Why We Do Things We Regret, and How Not To

Just as important is that the attention and compassion of a therapist or supportive community can also help to shift the underlying needs that have such an impact on how we behave.
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Ever do something you regret and wonder how you could possibly have let it happen? Ever wonder who took over at that moment? While it might not be apparent at first, you probably felt like you'd be getting something out of it at the time, and that it would serve some purpose for you.

Most often, at the deepest level, this "something" we feel that we get is a sense of safety, that our security, freedom, or self-esteem is not endangered. But what may feel safe at first can become destructive later. I'll show how that happens with some examples, but first let me clarify something essential to understanding this.

I'm not saying that we engage in behavior that we later regret on purpose. Quite the contrary -- I'm saying that we often do these things unconsciously -- without awareness of why we're really doing them. But -- and here's the tricky part -- there is intention behind the behavior.

The unconscious has its own intent that can override consciousness and make us do things we don't consciously intend to do. Psychosomatics -- the study of the link between the mind and the body -- offers many examples of how we do things unconsciously, like actually becoming nauseous when we're faced with something that we can't stomach, or even losing vision when faced with something we don't want to see.

We have abundant, recent and truly fascinating psychological research that confirms that much of what we do is unconsciously motivated. Psychologists can use words to 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.)

If a researcher that the subject doesn't even know can provoke unconscious behavior, imagine how much more immense the 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 hundreds of 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. And the unconscious also naturally leads our development in many healthy and constructive ways.

But if things get out of balance (for instance an extreme need to feel virtuous or in control) this ability of the unconscious to take over our behavior can become problematic. For example we might make kind gestures to a partner without thinking about it, but we can also engage in some pretty nasty behavior--like trying to make them feel feel guilty--without thinking about it.

Perhaps most important is to recognize that we developed unconscious strategies for getting along in the world when we were quite young, before we could be aware of what we were doing. And we need to recognize that we continue to operate from those strategies without knowing it. Let me give you two examples.

Ginger was a very sensitive little girl. She intuited 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 more 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.

Philip, 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 shoddy research. He also did it in the privacy of his home, making his children feel guilty.

The payoff for Philip was that he felt empowered--and therefore safer--for a moment, thinking that he was better than others. But while some of his peers and family respected him, 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 Philip 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 this type of dysfunctional behavior is going to change it helps to understand it--to gain insight as to its original purpose. 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 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.

While you may be able to identify some of these unconscious motives on your own, working with a therapist or support group is usually most effective. Because we all tend to deceive ourselves to some extent (see my recent post), a strong, authentic relationship with a therapist or group can be helpful in achieving insight, compassion, and behavioral change, because they can sometimes point out motivations for self-destructive behavior that we don't allow ourselves to see.

Just as important is that the attention and compassion of a therapist or supportive community can also help to shift the underlying needs that have such an impact on how we behave.

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 good bit easier.