Exploring the Benefits of Unwanted Behaviors

“We often talk about the reasons for changing unhealthy behaviors, but rarely stop to consider, or admit to, how those behaviors are beneficial. How is that behavior working for you?”

A frustrated and tired woman sat in front of me not too long ago. She is admirably raising a teenager who is not her own with the heart and energy as if they were. These cases are often complex in that a child who suffered through an unhealthy and chaotic beginning with their biological family is now in a nurturing and loving home. Yet, the child’s behavior is persistently challenging and inappropriate. Positive reinforcement, verbal reasoning, empathy… nothing seems to break through to the child’s challenging behaviors.

During a recent session, I sat with this particular teenager discussing their behavior. “I want to change” and “I’m ready to change” were the talking points. “So, why haven’t you?” I challenged. The response was “I don’t know.”

Where do you go from there? Someone says they want to change, but they don’t. This is when the meat of real issues comes into play and self-discovery is key to moving forward. I get very excited to reach these points in therapy!!

In this particular situation, I had the client start a “Positive and Negative” list of their “bad” behaviors. In other words, what is the benefit for you to continue with your current choices? We often talk about the reasons for changing unhealthy behaviors, but rarely stop to consider, or admit to, how those behaviors are beneficial. How is that behavior working for you?

In my experience, there are several reasons people may not be making changes in their lives they know should, and can, be made.

Comfort Zones. People become comfortable with their current circumstances and taking steps towards change would require them to adjust to new circumstances. A woman who has an opportunity to leave a bad relationship, but doesn’t, could fall into this category. Some people even become comfortable with being in a bad mood. Have you ever realized you were being grumpy, but didn’t feel like getting un-grumpy? Imagine this as a lifestyle and you can see how difficult change can be for those individuals.

Fear. Not knowing anything different, or not knowing what things will be like if you do make a change, can keep people from taking steps towards change. In the situation above, I suspect this teen fears stability and happiness. They have never experienced a family life without discord. There may even be some fear they would mess it up if they actually succeeded in getting there in the first place. Fear is a powerful paralytic.

Need-to-please. The need to please others has stopped many people from making choices and taking steps for change. What will my friends think? How will they feel? “I must please everyone except myself” is a need-to-please self-talk that justifies staying the same.

Positive Reinforcements. Feedback in the form of praise, opinions, money, etc. can be a huge motivator for someone to continue down their current path. Kids and teens often fall into this category when it comes to behavior. Although they may get detention and nagging at home for skipping class, these kids are getting some serious positive reinforcement from their peers. They are “cool” or a “bad” kid. Image holds a lot of weight in their choices. Little kids often use negative behavior for attention. They will do anything to get you to look at them instead of your phone!

Coping Mechanism. We have all heard of good and bad coping mechanisms. Maybe the habit you are trying to break is one of your only coping skills? It’s really hard to give that up when you don’t have another coping outlet to use instead. Try finding another outlet for your stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and so on.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to why we don’t make changes we know are good for us. What are the benefits of your behavior? How do your “bad” choices work in your favor? If you have been meaning to make a change, such as leaving a bad relationship or stopping a bad habit, do some soul searching. Consider the benefits of the negative behaviors or choices first. You may be surprised at what you discover. Only then can you move forward in your decision to change or stay the same!

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