Why Do We Harm Ourselves When We Know Better?

All of us know that we do things that harm us. We eat too much. We exercise too little. We smoke. We are quick to anger and slow to love. These actions impact our social life, rob us of our health and dull our minds. We know this and yet we keep on doing them. Why?

It was the belief of Socrates that nobody freely desires to do wrong. He believed that a person doing something wrong would always lead to that person harming themselves and that no person wants to harm himself. “No man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man is compelled to choose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he may have the less.” Thus ignorance is the root of all wrong action.

The vast majority of smokers are well aware that their habit is destroying their health and has a fifty percent chance of killing them, yet they continue to smoke. If Socrates’ hypothesis is true then this would not be the case, or at least it may seem to be so on the surface. What Socrates lacked to better explain his point was the tools and knowledge put forth by modern psychology. For this he cannot be blamed as the field of psychology only came into being in 1879 thus leaving a gap of over two thousand years between his life and the birth of this field.

Psychologists have created three models that describe self-destructive behavior. Two of these involve the person knowingly harming him or herself and one does not. The model that pertains to a person harming him or herself without knowledge is classified as “Counterproductive Strategies”. As the focus of this essay is to find the root cause of purposeful self-destructive behavior this model will not be analyzed.

“Primary Self-Destruction” encompasses all acts that a person may do that have the aim of harming the physical self. The most obvious of these is self-injury. “Self-injury is a very powerful coping mechanism as those who self-injure experience an endorphin rush after injury, which often leads to a pervasive feeling of calm.” The inability of some to express their pain leads them to cause themselves further pain. It has been found that “childhood trauma contributes to the initiation of self-destructive behavior.” Humans have always found ways of coping with their pain, whether it is through talking to another person or self-expression through art, writing or music. Those who do not find healthy means to cope with their pain and trauma could ultimately fall pray to unhealthy means such as self-injury. So goes the tragedy. Those who face the greatest pain find nowhere to productively release it. Then to cope they self-destruct.

The “Trade-Off Model” is classified as “a person engaging in a behavior that causes harm, in order to obtain a real or perceived benefit.” A smoker is convinced that the cigarette is a reliever of stress and something that helps them concentrate. This form of logic is found not only in smokers but also in those with addictions in general. They rationalize that the good they attain from their vice outweighs the bad. As the devastating effects of these vices compound and increase a person finds themselves under greater stress and with a smaller capacity to cope. They turn back to the same vice that causes them pain in order to relieve it. This is the terrible cycle of addiction.

The lack of tools and ability to cope with the stresses that life brings is at the root of all conscious self-destructive behavior. People are ignorant of how to cope with the tribulations of life. In essence this seems to agree with Socrates’ hypothesis. To know you are ignorant in this aspect is wisdom and not something that is blameworthy. It was Socrates himself that boasted, “I know nothing” to signify the importance of knowing your own ignorance.

If ignorance is the root of self-destructive behavior then it must be combatted with knowledge. From this we must know that people who partake in such actions must go on a journey. This is not a journey to a place or a person. This is the journey of great self-analysis that will allow a person to find their own singular way of expressing their grief and thus allowing themselves to cope with the tribulations that life brings. This journey is one from self-ignorance to self-knowledge. Without such knowledge one cannot find happiness and will forever be trapped in their misery.

The importance of such knowledge and wisdom has been emphasized throughout human history and within the rich tapestry of religious tradition. The Prophet Muhammad said, “One who treads a path in search of knowledge has his path to Paradise made easy by God.” Among the invocations mentioned in the Quran is, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.” It is also stated in the Bible that, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.” Had knowledge and wisdom not been of paramount importance then God would have not chosen to place them within His books.

One must also understand that knowledge is an ocean. One may swim and one may sink. In order to swim one must bear two things in mind. The first is that throughout history there have been charlatans masquerading as wise men. Such false prophets are to be ignored as any truth they say may be found elsewhere and they themselves only lie. You must consider the sources that you get your knowledge from or you may end up filled with ignorance and falsehood. The second element is best explained by a story often said by the martial artist Bruce Lee:

‘A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too....” and so on.

Finally the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full, and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”’ 

It is often difficult to find the balance between caution and openness. It is a task that I admit to finding hard to do myself so I will not tell you how to tow this line as I myself am on this journey. Will you walk it with me?