I ask myself this when I catch myself engaging in behaviors I know to be unhealthy, futile or self-destructive. I ask myself this when I see others doing the same. For our big brains, in many ways we’re not terribly complicated. We do behaviors that create rewards. We get something out of it, and we do it again. Unfortunately, the reward isn’t always something positive, healthy or productive (see: chemical dependency; family dysfunction). Creating an awareness within ourselves as to what rewards we’re attaining through our behaviors can help us make lasting changes, give us direction and help us heal. That same awareness will help us be less judgmental of those around us, which can lead to more compassion, empathy and kindness. Relationships strengthen, the community benefits. Now there’s a payoff. But as for the behaviors that hurt us, well, what are we getting out of them?
It can be quite the unraveling process, and I think it’s worth it to get to the root of why we do these behaviors. If you’re not interested in change, stop reading. Or keep reading, and bookmark this information for later, when you are. I completely understand if you’re not as into psychological analysis as I.
When I was in my early twenties, it became clear that my boyfriend was dealing with some serious mental health issues. He had intense mood swings, which caused him to be sullen and withdrawn, or anxious and obsessive, or grandiose and frenetic. He was unwell, untreated, and we had little outside support. At age twenty-three I was singlehandedly managing problems way outside my skill and experience level. I look back and wonder, why didn’t I ask anyone for help? Why did I stay in such a difficult relationship? What was I getting out of it? A lot! Or else why the hell would I have hung in?
Having a sick partner meant I no longer had to look at my own issues, because anything I needed to improve or deal with about myself paled in comparison to what he was going through. In fact, it gave me the sense that I was very adult, managing two lives and holding the show together. It was a self-esteem boost of sorts. I didn’t ask for help not only because I didn’t know how back then (that’s a whole post in and of itself) but also because I didn’t want to surrender the caregiver role. It was a huge part of my identity: the kind, patient, caring, girlfriend. Calm in a crisis, perseverant, wise. I wanted so much to be an experienced person, that I viewed caring for a sick partner meant I was being exposed to real life shit, which gave me cred. Those other early twenties people had no idea, with their partying and good-time-all-the-time lives. Frivolous.
It was an exceedingly dark time in my life, and it hurt me. It took the two of us close to a decade to climb out of the colossal pit we created, because mental health problems do affect the entire life system (without early and skilled intervention, especially). The years you’re “supposed” to be having abandoned fun, embarking on your career, exploring and defining interests, building a friend community (though all of these really are available along the lifespan, I realized), and stabilizing finances I spent in constant fear for my partner. I narrowed myself and my life down to a pinprick to keep the system from falling apart entirely. I didn’t want to lose that which I had structured my life around and start again.
But what if I had had the wherewithal to ask myself earlier, what are you getting out of this unmanageable mess? It may have been a different decade. I wasn’t honest with myself, and I paid the price. So did my partner. Though our lives have stabilized, and he’s well (thanks to the right medications, therapy and a ton of hard work done on himself) and we’re mostly living the life we want right now, we have moments of great sadness. We remember the past, and our younger selves, and there’s a sense of grief for the terrible hardships we endured. Sometimes we feel we’re about ten years behind where we’d like to be. But regret is fruitless, and we’ve asked ourselves what we would get out of entertaining it–an excuse not to do the work of making and living healthier choices.
I urge you, if you’re in an unhappy place, ask yourself: what’s the payoff? The answers may surprise you. The answers may provide important notes that you can use to set yourself on the path to the good life you deserve.