Despite the fact that clients in psychotherapy long for transformation, very few change anywhere near as much as they’d like (I discussed this in an early post), often remaining trapped in destructive patterns of behavior such as the cycle of crime and punishment; even when they understand that the repeated behaviors they engage in are harmful, even when they wish to do something different, they can’t seem to alter those behaviors enough. To understand why this is so, it helps to know something about the nature of defenses as well as our neuro-anatomy.
Psychological defenses are lies we tell ourselves when we can’t bear the emotional truth. Deeply entrenched defenses — the kind that form a part of our character, our personally distinct way of navigating emotions and relationships — originally came about because we had no other way to cope with pain as we were growing up. If we’d had other psychological resources during childhood, we wouldn’t have needed to develop these strong defenses in the first place. Once they’ve been active for years, they’re extremely difficult to change because they’re neurologically habitual. Let me explain.
Every emotion or thought you have is a chemical/neurological event; each defense has a set of neural pathways associated with it in your brain and the more powerfully entrenched the defense, the more deeply “etched” those neural pathways. I like to think of defenses as deep ruts in a well-traveled road. Whenever you travel familiar upsetting terrain, you’ll tend to fall into those ruts — that is, you’ll use the same old defenses — just as a wheel will slip into an actual rut. You might be able to lift the wheel out of that rut for a time, but unless you exercise constant vigilance, it will always fall back in. Always. It’s like the force of gravity, virtually inevitable. In order to stay out of that rut, you either have to change the emotional terrain or figure out some other way to navigate it. Even when you develop other techniques — laying down new “ruts”, so to speak — the old ones will always be a problem because they’ve been around much longer, with years of heavy traffic to dig them deeper.
So let’s take an example. Say you’re extremely overweight, to such a degree that it threatens your health. You’ve gone on diets, you’ve tried to change your eating habits but nothing much has changed. You can’t seem to shed the weight though you know it will shorten your life and drastically lower its quality as you age. One would think that this would be motivation for change, but given the obesity epidemic in America, it’s obviously not enough. Yes, the American diet relies too heavily on processed and fast foods, with too much fat and sugar; yes, most of us don’t get enough exercise. The average overweight person knows this and still can’t change the way he or she eats.
The obese person has likely spent a lifetime using food in a defensive way, as a kind of comfort or anesthetic, because he doesn’t know how else to deal with his pain or satisfy his emotional needs. With no other psychological resources to cope with those difficult experiences, going on a diet or avoiding the usual sources of comfort merely throws her back on unbearable pain. Under emotional pressure, such a person will automatically tell him- or herself the usual lie: “You’re not lonely or sad or depressed, you’re hungry.” The lie is what comes naturally, like a wagon wheel falling into a well-traveled rut.
The person might go to therapy and, over time, develop some new tolerance for pain and a greater capacity to deal with it. Whenever that pain comes up, the old defense will always feel like the easier and more natural response because it has been around longer and that neural pathway is just as deeply etched as ever. To avoid falling into that rut means working hard to do something different. It takes self-awareness and continual effort; at the same time, that “something different” generally means bearing with your pain, which in the short-term feels much worse than downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. When you think about it, it’s no wonder so few people really alter their self-destructive behaviors, even when they want desperately to change and recognize the cost of not doing so.
Finding Your Own Way:
Food cravings are a great way to approach this issue. Next time you feel the urge to gorge yourself or eat something you’ve promised yourself not to eat, try to hold off as long as you can. Don’t decide in advance that you are or are not going to give into the craving; simply choose to wait. Try to remain as self-aware as possible; don’t distract yourself with something else, don’t turn on the TV or run to the gym. Just wait and try to bear with the feelings that come up, as long as possible. My guess is that you’ll soon begin to feel extremely uncomfortable.
I come from a family of substance abusers and I constantly struggle with a tendency to drink too much alcohol. As a stressful day is winding down toward 5:00, I invariably feel the longing for a glass of wine, even though I may have promised myself not to drink that day. It feels mindless, automatic. It’s my default position; unless I’m very self-aware and willing to bear with the discomfort of stress, I’ll be pouring myself a drink before I’m quite aware that I’m doing it. I know I will always have this problem. (It’s one of the strengths of the 12-step programs, the insistence that you will never be finished with your addiction, never fully “recovered”).
While stress is unpleasant, I can always resort to alternative ways of coping with it — taking a bath or doing some cardiovascular exercise. It’s much more difficult to bear with depression or loneliness because meaningful relief takes hard work over a long period of time to achieve. What are your short-term defensive strategies? What do you do to make yourself feel better right now, even when you know you’ll feel bad about it later? Any ideas about what you’re trying to avoid? As with the food example above, try holding off long enough for the “bad” feelings to emerge. Maybe over time, you can hold off a bit longer, do something a little bit different. That’s the kind of change that is actually possible.