Why You Do What You Do… (and are unhappy with the outcome)

WYDWYDEvery day we make choices around what we will and won’t do from situation to situation. Within our personal issues and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) self-help approach, these behaviours are our actions or inactions influenced by what we think and feel in response to the situations we find ourselves in.

Behaviours can be self-expression, sulks, shoves, comfort eating, facing our fears, shrugs, self-harm, shouting, using alcohol or recreational drugs, crying, sabotaging relationships, swearing, facial expressions, withdrawing, sex, taking ourselves out of difficult situations–or, as most of us do–avoid the situations and experiences we find difficult.

As you will have learned from my posts introducing CBT and normalising what we feel, we experience personal issues in part, or in full, through the way we think. In this post we will be looking at why we do what we do and how these behaviours often lead to our difficult experiences in situations, support our unhelpful thinking, and keep us stuck within our cycles of unhelpful thoughts by preventing us discovering different perspectives and learning different problem solving and coping techniques. A good place to start in understanding why we do what we do is to identify our behaviours in the first place.

How do I identify my behaviours?

We have many behaviours—some of them mentioned in the opening paragraphs—but just like feelings in my last post, there is a way to make it easier to know how you’re behaving and what you’re up to. Behaviour can usually be categorised as one of four types: aggressive, passive, passive aggressive, and assertive.

  • Aggressive behaviours are expressions of ideas and feelings in a blunt and/or threatening way: a hard tone of voice, shouting, posturing, swearing, being bossy, unreasonable and opinionated, blaming (inappropriately), physical and verbal threats, being dominant, being harmful and destructive, having a need for getting our own way and a readiness to be aggressive or violent to get our needs met.
  • Passive behaviours come from suppressing our ideas and feelings and ignoring–perhaps not even reocgonising–our own needs: being submissive; people pleasing; finding it difficult to say ‘no’ to requests; feeling down or frustrated with being taken advantage of, but letting it happen and not saying what we want; avoiding situations in part or in full that are difficult, or have the potential for conflict; using spending, gambling, drugs and alcohol (or any addiction) to escape how we feel; not challenging when we should be; being self-critical; regularly seeking reassurance; exhibiting anxious body language; being indecisive; giving in to others; finding it difficult to identify or pursue personal wants and needs.
  • Passive Aggressive behaviours are where we indirectly communicate thoughts and feelings to get our needs met: hint and be sarcastic, express personal opinions as jokes, fish for compliments, make statements instead of suggestions or asking questions, hurt ourselves, sulk and use guilt trips, subtly manipulate and provoke others into feeling and doing things.
  • Assertive behaviours are where we express both positive or negative ideas, challenges and feelings in an open, confident, honest and sensitive manner: speak with polite civility; use open body language with good eye contact and an even tone of voice; demonstrate a willingness to listen to other perspectives; take appropriate responsibility; stand up for personal rights while respecting the rights of others; and find compromise when there’s the potential for disagreement and conflict. Assertiveness can also be knowing when to stand up for ourselves and when to roll with what’s happening around us.

Aggressive, passive and passive aggressive behaviours can all have their place, but are often problematic. Assertiveness is the goal response to situations, but at times this will require us to be willing to compromise what we want and to take risks in the face of our feared outcomes.

Why do we do what we do?

Because we choose to do them. Yes, that’s right. We choose our response to our personal difficulties. While people may provoke us, may well know what buttons to push to manipulate us, might even directly threaten us, we are always the person to make the decision to do what we do. It might not seem like there’s much choosing going on and our actions can sometimes strike us as instinctive, but they are spontaneous because we are creatures of habit. We tend to have a range of go to reactions—learned behaviours—which we adopt. This idea of choice in what we do might be difficult to accept, but by taking responsibility for our actions we are then in a better place to understand why we do them.

Behind most of the behaviours we have decided upon, there is a motive—an idea, a thought—behind choosing it (overt or covert—rational or irrational), and a prediction—a thought (accurate or inaccurate) on how it will help us meet our needs and/or avoid feared outcomes. Understanding this will help us recognise the internal influence on what we do. Recognising this, we will then be in the best place to make changes in our behaviour which will hopefully improve our experiences and change the outcomes of our interactions with people and the world.

