Why people indulge in negative emotions

Here’s one of the letters I got in response to the Are you muggable article:

Hmm — Dr. Alex, isn’t this just another version of “blame the victim”? How about if instead of warning nice people not to be “too” nice, we point out the true nastiness (and therefore unattractiveness) of people who prey on them, and tell nice people how to spot those predators?
Surely intelligent women would find that approach more appealing. At least, I would. I’m not a victim — I’m just an idiot. In this regard, at least.

Gabriella from Bay Area

Gawrsh, this opens up so many cans of worms.

First off, for the ladies there’s the Bad Boys article on spotting what’s potentially bad for you.

Next, let’s talk about the ‘blame the victim’ thing.  This is not about blame at all.  Blaming is a useless exercise.  Even if you’re justified in being righteously indignant, blame doesn’t accomplish anything. What’s useful is to observe what happened, notice the structure of reality, and use it to live better on an ongoing basis.  That’s responsibility — the ability to respond — not blame.

For example, let’s say you leave your handbag open on the subway.  A few minutes later, you’re in a coffee shop trying to pay for your drink when you notice — oh crap!  My purse is gone!

Now does it really help to stew in your own juices and say, “Omigosh, aren’t people awful?”  Sure, the person who swope (past tense of ‘swipe’, of course) your purse was a bastard.  But that doesn’t bring your purse back.  Next time, don’t be a pansy and zip up your handbag.

If they slit the purse open with a switchblade and take the purse anyway, you can at least rest easy that you’ve done your part.  But an open, unattended handbag with wads of $100 bills sticking out from it is an invitation for bad stuff to happen.

And that, my friend, is often what’s happening.  People are unconsciously sticking the ‘kick me’ sign on their butt, and then wondering why so many people gratuitously take shots at their rear like it’s a soccer ball.

I once dated a girl who was super sweet.  She cooked, she came over, she insisted on taking the bus even when I offered a ride, she bought me stuff even when she couldn’t afford it.  She went out of her way to make my life easy and keep from inconveniencing me.

Now, I’m generally a 50-50 kind of guy when it comes to relationships: I do my part and you do yours.  Perhaps I’ve even erred on the side of doing too much at times.  However, this girl awakened an instinct in me that I didn’t know I had: “Y’know, I can totally get away with slacking off in this relationship.  Heck, I could probably even use her.”

The super-niceness also felt really more of a ‘please don’t leave me’ strategy, which most guys don’t find all that attractive.  It smacks of neediness and a little bit of manipulation. (The relationship didn’t last long.)

But there’s also a darker side to all of this.  A lot of people out there unconsciously want someone to take advantage of them — treat them poorly, or even outright abuse them.  Heck, there are even places where people pay for that kind of treatment.  They’re called dungeons, and the PVC- and latex-clad mistresses (a strange choice of outfit, if you really think about it) enact BDSM fantasies for a pretty penny.

And get this — battered wives go back to the abusing husband on average 7 times, even when social services has already intervened and set everything up for her to leave for good.

SEVEN times.  A battered wife.  Does that make any sense?

Here’s a general rubric I have for making sense of seemingly bizarre human behavior.  If you see it pop up over and over again — say, millions of people over the course of decades — chances are that the people doing it aren’t totally nuts or stupid.  There’s some deep biological phenomenon at work here.

In this case, the biological phenomenon is simple: pain and negative emotions activate the reward centers of the brain causing unconscious addiction to those negative emotions.

Let me say that again, because it was really, really important:

Pain and negative emotions activate the reward centers of the brain causing unconscious addiction to those negative emotions.

Ladies and gentlemen — this is a whopper.  People think of the reward centers of the brain as the ‘pleasure centers’, so it makes sense to them when someone gets addicted to cocaine, or crack, or sex.  Because cocaine makes you high, makes your brain light up, and then you want more.  Duh.

That’s the addiction that people know.  But you don’t need cocaine or meth or crack to create a self-reinforcing addictive circuit in the brain.  Anything that activates the beta-endorphin or dopamine pathways will do.

