Have you ever wondered why you, or some of the people you care about, seem to feel compelled to do things that they say they don’t want to? Do you ever find yourself doing things like overeating, or calorie-counting/dieting, or drinking a bit too much, or spending a bit too much, or procrastinating on things, or isolating rather than socializing? Well if you’d like to finally understand what’s really going on behind the scenes (in your head!) to make you behave in ways you know aren’t good for you or that will ultimately cause you stress, read on.
In order for you to completely understand why you do what you do and what you can do to begin to think, and therefore, behave, differently, I’ve put together a kind of step-by-step flow of logic that will help your brain shift out of confused, stuck thinking and into rational, reasonable thoughts that will influence you to behave in ways that will enhance all aspects of your life. ’Cause, let’s face it, you know that some of the things you do aren’t the best choices, you may even have tried to stop or cut back or make some big lifestyle changes. But if you haven’t understood what’s really driving you to do those things in the first place, you can’t be successful for long, and instead will likely feel more stuck and hopeless rather than inspired and confident.
If you’re at all a believer in the concept that your thoughts create your reality, the following logic flow will help you to feel more solid and grounded in clear thinking. This means you will be confidently more present in the world and able to enjoy your food, drink, exercise, free time, and socializing more while being less likely to use any of those substances and behaviours to cope with stress or emotions such as anxiety, anger, insecurity or sadness.
The following is a list of basic premises you must accept in order to heal from any stressful patterns of thinking and behaving and live life to the fullest. I encourage you to read this over on a daily basis for a week and you’ll be amazed at the shifts that occur in your relationship with yourself and with others, with little or no effort on your part.
Every human being has needs.
Having needs doesn’t make you “needy,” it makes you human. Anyone who has ever implied otherwise to you is someone who is simply uncomfortable with the vulnerability and dependence that the meeting of needs naturally requires. The greatest sense of peace, trust, and safety that a human being can experience in their lives comes from being able to trust in your ability to meet the majority of your own needs and from feeling confident in your right and ability to ask for others to help you meet your needs too. You are entitled to take care of yourself. You are entitled to ask for help. If someone says “no,” it doesn’t mean you were wrong to ask or that that person doesn’t care. Nor does it mean you won’t get that need met. It simply means it doesn’t work for that person, at that time, to meet your need.
All humans, (whether they like to admit it or not) have the same needs overall and they need to be met in ascending order of priority to our survival.
Our needs for food, air, water and rest come first innately. Without these for any length of time and we’re going to suffer grave consequences, likely death. So naturally, these are the first priority.
Then come our needs for physical safety and security. By this we mean a safe, consistent place to live (we don’t move around a lot); no real or threatened harm to our physical safety or that of anyone we care about; and financial security.
The next natural priority is our need for emotional safety in our bonds with key people (primary caregivers, extended family, peers, teachers, community at large). In order for us to come out of our family of origin feeling confident in ourselves as lovable, worthy, and deserving beings, we need to see that the key people in our lives speak and behave towards us in ways that demonstrate respect, caring, kindness, and acceptance.
Then comes our need for positive self-regard, a.k.a self-esteem. Self-Esteem naturally flows from feeling safe and secure in our world and in our bonds with others. The extent to which we felt that sense of safety and security emotionally and physically will be the extent to which we see ourselves as lovable, capable, worthy human beings who are equal to all others.
And lastly, our needs for self-actualization, the realization of our full potential as a human being, must be met. Whatever our gifts or natural abilities are, the meeting of our lower level needs for physical wellness, emotional and physical security and self-esteem ensures that we have the strength and support to achieve them.
Given that all people have these needs, whether they acknowledge it or like it or not, it naturally follows that these needs are natural and appropriate.
This means that your needs are not right or wrong or too much – they just are. The way you attempt to meet those needs may be effective or ineffective; life-enhancing or harmful, but the needs themselves cannot be judged as right or wrong with any rational mind. They are a natural part of being human.
Anxiety is a natural and appropriate signal from within that we have needs that are not being met.
