Millions of people smoke cigarettes. Hundreds of millions of people are overweight. We stay in relationships in which we are miserable. We go to jobs every day that we hate. We text while we drive. We say the one thing we know we shouldn’t say when we are arguing with our significant others. We touch the plate when the waiter tells us it’s too hot.
Freud calls it the death drive. To paraphrase: human nature has a subconscious bias towards death and self-destruction. This sounds ridiculous on the surface, but I’ve come to believe that it’s spot-on. Freud’s theory goes in directions that are far beyond mine, but the central idea of our bent towards self-destruction is evident all around us. I can give a few examples from my own life:
I never feel better physically than I do right after I go to the gym or walk 18 holes instead of ride. But I always find reasons to not do either.
I feel most alive when I put myself out there and in vulnerable situations. But I go months–sometimes years–before I’ll do it again.
I know the biggest relief in my job is when I finish grading a stack of papers. But I’ll literally walk away from the last two and wait until the next night to finish.
I am aware of the fact that if I simply ate a little bit less and a little bit healthier for a month, I’d probably lose 15 pounds. But I simply keep eating like I have for the past 15 years.
I look forward to that feeling right after I clean my house, or get my laundry folded, or clean my dishes. But I avoid doing all of them.
Each of these examples follows the same formula: Knowing that certain actions will lead to positive results, but still choosing to not do them. This is different from taking risks or going out on a ledge. Quitting a job is scary, because we don’t know for sure that we will like the next one. Breaking up with someone means we might end up with no one. Ordering something new on the menu means that it might end up tasting bad. These are hard things to do because we aren’t sure of the outcome. But the examples I mentioned above don’t involve risk. I know exactly what the outcome will be, and yet I still avoid acting.
Why am I like this? Is it just me?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the gym, eaten a healthy meal, put myself to bed with a book and then woken up the next morning and thought, “Geez, I feel great, I’m going to start doing that every night!” And then, of course, I don’t do it again until the next week, or even longer. This doesn’t make any sense. I know what to do to feel better, to be happier, and to have more purpose in my life. Why do I choose to do otherwise?
The answer is simple: I am dumb. I know how to feel healthier. I know how to make better relationships with my family and with my friends. I know things I could say to other people that would make them feel better about themselves. I know people that need my help, and I know that I would feel great after helping them. I know that when I get my clothes folded, and my floor swept, and my dishes clean, I’m going to feel pleased with myself. I know that telling someone how I really feel is the moment when I feel most alive.
There’s no risk, and only good can come from all of these. But my brain and my body convince me not to. I don’t think I’m alone here. According to Freud, I’m definitely not. Why is this how we are?
If a certain food give you heartburn, don’t eat that food. If one of your coworkers always brightens your day, talk to them everyday. If you feel worthless after watching Netflix for 6 hours, then don’t watch Netflix for 6 hours. If you love that feeling after you’ve mowed your grass, then go outside and mow your grass. If watching the Cowboys lose ruins your Sunday, then only watch when they play the Giants this year.
We can’t control everything in our lives. We don’t know what’s coming our way, and we can never guarantee a good day. But we do know ourselves, and we do know what does and doesn’t work for us. Avoiding this knowledge is something that we all do, all the time. It’s self-sabotage. It defies logic. It’s somehow making a conscious decision to not do what we know is best for ourselves.
Fold more, swallow less.
Honest more, withhold less.
Act more, sit less.
Face more, avoid less.
Smart more, dumb less.
I’m going to stop touching that hot plate when the waiter warns me not to.