Why do I do what I don’t want to do?

Have you ever found yourself doing the exact thing you don’t want to do—like gaining weight when trying to lose it? I’ve spent the last ten years trying to lose 20 pounds and gain 50 instead. I’ve often wondered why I can achieve complex things that I set my mind to and fail at a task as simple as choosing what I put in my mouth. Time passes. Nothing changes. The more time passes, the more defeated I feel.

When it comes to dieting or changing any type of behavior, for that matter, we each have an internal battle going on inside our heads. Our conscious and subconscious are fighting it out for our attention. Trying to ignore a craving or exerting our willpower over it rarely works. Science tells us the more we repress a thought, the harder it is to escape. So I’m going to try a new approach. Care to join me?

Everybody has the will or ability to focus and regulate attention. When our attention is drawn by a loud bang, we can decide to focus on what we were doing before. This process is called attention regulation and is a specific form of self-control. According to some researchers, attention regulation is the most important form of self-control. This is because attention plays a central role in all other forms of self-regulation, such as the regulation of emotions, impulses and thoughts (see, for example, Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994).

To what extent we’re able to regulate our attention is strongly related to well-being. The extent to which we have control over, among other things, attention is a strong predictor of happiness, satisfaction in social relationships, resistance to temptations and academic performance (Kelly & Conley 1987). The good news is that control of attention can be trained.

Separate yourself and become an observer watching this strange battle between your conscious and subconscious mind. Recognize that your subconscious mind can produce strong ideas, but it can’t make you take an action. It’s your conscious mind that decides whether to give in to temptation.

No matter how much willpower you start the day with, come dinner time it’s pretty much gone. As long as there are two competing ideas you will expend energy trying to resist subconscious messages using conscious logic. Resolve the cognitive dissonance and be of one mind about your choices and willpower is no longer required.

Calming the dissonance in your mind will do more than trying to grit your way through the situation. Remember, you have a choice. Like a whining child, the more times you DON’T give in to your subconscious, the faster it will get the message that “no means no.”

In my psychological romance novel, All the Other Voices, the characters deal with this cognitive dissonance. The story brings you inside the character’s heads to hear the thinking that influences their choices. It shows the journey each takes as they search for their own unique identities and purpose in life. You can read a sample chapter to see if my writing style aligns with your reading preferences. If you like what you find on these pages, chances are likely you’ll enjoy the full book.

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge”

Tuli Kupferberg

Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27–40.

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