Defeating Self-Defeating Behavior: Coping with Distress
Have you ever wondered why you did something that seemed to be at cross purposes with your goals? You want to be fit, but you can’t seem to get to the gym. You want to lose weight, but sometimes you seem to eat everything in sight. You want to cut back on your drinking, but you find yourself drinking more. You vow not to lose your temper, but despite your oath, you pop your cork at your youngster? You pledge to do things right away, but you find yourself procrastinating. You promise yourself to do something new, but you are stuck in a rut.
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. The goal is to figure out how to become our own best friend. It’s not just that bad habits get in the way of developing new habits. We can be the victim of “self-defeating” behaviors.
One cause of these self-defeating behaviors is the way we have learned to cope with distress. It starts at an early age---a young child is frustrated, and mom gives her a sweet to eat. Voila! She is all of sudden happy! Charlie can’t fall asleep at night. Dad lies down next to him until Charlie is sound asleep. Sarah wants a new toy and cries at the mall. Plop! She is given a doll to feel better. Young children experience distress regularly, and when they are young, they rely on their parents to help them feel better. But at some point, they have to learn 1) how to tolerate discomfort and withstand frustration, and 2) how to make themselves feel better.
Let’s face it, we live in an instant gratification society. We want to have our needs met instantly. We want our frustrations to evaporate immediately. We want a pill or a potion for anything that makes us suffer. We want results. And we want them now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
So to some degree, we have learned how to make ourselves feel better, but not necessarily how to soothe ourselves and learn how to cope with discomfort, when we experience it. No wonder Bill goes out and buys a new toy when he is feeling blue and Mary gets herself a new dress. It’s not that impulse buying is necessarily a bad thing to do—but it may be if you bust your budget!
So, what can we do differently? How can we help our kids learn how to manage frustration and discomfort? How can we learn how to cope with feeling bad?
Even young children can learn to tolerate uneasiness. Don’t rush to instantly solve their problem or to help them feel better. I remember when our first daughter was born, she had day and night confused. She was up most of the night and slept most of the day. Our pediatrician, who wasn’t a parent himself, warned us “Don’t let her cry!”. After two weeks of agony, we realized that we had to let her cry herself to sleep. Huddled in our bedroom, we listened to her cry for, what seemed like eternity. Ten minutes later she was sound asleep.
Let children, when they can, find their own solutions to problems. Don’t rush into intervene and make it all better. Help kids find their own answers and provide them with choices that may help them feel better. When Cindy is upset, suggest a hot bath, listening to soothing music, or coloring. Let her pick one that she thinks will be best.
Don’t use food or gifts to help kids feel better. This can be counter-intuitive. After all, don’t we want our kids to feel better? But then consider; they will learn that eating sweets is the way to make frustration, sadness or anger disappear. Not a good model for a healthy adult life.
Find new ways to cope with discomfort yourself. Notice when you are feeling frustrated, sad, angry or bad. Acknowledge to yourself how you are feeling. Then take a few breaths. When you breathe in, notice you are breathing in. When you breathe out, notice you are breathing out. And then, ask yourself how you would like to deal with your feeling. What would you like to do? When you take a moment to experience your feelings and consider your alternatives, you may find yourself doing something new. Give it a try!