Paved With Good Intentions – Why You Do What You Do, What You Can Do About It
When my friend Rick B and I began working on our bestselling book, ‘Dealing With People You Can’t Stand,’ we began our research with what turned out to be an incredibly useful assumption: Behind every behavior is a positive intent. In other words, people do what they do for what they consider to be a good reason. Understand where someone is coming from and it will inform you on how best to respond.
From this assumption came our model, synthesized from several sources and enhanced by our own experiences, the ‘Lens of Understanding,’ in which we explored the possible positive intentions behind pushy, negative, wishy washy and disruptive behavior. Using this model, we were able to make sense out of really bad behavior in a really good way. Because in each case, by ascribing a positive intent to people behaving badly, we found that all sorts of opportunities open up to help people fulfill their intentions, with the result that it becomes possible to bring out the best in people at their worst.
The same holds true for your dealings with your own problem behavior: To bring out the best in yourself, you must understand and fulfill your own positive intents before old habits of thought and action will go away .
Take the example of people who continue their habit of smoking in spite of the evidence that smokers are increasingly looked down upon by other members of society and the habit itself is linked to all manner of horrible disease. I hate the smell of cigarette smoke and would love to see everyone that has the habit break it as soon as possible. Yet doorways outside of buildings are loaded with smokers, and it’s hard to walk down any street without encountering someone blithely blowing smoke into your atmosphere without a care in the world as far as you’re concerned.
How’s it possible that some people continue to smoke in spite of all the back pressure (nasty looks, marginalized from shared space, supporting research, government urgings) to change the habit? On closer investigation, one finds that before most smokers develop their addiction, they smoke for a reason. Maybe it makes them feel cool, or more grown up, or helps them fit in, or gives them a way to rebel against authority.
Over time, new positive intentions may develop for existing behaviors, like giving the smoker an excuse to take a break from the action, or a way to give themselves a little reward, or a way to have some control over strong emotions, or a way to feel a small sense of accomplishment as a cigarette disappears.
That last one is actually quite common. And though it may sound trite or foolish on the face of it, when people feel stymied in life, finishing a smoke is a moment of deep satisfaction in a difficult world. These secondary gains of smoking must be dealt with before many people can break the association to the deadly habit.
Many problem behaviors have unconscious positive intent as their motivators. A patient who was struggling with her weight told us about her daily task of running errands for her husband. She didn’t like running these errands for him, so she rewarded herself on every run by stopping at a mini-mart or donut shop and having a ‘treat.’ Such patterns of secondary gain are typical of people with habits that seem to resist change.
An overweight patient who had been abused in her childhood had somehow learned that the best way to protect herself was to gain weight, to be bigger and less attractive. Until she found other ways to protect herself, she was unable to control her impulse to overeat.
Such unconscious positive intent can also produce attitude problems! You know that really negative person for whom nothing is right and everything is wrong? They may have learned from bitter experience to have low expectations if they want to avoid disappointment. A history of having your heart broken could lead to the development of a protective behavior, the inability to trust. A history of having your head regularly held in the toilet by the jocks in the high school gym locker room could lead to the protective behavior of having a strong aversion to working out. And if you’re eating as a reward, smoking as a way of taking time out, drinking as a form of relaxation, avoiding the gym or avoiding committed relationships, these behaviors won’t just go away.
Nature hates a vacuum. You can’t replace something with nothing. You’ve got to find other ways to relax that do not involve drinking, other ways to reward yourself that do not involve eating, other ways to call time out that do not involve smoking, other ways to feel safe when you go to workout, or to feel safe in sharing yourself with another person who may one day go away.
Contrary to how it may seem, unconscious positive intents are not out to sabotage you with problem attitudes, symptoms and behaviors. When the negative person can no longer stand their own negativity, when the overweight person can no longer stand the burden, when the smoker wants desperately to be able to breathe freely again, when the out of shape watch workout equipment infomercials like they were real TV programs, when the broken hearted people yearn for lasting love, these are signs that the old attitudes and behaviors have outlived their usefulness, and that there are now better ways to attend to the positive intentions.
When your problems surface in your awareness as problems, I think you’ll find it instructive and constructive to interpret your awareness of problems as signals from your subconscious that you’re ready for a change and able to make new choices. If your conscious mind sets the direction, then your subconscious is likely to follow.
Consciously and unconsciously, people make the best choices they can, given what they have to work with at the time of their choosing. While many difficult behaviors have hidden meaning that can be dealt with, some behaviors are so deeply engrained and complex in structure that they are best dealt with in the presence of a trained professional or within a network of support. When you find yourself dealing with intransigent behaviors that are truly resistant to change, you would be wise to find a doctor or counselor who can work with you to surface hidden intents and creatively find other ways to fulfill them. That’s work that I do with my clients every day.
I’d love to hear from you!