Understanding Unhealthy Behaviors

Do you ever find yourself engaging in activities or behaviors that you later regret? Do you act impulsively at times? Do you find yourself wondering why you continue to do similar things, despite your desire to behave differently? Most people would likely be able to find at least some examples of such behaviors.

It is common for people to become judgmental and view themselves as weak for eating a second dessert, falling into an online spending hole, or drinking more glasses of wine than initially planned. In fact, society often places the blame on a lack of willpower, reinforcing the idea of being mentally or even morally weak. Yet, we can better understand why we might engage in these behaviors by better understanding our underlying psychology.

It is helpful to start by understanding how emotions influence our behaviors.  Emotions are essential and important to our functioning as human beings as they provide important information and motivate us act. However, sometimes our emotions can lead to behavior that gets us into trouble. The examples described above can be understood as emotion-driven behaviors or actions motivated by our emotions and drives. This is often the case with impulsive behaviors as we experience emotions that fuel an urge to act.  

It is also important to understand how our underlying needs influence our emotions and drive our behavior. We all have a range of needs starting with basic physiological needs, safety, and security as well as higher-level needs for love, acceptance, respect, personal agency, and self-esteem. When our needs are not being met or when our needs are negated by others, we can experience emotions that leave us feeling disrespected, worthless, or helpless.  

In these cases, behaviors result from an attempt to compensate or manage the underlying emotions connected to unmet or negated needs. Therefore, we can experience an urge to act to reclaim a sense of being empowered or regain control and feel better. When we feel limited in how we might manage these feelings or when certain actions that would ultimately resolve our distress are seen or experienced (consciously or unconsciously) as threatening or impossible, our energy gets directed elsewhere or displaced via the defense mechanism of displacement. This sometimes results in unhealthy behaviors or patterns of behavior that can become problematic to our long-term health and relationships. It can also be damaging to our self-esteem, which is often repeatedly bruised by our judgements and self-criticism for being weak or lacking willpower.  

Through this lens we can see how it is reasonable that you might have those extra glasses of wine to cope with how you feel or regain a sense of control and agency when it seems like you are faced with limited or impossible options. We can apply these basic principles to our lives to better understand how this pattern may apply to our behaviors.    

First, it is important to understand how these principles apply to your unique patterns of triggering events and unhealthy or unwanted behaviors as well as your unique personality. In order to better understand this, it is important to play close attention to your thoughts and feelings leading up to a decision to act in an unhealthy way or reflect on these behaviors afterword. Here are several questions you might ask yourself when you reflect on your triggering events, emotion-driven behaviors, and psychological needs. 

Reflection Questions

What specifically was the trigger? Exactly when did you decide to act on your urge?

In the moment when you felt triggered, what were you thinking to yourself?

How did you feel? (helpless, angry, disrespected, sad, ignored, vulnerable)

What needs were being negated or going unmet?

Where was your energy directed via displacement?

What healthy behaviors or coping strategies could help you feel more empowered and reduce your distress?

As you practice answering these questions you may also begin to raise your awareness in the moment when you are triggered. Next time you feel triggered in a similar circumstance, acknowledge the urges to behave in particular ways without necessarily acting on them. Over time, observing emotions without judgment creates a space between the urge to do something regrettable and acting on it. This gap provides an opportunity to begin to create new alternative coping strategies or choose different options.

In the end, understanding that our choices and behaviors go beyond willpower or morality is an important step in developing self-compassion as well as greater curiosity about ourselves. As we begin to understand the nuanced ways our behaviors are influenced by our unique psychology as well as our experiences of others and the world around us, we can begin to find alternative ways of coping and feel more empowered in the choices we make.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist

Visit us at lindquistpsych.com

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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