It is the time of year when resolutions are made in hopes of changing undesirable behaviours. More than not, despite determined effort, we imminently find the new behaviour difficult to sustain.
As much as we want to stop or even decrease our drinking, spending, gossiping, junk food eating or any other craved substance or behaviour, we cannot. What drives us to continue to behave in such undesired ways?
Self-regulation is the capacity to exert control over thoughts and emotions in order to steer thinking towards achieving an intended goal or behaviour. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation. When the PFC circuitry is distorted one’s ability to self-regulate is hampered. How is this circuitry developed?
Early childhood relationships, especially in the first two years, imprint the brain, establish relationship dynamics and form the dopamine-reliant pleasure and reward system. When good enough parenting exists, the child’s needs are met in a consistent manner, and thus, dopamine levels are maintained and pleasure is perceived. The child learns that he or she is worthy of love and support, and also gains the ability to self-sooth.
As Daniel Siegel, author of The Developing Mind, noted, “For the infant and young child, attachment relationships are the major environmental factors that shape the development of the brain.” Specifically, it is the presence of consistent emotional nurturance that governs the development of PFC circuitry and the ability to handle uncomfortable feelings or self-soothe. Positive attachments also establish our ability to feel connected, attached and self-fulfilled. Outward emotional stability begets inward emotional stability (self-regulation) in the child.
Abusive, dysfunctional and ‘not good enough’ parenting results in faulty PFC functioning and increases the craving for pleasure and predisposes one for future addictions. We look outwardly for the inner spirit, meaning and connection we lack. However, like our parental relationship, the substance or behaviour will never be able to satisfy our needs.
All addictive or compulsive behaviours are not about the food, sex, items bought or kilometers biked; they are about the anticipation, the seeking and the final brain chemistry reward of feel good emotions. However, all one is doing is temporarily replacing negative emotions with positive ones. The key in dealing with addictions is to learn to deal with the negative thoughts and feelings, and not act upon them.
We cannot simply will-power away the behaviour. As Eckert Tolle stated, “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain.” We need to look at the underlying feelings, often associated with past wounds and current stressors, that we so want to cover up. We also need to integrate healthier, pleasurable and meaning-making thoughts and behaviours into our life.