Why We Behave in Ways We Don't Like but Can't Seem to Change
Breaking bad habits may not always be about self-discipline.
Posted June 26, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Intellectually, the dysfunction of behaviors such as overspending, overeating, or getting involved with an emotionally unavailable partner or friend is obvious.
Despite a person’s concerted efforts to break these habits, something draws them back. This may not be due to a lack of self-discipline. The catalyst may be an unconscious need to remaster negative childhood experiences.
For example, say a person finds himself or herself continually involved with someone who takes advantage, manipulates, and treats them if they are disposable. After becoming ensnared in a series of relationships like this, the person may start to believe it is fate. Yet reenactments, or the ease of slipping into an adult relationship that is similar to a childhood relationship with an emotionally abusive parent, may be the problem.
A person is often unconsciously drawn to the familiar. Jumping into a relationship with someone who is egocentric is easy to do if the person had a parent who operated similarly. The selfish partner or friend often launches a relationship by idealizing a person who is craving acceptance. The self-centered partner compliments and treats the new person as if they are sincerely loved. Yet as soon as the partner believes the person is invested, they switch to criticizing and dismissing the person. This fall from grace stuns the person and causes anxiety. He or she may clamor for approval, unconsciously caught in a repetition of a painful childhood dynamic.
The need to stay in the relationship and fight for a different ending, an ending in which he or she feels valued and loved, is human. However, this may be unrealistic, because a partner with a serious narcissistic streak may lack empathy and feel big when he or she can make another person feel small. Oscillating from idealizing to devaluing gives the self-serving partner a feeling of control. Thus, instead of achieving the result the person desperately desires, which is stable love, the emotionally unavailable partner reinforces the person’s insecure attachment with an emotionally abusive parent.
A similar scenario occurs with overeating. Often, children who grow up with a self-centered parent are shamed for having a feeling that differs from the parent. Because the child is dismissed and rebuffed for feeling the way they do, the child feels as if they are bad. Often, comfort is found in food. Food is sustenance for the insides. A child who grew up hungry for understanding and empathy sometimes grows into an adult who seeks comfort from food. It's common for an adult to overeat in order to fill an emotional void. While overeating may be an unconscious attempt to remaster emotional turmoil, it falls short, because it is not actual empathy or understanding.
Retail therapy or a tendency to overspend may be an unconscious way for an adult to seek out the validation that was absent in childhood. A child who grew up without affirmation regarding who he or she was may long for approval in adulthood. As an adult, a person who spends a lot of money on himself or herself may be after validation from others. Garnering admiration may be an attempt to remaster the discomfort of wondering if he or she is worthy. Yet the accolades that are gained through appearances and material possessions often ring hollow. A person needs to be known and loved for who they are.
Blaming an adult's mistakes on a parent’s inadequacies is not the answer, nor is using the past as a license to mistreat people in the present. Understanding how childhood experiences impact a person's sense of self may be critical in healing and extinguishing the dysfunctional behaviors that a person doesn't understand.
Also, if you are a parent, try to remember that feelings are the essence of a child. A parent who is emotionally attuned and can honor a child's feelings, but also follow through with expectations, redirection, reassurance, or encouragement is better able to help the child feel secure. This may serve the child well as an adult. A need to remain in a toxic relationship hoping for change, eating to fill an emotional void, or spending money to elicit affirmation may not be necessary. If an insecure attachment with a parent exists, a person may attempt psychotherapy to address and heal from childhood wounds in order to avoid reenactments.