How to Climb Out of the Holes of Living

Asking why you’re in a hole won’t get you out of it.

Posted Sep 06, 2020

In general, “how” questions are practical, usually with a goal of achieving something. “Why” questions are philosophical, with the intention of explaining something.

Lack of explanation of negative experience is scary:

“My God, why is this happening to me!”

We need explanations to reduce anxiety, but they don’t have to be right. In terms of anxiety-reduction, a bad explanation is better than no explanation. I’d rather think that I feel bad because I’m a loser or married to a loser or my parents mistreated me, than not know why I feel bad.

Unfortunately, we’re all susceptible to the worst kind of explanations, those that seek evidence to support them, while ignoring evidence that contradicts them. Such explanations block improvement more than facilitates it.

Traditional psychotherapy rests on the hope that understanding why you’re in the hole will get you out of it. Most approaches come with a repertoire of explanations, which, like clothes off the rack, it tries to fit on clients. That was the curse of my training as a therapist, which took a year of failure to overcome.

To answer the “why” of past experience requires the probing of memory. We now know that recall of past events is greatly influenced, if not determined, by the emotional state we’re in when we recall the events. This makes perfect sense if we consider that memory evolved to help us negotiate the environment we’re in now, not to serve as a photographic archive of the past.

Put another way, the function of memory is not to help us understand the trauma of stepping barefoot on a nail; it’s to help us watch our step now. The present-centered function of memory means that we do not remember past events; we remember the last time we remembered them.

The difference between “Why am I like this?” and “How do I improve?” is greatest in the case of habituated behavior, which can be understood as a series of conditioned responses.

Conditioned Response

After repeated association of “A” with “B,” when “A” occurs, “B” occurs automatically. Your phone buzzes, you reach for it, the light turns red, you stop, seeing someone drink triggers your impulse to drink, and so on.  

“A” is rarely just environmental cues; it almost always includes physiological and mental states. Conditioned responses are more automatic and less accessible by manual override (deliberate decision) when we’re tired, hungry, sad, lonely, angry, resentful.  

The “Why” of Overeating

Jonah had undergone years of therapy for chronic overeating. He and his several therapists explored the myths of overeating — eating to avoid boredom, eating for comfort, eating for love — to no avail.

Eventually he “discovered” that his impulse to overeat stems from his mother ringing a dinner bell to summon children to the table. (Apparently, she never heard of Pavlov’s dogs.) He had eight brothers and sisters, so there could be no snacking before or after dinner. He and his therapist surmised that any sound that seems to suggest bell-ringing — phone, music, utensils hitting the plate — now made him overeat.

Once he “understood” why he continued to overeat, he blamed his mother for “putting it into my head.” That brought him resentment, but no relief from overeating.  

What We Can and Cannot Know

We can never know whether his mother ringing the dinner bell began Jonah's habit of overeating. But we do know that habits, once entrenched, are self-reinforcing and run on autopilot, independent of what may have started them. Repetition of habits makes the synaptic sequence underling them stronger, more automatic, and less connected to original causes.

I doubt that the impulse to overeat was an actual conditioned response associated with bell-like sounds. More likely, it was an explanation concocted in therapy. But that didn’t really matter. Jonah believed it, so getting out of the hole required removal of the barrier he perceived to be keeping it in it.

How to Eat for Value

Jonah set an alarm on his phone to go off every waking hour. (In developing new conditioned responses, it's important to spread practice sessions throughout the day, to include various physical and mental states.) Each time the alarm sounded, he took a minute or so to imagine bell-like sounds, associated with small acts of compassion and kindness he’d done, beautiful nature scenes,  movies, works of art, feelings of competence when he completed tasks at work, and protecting the well-being of his children by modeling good eating habits.

He employed this practice regimen for six weeks. By the end of the six weeks, he ate consistently for health and well-being. He ate slowly, savoring the taste, in contrast to when he overate at a furious rate, barely tasting the food. 

Think How, Not Why

Once you’re out of the hole, there may be benefit in exploring how you got into it, to help you avoid future holes. But “why” you got into the hole is a philosophical question, answerable only by speculation, supported, at best, by cherry-picked evidence.