Why We Do Things That We Know Are Not In Our Best Interests
In almost every culture, there is a teaching tale that gives guidance about how to deal with the inclination to do things that are not in our best interest and that deep inside we know is bad juju.
There is a Native American teaching tale where the old man tells his grandson about the two wolves that live inside everyone. The good wolf who wants one to succeed and be happy and the evil one that keeps getting in the way and tearing down one’s self-esteem. The child asks the old man, “Which one wins?” The grandfather’s reply is, “The one you feed.”
In the 12 Step traditions, the principle is about the fight between the self-will and the God driven guidance. They talk about “Self Will Run Riot!”
In the Jewish mysticism, the Kabbala, the evil wolf is called the “yetzer hara” which translates as “the evil inclination.” It tries to overpower the “yetzer hatov,” the inclination to do good. Actually, in the Jewish tradition, the difference is not just good vs. evil but more that the yetzer hatov is liked a well formed conscience. It isn’t that it vanquishes the evil inclination but rather it keeps it in check by continually reminding the person of what is their higher purpose. Then can they make responsible, adult choices rather than giving in to the impulse towards property, pleasure, prestige and security. All those things are not bad on their own. The problem is that if done to the extreme, will lead to either personal and/or societal evil and/or self-destruction.
In my research of this concept, I believe I discovered why in the Jewish religion, a young person at the age of 13 is considered an adult in the Jewish community. I had always thought that is was a recognition of the ability to function as an adult and make decisions as an adult. The religious teachings recognize that. They argue, though, that ability to now function as an adult is attributed to a 13 year old’s newly developed ability to intuitively know right from wrong, right thinking and action of what might be good in the long run from always choosing instant gratification or pleasure. They talk about the first 13 years of a child’s life being ruled by yetzer hara with the moderating force coming from the outside in the form of parental or societal controls. In early adolescence, the yetzer hatov becomes increasingly more developed until, at around 13 years old, it can begin to assume the responsibility of self-moderating the influence of their yetzer hara.
I really like this concept because it explains how adults continually make choices that are not in their best self interest. When they do not have a strongly developed yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good, they consistently give in to their yetzer hara. This applies to all those dilemmas where their actions over ride their common (or not so common) sense, from procrastination to ultimately resuming their addictions.
For people who have made a career out of doing things not in their or society’s best interest, they have gotten in the habit of feeding the evil wolf, within. They have taken the easier, softer way of letting their yetzer hara, control their decisions and their lives and all the addictions, isms and negativity rule.
The bottom line, here, is the choice to follow either one’s yetzer hara (evil inclination) or yetzer hatov (the inclination to do good) is a matter of which one is the stronger habit and that is controlled by which one is practiced more. If one has the practice of following their yetzer hatov or inclination to choose the responsible and life fulfilling thought and action, they will automatically modify, moderate and/or overpower their yetzer hara.
The only way to have such a practice is to practice! There is an old theatrical story of a student asking the way to Carnegie Hall, the premier performance space of its day. The answer was, “practice, practice, practice!” The only way to change a habit is to do the one you want more than the old one. That means, in the beginning, one needs consciously, deliberately and with every ounce of energy they can muster up, to override the old habit of giving into their yetzer hara. Once their inner mind gets that the new way of doing things (aka the new habit) is to follow the yetzer hatov, the inclination toward good, then, for the most part, choices then become effortless and automatic and the possibility of winning at life is extremely good.
©2014, Jason Wittman, MPS, CATC-IV, ILAADC
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*About The Author*
Jason Wittman, MPS, LAADC, CATC-IV (aka Successful People’s Secret Weapon) is the former Executive Director of Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, Inc. ( http://www.la-youth.org ) and has had a private practice as a Counselor and Coach for over 40 years. His practice, http://Stage2Recovery.com focuses on coaching and advising business and professional clients, who are recovering from alcoholism and addictions, to work and live at their exquisite best. He is an expert on teaching and coaching the “getting-on-living,” self-esteem building and spirituality parts of recovery. He has his master’s degree from Cornell University in counseling-psychology and is certified as a drug & alcohol counselor, a clinical hypnotherapist and a practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or