What are my motivations and what am I trying to avoid?

Unhelpful behaviours are often adopted because we think alternative approaches won’t get us what we want, or to avoid situations we are uncomfortable with, and to defend ourselves from outcomes we think we won’t be able to cope within. There is usually a distortion in our problem solving, or a twist in our logic, but nearly always the pursuit of an easy option for a short-term gain with dissatisfaction and difficulties beyond. This is all part of the complex interplay of thoughts, feelings and behaviour which you can benefit from recognising through CBT. Some examples of these are where we might:

  • Think we will be rejected by the person we have affection for [thought], which is upsetting for us [feeling], so we avoid this outcome by choosing not to tell them how we feel [behaviour]—even though that leaves us unhappy [feeling] anyway.
  • Value and want [thought] respect from others. We avoid the risk of not earning this naturally through personality and actions, and decide [thought] fear in others is a shortcut to this, and so we use [behaviour] aggression and violence to ensure we get it. This can leave us isolated or with shallow relationships and unhappy [feeling] or cause us to be vulnerable to push-back from those we attempt to dominate.
  • Suffer with depression [feeling], and think we won’t enjoy things [thought], so we give up doing it [behaviour], leaving us without distraction from our troubles and causing our mood [feeling] to dip further.
  • We might need [thought] our self-esteem stroked by the attraction of others, or want [thought] varied sexual experiences, for the pleasure [feeling] we get from these yet don’t want [thought] to take the risk of ending a comfortable relationship and so to avoid this we cheat [behaviour] on our partner—sometimes causing our self-esteem to be negatively affected and putting our relationship at risk anyway
  • We might think we will pass out or throw-up through our feelings of anxiety if we go out and feel anxious around doing so, and we decide [thought] it’s safer to avoid going out and stay home [behaviour]. Our anxiety eases and we relax at home, further reinforcing our thoughts that outside is scary, inside is safe [thought] making it that much harder to go out next time.
  • We might have a low opinion [thought] of ourselves and our abilities and prospects, so avoid [behaviour] doing anything that might risk confirming this. We comfort eat [behaviour] as a substitute pleasure [feeling]. We might then judge ourselves on our lack of achievement and poor health and increased weight afterwards [thought] which gets us down [feeling], but decide [thought] to chase short-term pleasure by eating [behaviour] to avoid the difficulty of trying to challenge our self-opinion.

The answer to what motivates you and how it impacts you will be personal to you, but hopefully it will be a question you will be able to answer after considering this post in context with your personal issues.

Think about the situations in which you experience difficulties. What do you want to happen and what do you fear will happen?

Once you understand what your unhelpful behaviours are and why you are doing what you are doing, it’s time to challenge the thinking behind them, only then will you be able to change your behaviours, feel better, and have different, more positive experiences. The key to reducing uncomfortable feelings and changing unhelpful behaviours is to understand, challenge and change unhelpful thinking behind them.


If you’ve found this blog post interesting, and would like to read more, this is a semi-regular series here, so check back for more self-help posts on specific topics and problems which you might relate to.

For more details about behaviours, including behaviour that proves a point, assertiveness, body-language, forgiveness, and coping techniques, or perhaps just to show your appreciation of these free posts, then head on over to the Amazon kindle store to buy a copy of my book. You can follow these links for the UK and US stores. Thanks for reading.

Previous post: It’s OK To Feel Your Feelings

Next post: Change Your Mind & Change Your Experience Of Life

5 thoughts on “Why You Do What You Do… (and are unhappy with the outcome)

  1. Pingback: Change Your Mind & Change Your Experience Of Life… | Steve Merrifield

  2. Such a wonderful post Steve. I felt great after reading your thoughts. I recommend this to all those who are looking up for inspiration !!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: It’s OK To Feel Your Feelings… (we all have them) | Steve Merrifield

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