Why Don't You Take Care of Yourself?

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Think of how many conversations you’ve personally had with struggling spouses, family members, friends and colleagues who say “I don’t know,” when you ask them why they don’t take care of themselves. “I don’t know” is a mantra we hear too often when we ask hard questions about personal health and wellbeing. 

Maybe we’re concerned about emotional imbalances. Why are you taking so many meds? Why are you mixing alcohol and pharma drugs? Why are you always depressed? Or anxious? Or angry? Why are you drinking every night? Maybe we’re concerned about unhealthy behaviors. Why don’t you lose some weight and exercise? Why don’t you drink more water and less coffee, sodas and energy drinks? Why don’t you eat real, organic food and cook more at home and eat less fast food and takeout? Maybe we’re worried about warning signs of ill health. Why is your hair falling out? Why are you constipated so often? Why is your belly bloated? Why are you always in the dentist’s office? Why are you tired all the time?

These are all ways of saying, Why don’t you take care of yourself? If the answer is always—I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know—what you’re really hearing is psychological resistance.

Luckily, there’s a lot of useful information on the topic of deliberate ignorance—particularly about not wanting to know about your own health, and about behaviors you may be doing every day that increase your risk of chronic illnesses, including mental health disorders. The information takes us pretty quickly into some deep body psychology.

For example, we know from studies of psychological resistance that many people at high risk of HIV, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, cancer, diabetes and heart disease cope with the threat by choosing to remain ignorant of their susceptibility. There’s a good article on this topic that reviews some of these studies entitled “Responding to Psychological Threats with Deliberate Ignorance.”

The article sheds some light on why people reject information that could help them be more well. And why they seemingly lose their ability to be curious, to process information, to reason clearly and find their emotional bearings, and to, well...know.

Turns out, the reason people deliberately remain ignorant is because the knowledge staring them in the face may threaten the security of their cherished beliefs. Or it may threaten their behavioral security—their ability to behave as they choose. Or it may threaten their emotional security. People show greater resistance when they anticipate that the information will make them feel bad or sad or angry or scared. When they anticipate feeling bad, some people choose to avoid learning their risks, and what they can do to reduce them.

Interestingly, there was one key difference between people who took in information and made changes and people who exhibited information avoidance and psychological resistance and didn’t change. That difference was the belief that they could influence their own health and wellbeing. Studies showed that the more empowered you feel about controlling your health, the more you believe you can impact your health, the more information you can process to help you actually do so.

 

Recommended Reading

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Body Psychology of Chronic Disease