We all do things that we wish we wouldn’t.We regret giving too much or not enough, being too passive or too impulsive, being too critical or not critical enough, or getting too angry or not angry enough. But with each of these, we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t feel like we were getting something out of it.
– Guest Blog by Gary Trosclair, DMA, LCSW / Psychotherapist and Author of I’m Working on It in Therapy: How to Get the Most out of Psychotherapy.
Most often, at the deepest level, this “something” we feel that we get is protection against vulnerability. But that comes in lots of shapes and sizes—many of which may appear to be completely different from protection against vulnerability. Not to mention that it might be creating the very situations we fear. I’ll get to all that, but first let me clarify something essential to understanding this.
I’m not saying that we engage in dysfunctional behavior on purpose. Quite the contrary—I’m saying that we often do the things we regret unconsciously–without awareness.
The unconscious can override consciousness and make us do things we don’t intend to do. Psychosomatics—the study of the link between the mind and the body—is filled with examples of how we do things unconsciously, like actually becoming nauseous when we’re faced with something that we can’t stomach.
We have abundant, recent and truly fascinating psychological research that confirms that much of what we do is unconsciously motivated. Psychologists can plant motivations in a subject’s mind without them realizing it, and they can measure the effect that it has on their behavior—which is substantial. (You can check out one of Yale researcher John Bargh’s articles here.) Imagine how immense the more prolonged and significant impact that a family can have on the unconscious of a child.
On the one hand we need to appreciate what the unconscious does for us: Thank goodness we can go on automatic. If we couldn’t run some things on auto pilot we’d certainly go crazy trying to do ten million things at once. We’ve evolved so that we can breathe and process our food and stand upright and snarl at annoying people without having to think about it. But this is a blessing and a curse: While many of the motivations of the unconscious are healthy and constructive (even spiritual, some would contend), you could also engage in some pretty nasty behavior—like trying to make your partner feel guilty–without thinking about it.
Perhaps most important for those of you who are in therapy or considering therapy is to recognize that we developed unconscious strategies for getting along in the world when we were quite young without knowing it. And that we continue to operate on those strategies without knowing it.
Let me give you two examples.
Ginger was a very sensitive little girl. She could sense that whenever things got tense in the house her mother would disappear into the bathroom and come out a lot more relaxed. Too relaxed in fact. She’d just flop down on the couch and bliss out. Well, this wasn’t bliss for Ginger.
So, without realizing it, Ginger started trying to lower the tension in the house by taking care of her mother. She’d clean up, entertain, soothe, and do just about anything else to keep her mother from going in that bathroom and coming out high. It didn’t really make her mother behave any better, but Ginger did feel as if she had some control.
Ginger was still taking care of folks with problems decades later—trying to head off the inevitable by taking care of her boss, current boyfriend, or any manipulative salesman who could sense her need to please. She gained a small sense of safety and control, but she never did really feel good.
Frank, on the other hand, found a way of making himself feel better by making others feel worse. He came from a highly competitive, intellectual, and “virtuous” family. Everyone tried to outdo each other in the goodness wars, and he often felt that he was at the bottom of the pack. One way to get back on top was to pull someone else down, to make himself feel more brilliant or virtuous in comparison. He became an intellectual bully, and used righteousness as his favorite weapon. You could find him at academic conferences all over the world reproaching the other presenters for their faulty research. He also did it in the privacy of his home, making his children feel guilty.
The payoff for Frank was that he felt better about himself for a moment, thinking that he was better than others. But while Frank had respect from some of his peers and family, he had no friends, he was distant from his family, and he was actually miserable living in a war zone of his own creation.
Both Ginger and Frank developed these coping methods decades ago—and they did it without realizing it. But worse—they continued to use those coping skills without knowing it, and they were getting something out of it without realizing it.
If any of this type of dysfunctional behavior is going to change it helps to understand it—to gain insight about its source. This accomplishes two important tasks:
First it helps us to be compassionate about what we’re doing: We can step into the shoes of the little tikes who started it all and we can empathize with ourselves for adopting and continuing to use these strategies as we grow older.
Second, it offers the opportunity to behave differently: We can find other, more healthy, ways to meet the needs that the dysfunctional behavior had originally filled.
Getting to these unconscious motives can take time and perseverance. A strong, authentic relationship with your therapist can be helpful in achieving insight, compassion, and behavioral change, because these very same unconscious motivations can (and ideally will!) arise in your interactions with your therapist, offering an opportunity to achieve consciousness and change.
I describe these unconscious processes and how to align with them in a more healthy way in greater detail in my book: I’m Working on It in Therapy: How to Get the Most out of Psychotherapy.
The unconscious can be destructive or constructive, depending on your relationship to it. But if you can work with it, if the two of you can be on the same side, things get a little easier. You can change dysfunctional behavior.
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