It turns out that pain and negative emotions (e.g. self-pity, anger, guilt) also activate the beta-endorphin and dopamine pathways. Chronic jaw pain or painful thoughts light up those pathways just like the infamous addictive drugs do.

As a result, we can get addicted to those emotions.  Now there aren’t any thuggish-looking dealers, pieces of foil covered in white dust, or telltale tracks on the arm, so people can say, “Look, I’m okay!  Really!”

My friends — the deadliest drug pusher of them all is the one that lives inside your head that no one can see, not even yourself.

The dopamine pathway activates in drive states.  Drive states are necessary for survival: getting away from a threat, moving towards food, mating.  Cortisol, the chief stress hormone, also mediates dopamine release.

So it makes sense that when you’re stressed or in a flight-or-fight situation, your brain releases dopamine.

But why would it release beta-endorphins?  Aren’t those the feelgood chemicals you get when, say, you have a runner’s high?

Turns out that beta-endorphins are also powerful analgesics.  If you’ve ever had that runner’s high, kept running for another five miles and came back home sore as hell, you know what I’m talking about.

So let’s say you’re in a flight-or-fight situation on the savannah, and you get injured.  Then there is real survival value to postpone the distraction from the pain of the injury so you can win the fight or flee to safety.  Now it makes a lot of sense that an analgesic would be released during a flight-or-fight stress response.

What’s happening with negative emotions is that they tap into these same ancient survival circuits to get us a little bit of that reward drug.  Make sense?

This is why the battered wife goes back to the abusive husband.  This is why you pick the same abusive girlfriend over and over again.  This is why cutters cut themselves.  This is why people pay to go to BDSM dungeons.  This is why people smoke.  In sum:

People engage in physically or emotionally self-destructive behaviors to get an unconscious drug payoff.

So that’s part of how we are complicit in our own suffering.  We’re actually engineering it.

To snap out of it, here’s the three-step protocol I’ve proposed before:

1) Get help. You can’t do it alone — lord knows you’ve tried.  That’s why the 12-step programs say you need to appeal to a higher power.  As the Course in Miracles say, “Your best thinking got you here.”  So get help — friends, family, professionals.  Reach out — physically, literally.  Say, “I need help.  Will you please help me?”  Sure, it’s humbling.  But would you rather be dead?  Because your addiction can and will kill you.

2) Get away. You need a detox period for your neurology to return to normal.  There are receptors, neurotransmitters, vesicles, and reuptake mechanisms involved — actual physical things that need to be rearranged in your brain.  Takes 7-21 days for this rearrangement to occur.  In the meantime, you must get yourself away completely from the noxious behavior and its triggers.  Two weeks of detox is a good rule of thumb.

3) Continue healing. The goal of this exercise is to get your mind back to a homeostatic state.  Meditation and yoga are good for this.  So is associating with friends who bring out and celebrate the best in you.  So is hypnosis that unravels some of the self-destructive circuitry.  So is hanging out with a partner who values and nurtures you.

I went to a very interesting talk a couple of weeks ago which covered all of this and a whole lot more — I’ll be writing about that soon.  In the meantime, hope this helps.

13 Comments on “Why people indulge in negative emotions”

  1. renee

    Boy, I really wish it was all that easy and simple.
    However what this article seems to miss out, as does most of this material, is how our patterns in relating are often patterns laid down in our brains, hearts and minds in the early days of our lives. That how are family relations were mapped out, (duh) often leads to persisting patterns later in life.
    To ignore or overlook the role of investigation, with curiosity and honestly, into our very individual and unique biographical contexts, to solve our dilemmas in relationships and our addictions to unhealthy behaviors, is to miss a very large piece of the puzzle. This is why people enter therapy or group processes.

    I read this and part of my own brain lights up: ah, its really simple. I just need to follow those three steps. Actually I am afraid real change is harder, slower and messier but certainly possible.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      @renee: I respectfully disagree with the psychotherapeutic model that going way back into someone’s family history to dig up the purported cause of these behaviors is a useful or effective exercise. This is like bringing your car that has a broken air conditioning to the repair shop, and the repairman says, “Why don’t we go back to the factory in Ohio to find out what happened.” No – why don’t we just put a new AC in instead? I’m not sure what psychotherapists do, but if a repairman told me I had to come back for 104 sessions before any tangible progress was made, I’d take my car elsewhere.