Whenever any of our natural, basic human needs are not met, our senses send a chemical signal through our body to bring our attention to this need. We humans call this signal: Anxiety. Thus, when we feel anxious it is a statement from our instincts that some need is not being met. In our culture we have been taught to judge anxiety as bad or ourselves as “over-sensitive” or having an “anxiety disorder” when we are anxious often or when we are anxious in inconvenient circumstances. In truth, your anxiety is trying to get your attention and tell you that something isn’t feeling right.
The appropriate human response to this sensation of anxiety is to stop and identify the situation that has triggered an unmet need then take appropriate action to meet that need. In so doing you will return, as quickly and effortlessly as possible to a state of peace.
This state of peace is your indicator that your needs are met in that moment. We could therefore say that anytime you are feeling anything other than peaceful, it is an indicator that you have unmet needs. This awareness of peace as an indicator of met needs and anxiety as an indicator of unmet needs makes it much easier for you to identify when things are going well and when you need to take some action to resolve some problem.
Your naturally occurring unmet needs will trigger you to have a thought that will naturally trigger an emotional response which naturally triggers you to behave in some way that meets that need or that help you to tune out to the awareness that you have an unmet need.
Thus, it can be asserted that our needs naturally trigger a sensation within us, I call it ‘the niggle.’ This niggle can be a slight feeling that something is up, such as we might experience if we’re a little hungry or need to return a phone call sometime that evening. It can also feel like full blown panic if someone or something is cutting off our airway for example.
The key point here again is that if we are feeling anything other than peaceful it is an indicator that we have needs that aren’t being met. This niggle is meant to be instantly acknowledged by us and acted on so that our need gets met quickly and we feel peaceful again.
The triggering need and corresponding niggle will naturally trigger a thought (“Something is up”). The way we then assess (think about) the stressful situation and our ability to handle it well, becomes the story we tell ourselves about whether our need will get met or not and what we need to do to meet it.
This story about our ability to get that need met naturally triggers an emotion (anxiety, anger, sadness, joy), which naturally triggers a behavioural reaction: We, like all other humans on the planet, are meant to do something to meet that need.
If the behavioural reaction we choose actually meets the need we feel peaceful and experienced an enhanced sense of trust in ourselves and heightened self-esteem. If the behavioural reaction we chose did not meet our need we will typically respond in one of two ways:
- If we have high self-esteem we will naturally feel some frustration that our efforts were unsuccessful but we will trust that there is a solution and that we are capable of finding it. We will seek to understand what it was that didn’t work and find an alternative solution either on our own or with help from others. In other words, we don’t give up. We aren’t ashamed to admit we don’t know all the answers and we freely ask for help. We keep looking for a solution until we know we have exhausted all possibilities. Then we grieve, accept the situation and move on. It does not undermine our overall sense of ourselves as a good, worthwhile, competent human being.
- If our self-confidence is lacking and we doubt our “okay-ness” we have less likelihood of seeking help outside ourselves and therefore, of finding the most effective and simple solution. In other words, we don’t want to admit we aren’t “perfect;” that we don’t know something or that we couldn’t figure it out and thus we make things 10 times harder than they need to be. This resistance to admitting our needs and to asking for help; to being vulnerable and dependent on another, leads to a greater level of anxiety and distress (often growing into depression) as our needs go unmet and our judgement of ourselves and our fears of being judged by others grow.
It is likely, in this fearful frame of mind, that we have told ourselves that there was only one solution to the meeting of our need, the one we tried first, and it didn’t work. Therefore, we will naturally feel increasingly anxious and frantic as not only do we still have the initial unmet need to contend with but now we have a story, repeating in our brain, that we “tried and failed,” “WE failed.” This story is naturally triggering increasing feelings of fear and sadness (which often manifest themselves as anger towards others or towards ourselves.)
If the need goes unmet for long enough, or is a lower level need for emotional or physical security, or food, air, water or rest, and thus imperative to our sense of overall security and well-being in the world, we will begin to feel overwhelmed by the chronic sensations of anxiety. We will get stuck in a loop of stories of impending doom and failure, triggering more anxiety (and, if longstanding, depression), which triggers increasingly ineffective behavioural responses to help us cope with the anxiety that we feel unable to relieve completely.
Recall that thoughts trigger emotions which trigger a behavioural response. These thoughts can be rational or irrational and our corresponding behavioural response can be helpful or harmful to our overall well-being.
