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So many people get so frustrated because they seem to know what to do, but they resist doing it. 

“If only I did what I know,” they often say. “If only I APPLIED the things I already know. Why don’t I do the things I know?” 

Centuries of Freudian-influenced psychoanalytic perspectives have encouraged us to look for deep-seated, unconscious conflicts that drive our self-defeating behavior. We’ve been taught that if we’re not doing something we know we “should” be doing, it’s probably because we have some sort of unconscious “block” that we need to resolve in order to get back on track. 

Sometimes that’s true. There are definitely times when there is something unspoken and/or barely conscious that is impeding our ability to do what we know. 

More often, however, it’s my experience that the obstacles in our way are far more straightforward. 

It’s usually the case that we don’t do the things we think we “should” do because we figure it’ll be a bummer on some level. We think it’ll be a drag. We think it’ll be painful, inconvenient, a hassle. 

There are many ways in which we humans can be complex creatures, but the analysis of behavior is often pretty straightforward: if we think doing something is going to be more of a drag than not doing it…well, it’s really hard to get us to do that thing. 

Our brains reject inviting pain into our lives. 

To some people, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, insofar as we’re frequently aware that NOT making certain changes invites certain situations that are ALREADY painful to stick around. An example of this that frequently crops up is smoking: yes, quitting smoking may be a painful hassle, but isn’t it the case that NOT quitting invites longer-term, far more overwhelming pain to exist in our lives? 

Sure. But the prospect of health problems occasioned by smoking is, for most people, kind of a distant, kind of hypothetical pain. The pain occasioned by quitting, by contrast, means very immediate, very real, pain. 

Our brains aren’t good at looking past the immediate and certain to the distant and hypothetical. 

This also explains why we’re often so inconsistent with following through with our goals. 

Most of the stuff we need to do to achieve our goals requires sacrifice on levels that tend to be pretty immediate. An example of this is, for many people to improve their physical condition and lose excess body fat, it’s often necessary for them to change their eating patterns and eat less of certain foods they tend to really enjoy, less often. 

Doing without these foods is an immediate, visceral bummer. We FEEL that pain every day, when we want a snack; or when the people around us are having tasty treats; or when we see advertisements and social media posts that make us salivate for our favorite treats. Doing without a thing we really want is often a serious bummer— especially when we’ve gotten used to having it as often as we’re inclined. 

It’s totally true that NOT changing our dietary habits can, for many people, lead to bigger picture pain— the health and lifestyle challenges involved in caring around excess body weight over the course of years, blood sugar dysregulation and diabetes, increased health risks across the boar— but, again, those challenges for most people tend to be distant and hypothetical. 

The PLEASURE they’re forsaking is not distant and hypothetical. They’ve EXPERIENCED that pleasure. Doing without their favorite treats is a PAIN they also experience, right here, right now. 

It really is all about that pleasure and pain axis in the here-and-now. The American psychologist B.F. Skinner called this conundrum the “balance of consequences.” 

When it comes to pushing through this pleasure/pain barrier and doing the things you “should” do, you basically have two options: 

One: reorient your focus so that the PAIN occasioned by NOT changing your behavior becomes very real, very visceral. Make it less hypothetical, less abstract. Read and watch and expose yourself to things that thrust the PAIN of NOT changing right in your face. 

Make it real. Make it painful. Make it visceral. 

Or, two: develop skills to push you through the bummer, pain, and hassle of making the change in the short term, until your body and brain become used to the new behavior. 

This is how I managed my own addiction to certain foods, as well as my relationship to exercise. I knew it was going to be a bummer to give up my favorite treats, and I knew it was going to be an even bigger bummer to commit to a lifestyle that involved a lot of getting up early and moving, often when I didn’t feel like it. 

In order to manage these realities, however, I developed the skills of self-talk, distraction, visualization, and other techniques of focus management. Eventually, my body and brain got used to my new lifestyle— and I even learned to love the “exercise” part of the equation. 

All of which is to say: you probably don’t have massive unconscious conflicts when it comes to not doing the things you “should” do or you “know” how to do. 

It’s probably the case that your brain just hasn’t wrapped itself around the how’s and why’s of foregoing immediate pleasure in the service of avoiding long-term pain. 

Yet. 

 

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