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Why Do Smart and Successful People Do Dumb and Self-Sabotaging Things?

Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More

Do you think Anthony Wiener woke up some morning and decided to destroy everything he worked for in his life? Probably not. So what would drive a very smart and accomplished congressman to do something so self-destructive? The answer has to do with how the brain works. Our brains like to operate on autopilot as much as possible. That’s because it takes energy to focus on important tasks. And the brain likes to conserve its energy for those actions that require focused attention, such as learning or other important tasks. You’ve probably heard the expression, “I only have so much bandwidth.” That means we only have so much energy to focus on several things at once. Everything else that is already learned is being controlled in the background. These automatic behaviors are not really unconscious, because if we need to pay attention to them, we can do so.

For example, when you get into your car, you don’t have to think about how to start it. You don’t even have to think about how to drive it. You have done that so many times, it’s second nature. In fact, there are probably many times when you were deep in thought about something during your commute, like your date last night, and not really paying attention to the experience of driving. You get to where you are going safe and sound because your autopilot was on. However, if another car were to pull in front of you, you are able to stop thinking about your date, and become aware of the drive once again, and put your foot on the break or slow down, or whatever the appropriate reaction. In other words, things we do pretty much automatically can move from the background to the foreground so that we can problem solve appropriately. Some people say when they are cooking that they put something on the back burner they don’t have to focus on it so closely so they can pay more attention to what’s on the front burner. There are a lot of things we do automatically because we have learned from repeated experiences; our bodies just know what to do without focused attention. This form of learning uses a type of memory called procedural memory.

Procedural memory is the “how” of things. Riding a bike, driving a car, even walking and sitting are forms of procedural memory. How we deal with our emotions can also be a form of procedural memory. For example, do you even find yourself just eating thoughtlessly between meals? Sometime we do that because we are hungry or our blood sugar is low. But sometimes we do that because we are feeling nervous about something, and we have learned that eating soothes uncomfortable feeling. Expressing out of control anger during an argument can be another form procedural memory. When people have grown up in angry or violent homes, they can learn to express anger in destructive ways. When parents or other caregivers model unhealthy expression of emotions a young child can learn to repeat those patterns as they grow up. The same is true with substance abuse and alcoholism. That’s why so many adult alcoholics and drug abusers say they grew up with parents who abused chemicals. Children learn from observing and interacting with their parents how to identify and talk about feelings. If their parents are good at talking about feelings the child will most likely learn constructive ways of dealing with their emotions. If parents are not good at those skills, chances are their children will also have problems working out their emotions in positive ways. How we learn to deal with our emotions is stored as procedural memories.

So that brings me back to my question. Why would Anthony Wiener do something so self-destructive? Although I have no idea what was going on in his mind specifically, I have seen many cases of men and women who have similarly acted out sexually even though they are in a committed relationship. They seem willing to jeopardize their marriage, relationships, bonds with their children, and their career and reputation. These are successful people, who from the outside have so much to lose, but seem willing to put it all at risk for a momentary thrill. Here is where procedural memory comes in.

If a person has a history of not dealing with their emotions constructively, there is a good chance that when things get stressful (such as a new marriage and pregnancy, as in the case of Mr. Wiener), the brain is capable of kicking into auto-pilot when emotions such anger, fear or sadness begin to feel overwhelming. Sexuality is not an unusual way that people deal with these emotions, especially if that’s what they have learned has helped in the past. When their brain kicks into autopilot the person is not really thinking about what they are doing. Are they aware they are acting badly when they are unfaithful? Of course they do. That’s why they often go to great lengths to hide the affair or misbehavior and deny it when confronted. People know what they are doing when they are having an affair or sexually acting out like Anthony Wiener. But what they don’t typically know is why they are doing it.

People will have all kinds of rationalizations why they have an affair or act out sexually – it just happened, I was seduced, I was lonely, my partner won’t have sex with me, I was stressed out, etc. These are some of most common rationalizations. But what they don’t often know is, even if those things are all true, why they would act on their urges and hurt the people close to them, the person who they are acting out with and put their career and reputation at such risk (hurting themselves)? They are not thinking and talking about what is going on with them emotionally. They are showing or acting-out their emotions, not expressing them, understanding them and looking at their choices. They are on autopilot and their behavior is thoughtless – absent of real reflection.

So what’s the solution to this thoughtless behavior? One of two things usually brings automatic behaviors to a stop; either being confronted by others (being found out) or starting to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. The former happened to Anthony Weiner. But believe it or not, many people actually do that later. They catch themselves at either contemplating or beginning to act-out their emotions with others. When they notice their destructive behaviors, they stop and ask themselves, why am I doing something so potentially harmful to others and myself?When people learn how to identify these patterns in themselves, and learn how to reflect on their emotions and behaviors they can stop their automatic destructive acting out. Talking about emotions, although it can be difficult in the short run, is much more likely to result in a positive outcome than creating a crisis in your life that could take years to repair. History will tell whether or not Anthony Weiner has temporarily or permanently destroyed his career or marriage or both. But surely, the first step to rebuilding is getting help for his behavior. If what he said is true (which is probably an underestimate) and it’s happened six times already, that’s a sure sign that his autopilot is taking him in the wrong direction.

Keep Reading By Author Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
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