Why is it that year after year, we make New Year’s resolutions that we seem to break before February rolls around? The root cause of this problem, according to mental health professionals, may be compulsive behavior.
‘Compulsive behavior’ refers to unwanted habits that thwart efforts towards self-improvement. Examples of compulsive behavior are overeating, smoking, procrastination, gambling, over use of TV and the internet, overspending, heavy drinking or drug abuse. These behaviors start as occurring occasionally and develop into habits, later becoming unwanted or harmful. Memories of pleasure linger despite the reality that damage is accompanying the unhealthy behavior.
Self-destructive behaviors follow a pattern. The substances used are interchangeable whether they be alcohol or drugs, food or nicotine. The problem is similar whether it involves repeated calls from a collection agency, another five pounds gained, broken promises to loved ones, or time spent procrastinating. It seems that we don’t ask ourselves, “Is this momentary pleasure of to much eating, spending, putting things off, smoking worth the excess weight, debt, guilt?”
What causes procrastination, the most common of all self-defeating behaviors? Many people feel a sense of freedom when they put something on the back burner, promising themselves that they’ll get to it later. They pretend to have lots of time, Later, pressure and guilt ruin whatever enjoyment they gained by putting things off.
Guilt, shame, embarrassment usually accompany compulsive behaviors. Why do intelligent people make poor decisions? Unconscious factors drive people to saying ‘yes’ to indulgences and unhealthy behavior. Talk therapy offers help. Psychotherapy is a process in which people explorer unseen motivations and which can help to resolve unwanted behavior through self-knowledge.
Many people do not realize that their bad habit is meeting an unacknowledged feeling. Is there a need to defeat envy by trying to buy what others have? Is there a belief that some form of happiness will be gained through this or that ‘treat’? Will we feel empty, lonely, sad, needy or unhappy if we say ‘no’ to ourselves?
Saying ‘no’ is the basis of self-discipline, which has become a lost art. With our culture’s emphasis on bigger and better, faster and quicker, people seem less satisfied with what they have, though we have more that ever before. What happened to self-restraint? To moderation in all things? To counting our drinks, calories, amount of debt? Why did the need for a family car develop into a need for every family member to have his or her own car?
Somehow we have become caught up in the pursuit of happiness, however it is defined: euphoria, satiation, material acquisition, excessive wealth, fame, etc. Perhaps a better quality to pursue would be contentment. One may find great rewards in activities related to self-development. We could devote more time to exercising, playing music, reading, learning a new language.
Let us aim for a different kind of New Year’s resolution. Resolving to increase self-knowledge could lead to serenity, better interpersonal relationships, intellectual growth, self-discipline, and a more positive approach to our future and to the people in our lives. But making a resolution isn’t enough; the key to changing behavior is action.
Jacqueline Brill is a Lebanon counselor who works with people who have compulsive behaviors using cognitive and psychoanalytic methods.