A good part of insight and self-awareness is knowing our personal motivations for what we do. When it comes to things that are going well in our lives, it it may be interesting, but not all that important to analyze why we’re doing what we’re doing. But when we keep repeating the same patterns of behavior that are not working out, it becomes important to ask, “Why do I keep doing this? What is motivating this problematic pattern of mine?”

Why do I keep choosing to get involved with people whom I know are not good for me? Why do I run myself ragged, working constantly when clearly it is not enhancing my quality of life? Why do I keep saying “Yes” to things I don’t want to do and probably shouldn’t do? Why do I keep turning to food, drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling, etc. to self-medicate?

The fear of a feeling

The first step is to ask yourself, “What unpleasant feeling am I most afraid of having if I were to not do this maladaptive behavior?” “I want to change my behavior, but it’s so hard because I’m afraid that if I do, then I will wind up feeling ______.” This line of inquiry assumes that there is a certain unpleasant feeling that we are trying to avoid. Yes, it can be more than one feeling but there is often one core, central feeling at the top of your list. Try to identify your most feared feeling if you can, because the fear of this feeling may drive many of your bad choices and habits.

Most popular feared feelings

Guilt. Guilt is a major culprit which fuels many bad decisions. “I just wrote the damn check because I did not want to feel guilty about it.” “I just went to the stupid party because otherwise I’d feel guilty.” It was either I have sex or feel guilty about it, so I had sex.” We’ll do just about anything to avoid feeling guilty.

Anxiety. “How can I step out of my comfort zone without feeling anxious?” Nice try, but the answer is probably—“You can’t. And you don’t need to.” You can step out of your comfort zone and feel anxious and be okay, but you may not know that yet. If you believe that you can’t manage mild to moderate anxiety, then you will be trapped by your fear of anxiety. The fear of anxiety is what can fuel panic disorder.

Sadness. For some, sadness can be deep and profound and scary. Some fear that it will be overwhelming and infinite, with no light at the end of the tunnel. It can be hard to believe that it’s possible to feel profound sadness without sinking into an endless depression. So we may make a habit of running from all sadness.

Other feelings we commonly dread and avoid are loneliness, rejection, abandonment, shame, anger, disappointment—and maybe even love. In so many ways, we do this in order to not feel that.

Work it out

So you’ve identified your most feared feeling. Now trace that feeling as far back as you can remember. Yes, it probably goes back to your childhood. (Freud was right about some things, and I believe this is one of them.) Now identify which coping strategy you used to get away from that feeling as a child. While that strategy was probably necessary for survival back then, recognize that now it may be holding you back.

Identify the healthier strategy that you want to use instead of the old one and get to work on making the transition. Learn to accept and live with the feared feeling and to no longer empower it as an emotional bully that runs your life.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Prawny / Morguefile.com

Articles

Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.