How our minds mess with us

             As if it weren’t bad enough that your brain—the physical organ in your head that is so governed by evolutionary programming—doesn’t really want to make you happy, it often seems as if your mind (the thoughts and feelings produced by your brain) doesn’t either—or else why all the self-defeating behavior that humans seem to be such masters of?  From suicide and addictions to procrastination and lack of assertiveness, it’s these self-defeating little mental habits that keep therapists like me busy.

            Psychology understands now that, in the face of a difficult reality, we are likely to use many different mental mechanisms, usually called defenses, to make things seem not really so bad.  Denial and rationalization are very common defenses that when used for small things just make life go by a little easier.  But when we defend against big things—like that we’re putting up with too much stress, or that we’re trying not to feel the pain of a real loss, or that our children are growing alienated from us—there’s always a price to pay.  For one thing, you’re living in a distorted reality, and reality always catches up with you.  For another thing, though you may not be aware of the feelings you’re stuffing, your body is still producing stress hormones and the chemicals of anger, pain, and fear—which will wear out your body much sooner than you want.

            On top of that, we recognize now that trauma and stress disorders are much more common than we’ve ever admitted—sexual and physical abuse of children, rape, battery, and emotional abuse committed by people we should be able to trust, as well as everyday danger and the threat of terrorism.  We try to use our defenses to keep these experiences from dominating our thoughts, but it never works.  Psychology knows now how we can recover from these experiences with minimal damage, but it’s not easy.  I’ll have some practical advice for recovery elsewhere on this site—not typical in a site about happiness, but absolutely necessary for very many people.

            It’s our use of defenses that leads to most of our self-defeating behavior; ironically, practicing the skills of happiness in a deliberate way, as I will show you how to do, can heal the mind and the brain.  Positive emotions make us more creative, enhance our coping skills, build our confidence, and make us more resilient in the face of stress. 


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