      We are finding out more and more about the foundations of well-being and the neural substrates for it. Scientists have shown that if you have someone recall a traumatic incident, shift around some details and then give him some propranolol, it pretty much cures PTSD. NLP has had effective phobia cures and PTSD cures for years, and they work pretty well, often in a single session. In a single session of hypnosis, I have helped clients overcome decades-long habits such as smoking, nail-biting and )strange but true) chocolate. And meditation alters brain structure to overcome a lot of persistent patterns. Granted, meditation and yoga may take a longer time to work, but they do work.

      So I agree that it isn’t always easy. And it’s almost never quick. But it is simple. In any case, the article was mainly about etiology, not treatment. The 3-step plan was a recap from another article, and it works.

  2. Joe

    believing that your pain can only heal after years of intensive and pricey therapy is simply another way of honoring your suffering more than yourself. Think about it, it is true that neurological patterns (and every other of the myriad patterns that make us up our laid down in youth.

    If emotions truly worked this way than presumably any negative information brought to light about someone’s past would cause an irreversible destructive spiral in their behavior. Say you found out one parent secretly harbored a resentment for you because (for instance) they wanted a child of the other sex or gender. Imagine you learn this in your middle years, in the midst of a successful career, healthy social life, great marriage etc. As devastating as this revelation would no doubt be, it seems to me (and I have not looked into the research on this) that you would recover from the blow fairly quickly since all of the truly wonderful aspects of your life would reassert themselves.

    Now, the psychoanalyst would no doubt explain your mental health by saying that you were lucky that parent was able to conceal his/her feelings and not traumatize you. Had such trauma taken place, and been subsequently reinforced you would be in bad shape. But this explanation does not really address the inherent asymmetry. If psychotherapy works because the patient is able to reinterpret past events on the basis of revealed insight and then move forward, living a healthier life on the basis of those insights, it ought to work just as well in reverse. That is one ought to be able to take a well adjusted person and injure them by the same means. And my intuitions are screaming that this would not work. Such a person would, it seems to me listen politely, and then go live their lives.

    You may say that I am deliberately ignoring the role that volition play in healing, injury, or the lack thereof. The ill person wants to get better, and the well person does not want to get it ill. But this explanation does not hold much water when one considers the nature of psychological maladies. First of all, it rests on the assumption that the ill individual acknowledges or “knows” on some level that they are ill. This is never a safe assumption when dealing with the mentally ill, even if that person volunteered for therapy. Their knowledge may be entirely intellectual or inferential, lacking the sort of emotional depth necessary for profound shifts in though and behavior.

    Secondly, arguing that the will grounds the eventual success of a very, very slow moving therapeutic process seems peculiar. Either your will to wellness has enough potency to accelerate the process or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t than it becomes difficult to imagine that your will can under-gird the cumulative healing effort.

    It seems to me that the proponent of any psychoanalytic-based approach has to either debunk my intuition and prove that he can just as easily mete out psychological harm, or present some compelling explanation of the apparent asymmetry between positive and negative psychological change.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      @Joe: this has got to be one of the greatest comments in the history of comment-dom. So proud of my super articulate and thoughtful readers!

  3. Kate

    Great timing on this article. It really hit home for my present state of mind.

    To Renee: Just because there are 3 steps doesn’t mean it’s easy. I seem to recall Ali saying in his book that extraordinary results require extraordinary actions. You need to be proactive. And while it’s great to take time to examine your family of origin and all the events in your life that make you you, it’s also important to recognize that you control your actions. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide to be happy. If things in your past have led you to make unhealthy choices or caused you grief and you feel the need to reflect– great. Get a good therapist, or perhaps some EMDR(eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)treatment. If you’re unhappy, you have to change your current behavior, because you can’t change your past. Live your life with intention.