When we feel fearful of asking for help and feel anxious because we feel stuck in our efforts to meet our needs, we begin to try to distance ourselves from our lives and from others who might judge or reject us “if they really knew us.” To do this we naturally engage in harmful coping strategies such as alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, binge eating, dieting, gambling, sex addiction, relationship addiction, raging, overspending, and physical abuse among others.
If we are thinking irrationally, we get stuck in a “learned helplessness loop” where we believe that: Because we were unsuccessful in our initial attempt(s) to solve our problem and meet our needs, there is no solution.
Therefore, we believe that we just have to try and cope with the situation and the feelings it triggers. We devise psychological, emotional and physical strategies to distract us from the situation and the anxiety it is naturally and appropriately distressing us.
We give up on any long term solution and settle for short term relief/preoccupation/distraction. The old problem remains and now we have a new one too which usually has ramifications on our physical, emotional and mental health as well as on our finances and relationships.
These harmful coping strategies trigger unmet needs of their own because of the harm we do to ourselves physically and emotionally, and often, to others through these behaviours. This triggers even more thoughts of helplessness and an even greater sense of distress and stuck-ness, triggering a faster and faster return to the harmful coping behaviour each time and creating greater and greater anxiety and unmet needs overall.
This explains why, whenever you’ve tried in the past to stop a certain behaviour that you know isn’t good for you, you end up doing it more! If you haven’t identified the underlying needs you were seeking to meet through that behaviour in the first place and they are still unmet and you’ll still need to use your coping behaviour, regardless of your best intentions. It’s just that simple.
You have got to have some solution in place to meet the original unmet needs before you can successfully take away the behaviour or substance that you’ve been using to cope with the stress that those needs create. You can’t just exchange one coping behaviour for another and expect to be successful in relieving your anxiety or depressed feelings.
In contrast the assumption we live from when we think rationally is: There is a solution, and if I can’t find it, I simply need to find someone to help.
Regardless of how it may seem, it is true that there is a solution to your problem in all but the most dire situations (terminal illness for example) but even in this case, thinking rationally we can accept the reality of the circumstance, “I have a terminal illness,” and then set about finding solutions to enhance the quality of life we have left.
If we are thinking clearly, and we were unsuccessful in our attempt to meet a need, we naturally do one of 3 things:
Either reassess our initial strategy to see if it will work if implemented in a different way;
- Try a different approach altogether;
- Or ask for help/guidance.
One way or another, the problem gets solved. We do not undermine our self-esteem by telling ourselves WE are failures. This is a learning experience. We learn the lesson and move on. As long as we are learning from our life experiences, we are doing life right!
Therefore, when you have been taught to think in a learned helplessness way and not in a confident, self-trusting way, you will naturally engage in harmful patterns of behaviour such as: overeating, dieting, overspending, procrastinating, isolation, and compromising yourself for others. These are some of the most common coping strategies that humans will turn to to help them numb out from stressful situations.
Because of our life experiences as young people when our needs for emotional or physical security weren’t met, rather than looking for helpful solutions when we have a problem, we kick in to learned helplessness thinking which triggers more stress and greater anxiety and ultimately an inappropriate/unsuccessful behavioural solution.
So, there you have it! A clear, step by step understanding of why you (and others) do what they do, even when they know they want to stop.
Reminding yourself of this as you go through your day to day life and see yourself engaging in any harmful behaviour, or feeling anything other than peaceful, is the first and most important step in creating deep and lasting change.
I am a firm believer in moderation. I know firsthand from my own binge eating disorder and use of other harmful coping strategies, that once you’re able to identify ways to meet your needs that truly solve the problem, you’ll be able to engage in eating any food, anywhere, anytime, or having some drinks, or going shopping, or having challenging conversations without losing your grip and slipping into old extremes. Instead you’ll be able to feel trusting of yourself to handle situations with respect and dignity for all parties, first and foremost, yourself.
There are some simple tools and strategies that you can add to this newfound understanding that will lead to significant change in longstanding problems within just a few weeks.
If you’re an individual client of The CEDRIC Centre or a member of our web based program you’re already learning what’s really triggering you and what you can do about it. If you’d like to learn more, please visit email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Encompass Magazine.