ranging from the severe trauma of abuse to smaller wounds of benign neglect. Everyone can benefit from therapeutic approaches to identify and heal these unresolved wounds.
At the same time, we can begin to rewire our subconscious with a feeling of Love. We can learn to accept ourselves, exactly as we are, by examining and integrating our guilt and shame. And we can practice giving ourselves the love we need to feel whole and complete. We can meditate on our heart to bring love, healing, and compassion to our wounded soul.
When we cultivate love in our heart, we create a new, positive feeling in our subconscious, and this feeling generates positive thoughts about ourselves. By feeling good about ourselves, we rewire the brain to produce more healthy, constructive thoughts.
These positive thoughts then lead to ideas for healthy choices. When we feel good about ourselves, then we don’t feel a need to overindulge in food or shopping. When we start to feel more love than pain in our emotional core, then we don’t need to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs.
When the emotion dominating our subconscious is more loving than hurtful, then we feel like nourishing ourselves with healthy, balanced movement and diet. When we feel love in our heart, then we gravitate to more loving people who bring more love into our lives.
These healthy choices further strengthen the feeling of love within us, leading to a positive feedback loop that can pull us out of self-defeating patterns.
One important note: cultivating unconditional love for ourselves does NOT mean ignoring negative feelings and forcing a “positive vibes only” mentality. Fully embracing, expressing, and processing our negative emotions is a crucial step for integrating our core wounds and creating emotional space to love ourselves.
The path to healing our wounds and unconditionally loving ourselves is a long, slow, fitful process, full of progress and regression – two steps forward, one step back. We’ve all lived through a lifetime of hurtful experiences. Undoing that lifelong negative conditioning and rewiring the brain with positive emotions takes time.
Be patient with yourself, be kind, be compassionate. We’re all doing the best that we can, and we’re all exactly where we should be in life.
We can follow a path of love to become the highest versions of ourselves that we all know is inside us.
Here’s a discussion of this topic:
For more information on cultivating love for ourselves, check out my ongoing series on Embracing Unconditional Love. You can also join my weekly in-person or Zoom Meditation Conversation, a safe space where we practice reflecting unconditional love to each other, discuss mindfulness techniques for examining our emotions, and share meditation practices to cultivate love in our hearts.