    As Ali says, things like yoga, meditation, and NLP will help improve your life. It’s kind of like reformatting your hard drive–it’s seems like a pain in the ass and takes some time, but when you’re done, your computer will function better. But if ALL you do is analyze and complain about why your computer doesn’t work, it still won’t work.

    1. Ali Binazir MD MPhil Post author

      @Kate: I like the reformatting analogy. Consider it stolen :)

  4. Pingback: Negative emotions keep your inner drug dealer in business « Want to get high, punk?

  5. Muhamad

    This is a fascinating issue – I am a woman in a relsaionthip going on 22 years. I have always had platonic male friendships, even while single – all during my youth. I believe it comes from wanting to have a brother (but having to settle for a younger sister) and being the oldest and closer to my father than my mother. This has not changed throughout the duration of my decades-long relsaionthip with my male partner.Maybe one of the reasons I have not had any issues is that it is IMPERATIVE that these relsaionthips with men outside of my relsaionthip are utterly devoid of sexual attraction. I am very fond of my male friends, but the thought of getting physical with them is simply not on the table. Even the slightest hint of attraction would find me not pursuing a friendship, or ending one quickly. It is the very LACK of this attraction that makes for a comfortable friendship. I already put energy into my primary relsaionthip – I want EASY relsaionthips with friends – unrequited feelings make for unnecessary complexity. My male friends, especially the married ones, have been instrumental in getting me over rough patches with my partner. How? By giving me the male point of view of the issue. 90% of the time, issues with my relsaionthip have been very common “male vs. female” matters, where the problem is ME not fully grasping how my female point of view prevents me from understanding where my partner is coming from. Most of the time, talking to my female friends only further entrenches me in the female point of view and does not offer any insights that help my understanding.Finally, years of “South Park” and Comedy Central has destroyed any respect I ever had for the PC point of view, which is highly offensive to most women, especially in ultra-liberal Seattle and environs. What I really appreciate about my male friends is that I don’t have to censor myself, or worry about offending tender sensibilities – a constant issue with my female friends. I get really weary of having to explain my love of “Family Guy”! Sometimes my own gender makes me want to tear my hair out.

  6. Tamara adeena is really amazing Luthy

    While I love the Tao of Dating and am all for the principle of not wallowing in one’s pain or playing the role of victim, I was somewhat offended by Dr. Ali’s remarks about abusive women being addicted to pain. As a woman who has been in an abusive relationship, and has also worked as a graduate research assistant on a project about dating violence for a university-based center on public health, I think that this is way off base and frankly not supported by the data. Women have all kinds of reasons for returning to abusers, including economic dependence, death threats, threats to loved ones, lack of adequate legal reprecussions for abusers, religious beliefs about the role of women, encouragement of friends and family to “make it work,” low self-esteem due to years of abuse, lack of adequate job training skills, and most importantly, the manipulations of the abuser himself. Please read up more on abusive mentalities before suggesting that suffering abuse is an “unconscious pay-off.” Furthermore, abusers use periods of sweetness and light, intense apologies, and extremely romantic behavior to get their partners to believe that it will “never happen again.” Women who grow up without proper role models for relationships can not be expected to be able spot and deal with abuse early on in a relationship, when it is still possible to exit safely. We need to educate women about the warning signs of abusive relationships, rather than continue to blame them, which seems to be the societal rule rather than the exception (case in point: this article).This situation is somewhat different from “allowing” your purse to be stolen on the bus.

  7. zingo97

    This was helpful. I’ve heard many times that negative emotions are an indulgence. I kind of agreed but didn’t always understand that idea. Because someone suffering negative emotions usually feels like a victim. But it is easy to feel down, depressed, guilty and apathetic or even crazy as this one guy said he loved the freedom wallowing in insanity offered him. Feeling negative is putting limits on yourself and making your world smaller and easier, less challenging. Negative emotions serve their purpose in teaching valuable lessons, but I do see that they can be an a compulsive addiction, a refuge of habit and familiarity or something to fill that empty void you might feel. I knew about brain chemicals and emotions before but this was a good reminder for me.