Why Can’t I Stop?

Why Can’t I Stop?

They are stuck in patterns of behavior we consciously want to stop but somehow can’t – whether habits, excessive use of technology or substances, or unhealthy relationships. The reasons are more complex than assumed. This inability to quit ingrained routines filling emotional voids persists not from moral failing or weakness of will but a confluence of psychological, social, and full-body biological factors that reward and reinforce the status quo.

As an emotional eater since childhood, I long believed my binging meant I lacked self-discipline compared to “normal” people. The reality behind any compulsion’s stubborn grip contains much greater nuance. In the words of Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, “If stress and isolation encourage you to do things that undermine your health, that’s not a character flaw. It’s evidence that you are human.” Through on-the-ground experience and current research across fields into behavior change difficulty, I’ve mapped the obstacles and openings to stop what harms us.

The Vicious Cycle of Addiction

I’ve been trapped for years in the vicious cycle of my addiction to emotional eating. I automatically reach for sugary comfort foods when I feel lonely, bored, or anxious. In the moment, that first bite gives me a rush of dopamine, numbing my unpleasant emotions. But afterward, I crash – feeling ashamed and worried as my blood sugar spikes, then drops, making me crave more food to ease these negative feelings, restarting the cycle. Even when swearing off binging for good, the neurological pull towards my habitual “fix” strengthens.

When Habits Become Compulsive Behaviors

Most people sometimes mindlessly snack when stressed without issue. But my emotional eating ceased being an ordinary bad habit long ago. Now, it’s like my brain is hijacked by this compulsive drive for comfort food multiple times a week, even while consciously trying to resist. I’ll be full, yet some internal switch still flips, leaving me halfway through a binge with no memory of deciding to “relapse” again.

Facing Anxiety and Discomfort of Withdrawal

Attempting to abruptly quit this emotional eating ritual means facing genuine physical and emotional withdrawal distress after years of dependence. Expecting difficulty and early attempts at quick total restriction left me feeling overwhelmed and doomed to fail. More recently, I’ve taken an incremental approach – slowly building healthy coping skills while initially still allowing myself occasional comfort food when urges feel intolerable. This lessens the descent into despair and belief I lack self-mastery when slipping up.

Moving from Judgment to Compassionate Curiosity

For years, I’d spiral under harsh self-judgment whenever I “failed” to stop binge eating as planned. I felt pathetic and broken; sure, it proved me morally weak. Now, I understand compulsions like this involve a complex interplay between biology, psychology, and the environment. By studying the drivers behind my addiction from a place of compassion, not criticism, I can slowly unravel and rebuild routines to fill these needs in healthier ways instead.

Creating Healthy Replacement Rituals

Binging partly became my routine through convenience and emotional association. Keeping substitutes for go-to binge snacks readily available helps divert me towards better options in vulnerable moments. I’ve also consciously worked to anchor new behaviors offering genuine comfort to replace eating-based compulsions – like my nightly bath accompanied by a funny podcast. Over time, these can become the habits my brain automatically reaches for when distressed.

Why Change Is So Difficult Even When Desired

Altering any ingrained human pattern – especially ones developed to cope with trauma or meet social connection needs – provokes tremendous psychological and neurological self-preservation resistance. Our brains perceive even positive change as a threat, quickly doubling down on pumping out hormones reinforcing clinging to what we know when the status quo gets disrupted. Being aware this backlash will arise takes some pressure off. We must slowly overlay, not confront head-on, the deeply embedded neural networks driving our behaviors if we want the new to stick.

Meet Larry: A Case Study in Changing Addictive Behaviors

Larry is a 45-year-old accountant who has struggled with emotional eating and food addiction since college. Like many, his coping ritual of binging on sugary and high-carb comfort foods to relieve stress began as an ordinary lousy habit. But over two decades later, Larry feels trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction he’s desperately motivated to break yet somehow can’t manage to stop.

He explains how even minor negative moods like boredom, loneliness, or work-related anxiety quickly escalate into feeling hijacked by a compulsive drive demanding relief through his habitual “fix” of a large pizza order or trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru. This internal switch still flips, even after arriving home already entirely from dinner. Before realizing what’s happening altogether, Larry finds himself halfway through a food binge, with no memory of consciously deciding to “relapse” back into this emotional eating pattern again.

Naturally, Larry has attempted many times over the years to abruptly quit this longtime eating addiction and its resultant health impacts. But facing the genuine physical and psychological pain of withdrawal after so long emotionally and biologically dependent on binge behaviors overwhelmed him. The initial period of deprivation would inevitably become intolerable. Within days, Larry would hit fast food drive-thru even more complex out of despair and the false belief he lacked the basic self-mastery and character strength ever to change.

Under this harsh weight of internal judgment and shame each time previous efforts failed, Larry saw himself as pathetic and morally weak compared to regular folks able to control such basic behaviors. Only recently has he begun to have more self-compassion. Larry now understands that compulsions persist even when no longer providing relief, which involves a complex interplay between psychology, physiology, and the environment.

By studying the drivers behind his addiction from a place of curiosity rather than criticism, Larry has started making gradual progress in disrupting dysfunctional routines.

Key Takeaways

  • Persistent habits and addictions often stem from an internal cycle of acting out for reward or relief, followed by crashing physically and emotionally afterward in regret, spurring the urge to repeat.
  • Through strengthening neural pathways, routines that once brought joy can morph into compulsions we feel driven to fulfill even when the downsides outweigh the highs.
  • The brain’s dopamine-based system for seeking pleasure and avoidance of discomfort can be hijacked, learning to misidentify and over-prioritize the wrong sources of soothing.
  • Attempting to go cold turkey disrupting long-ingrained patterns often fails as the body and mind rebel against the stress of withdrawal.
  • Beating ourselves up out of frustration makes transforming entrenched behaviors even more unlikely due to toxic shame and the belief we lack self-control.
  • Curiosity must overcome judgment if we want insight into the emotional, biochemical, and environmental components underpinning our attachments.


As we strive to quit habitual crutches and addictions that fuel rather than soothe us, the path needs to be paved with self-compassion, not judgment. Our barriers are multidimensional – physiological, social, and psychological. By studying their interplay with patient analysis instead of criticism towards our perceived failures, we can gradually unravel and rebuild new routines to meet the needs our former harmful practices sought to fill. It is an ongoing process of inquiry, trial and error. But if we persist through relapses with humility instead of self-blame, living aligned with our highest values ultimately awaits on the other side.