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When clients struggle to understand why they or their loved ones behave the way they do, I often tell them that every behavior has a meaning and a purpose. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how an apparently dysfunctional and destructive behavior could have any purpose at all, other than to make the person absolutely miserable. Occasionally, a frustrated therapist, despairing at their client’s self destructive behavior, will decide that the person just “wants to be unhappy”. (Which is, of course, nonsense: we may sometimes find it too difficult or frightening to change, but no one I’ve ever met ‘wants’ to be unhappy.)
Sometimes, the roots for apparently inexplicable behavior can be found in our childhoods. As children, faced with emotionally challenging situations and with no possibility of escape, we adapt the best we can. We develop coping skills, behaviors and emotions that enable us to survive and even prosper. We act in certain ways to win approval and love, and avoid punishment and isolation. And this all happens without our being consciously aware of it.
Sometimes those patterns of behaviors and emotions prepare us well for adulthood. But often, particularly in troubled families, the same behaviors that worked so well in childhood cause us pain and suffering in adulthood. Yet we’re unable to change, because these patterns have not just been borrowed temporarily: they’ve become a part of us such that we can’t imagine behaving any other way. Here are three examples (modified for confidentiality):
Growing up with a father who had a hair-trigger temper wasn’t easy. Robert learned to walk on egg shells to avoid the emotional and occasional physical abuse that was exploded volcanically from his parent. Early on he promised himself that he would never be like his father, and he taught himself to control both his anger and his fear. He found that any confrontation with his father would only escalate the situation, and that his best approach was to escape if possible, and quietly endure if not.
Robert’s strategy was very successful and enabled him to maintain a cordial relationship with his father in adulthood. His style of controlling his emotions and refusing to engage with people who became angry at him made him a master negotiator and very successful in his career.
Unfortunately, Robert’s strategy was less successful in romantic relationships. At the first hint of conflict he would withdraw either emotionally or physically, or both. His partners, unable to engage with him to resolve issues, would sometimes escalate in order to get a reaction out of him. This escalation only increased his desire to escape. Others, sensing the distance, would lose interest and leave him. Unable to form close relationships, he became lonely and depressed and sought therapy.
Four years after she was born, Andrea’s father began a series of affairs. Her mother, unable to leave the marriage for financial and cultural reasons, endured, and turned to Andrea for emotional comfort and intimacy. The two became extremely close. Andrea recognized her mother’s deep unhappiness and did her best to make her mother feel better. Her mother depended on Andrea’s caring and rewarded her daughter with affection and praise. However, as the girl grew up, her mother’s fear of losing her confidant and emotional support also grew. Just as Andrea was rewarded for being close to her mother, she was also punished for wanting her own life.
Thus, as a child, Andrea adapted very well to her environment. She stayed close to her mother and mostly avoided independent activity because it made her feel that she was being a bad daughter. Unfortunately, this strategy persisted into adulthood where it didn’t work so well: still very close to her mother, she found herself resenting the demands on her time and emotional energy. Worse, she took care of everyone in her life the way she took care of her mother: she became the confidant and support for romantic partners and friends, sacrificing her own needs time and again. Relationships where she gave and others took felt familiar and natural to her, and she became depressed and angry as everyone in her life demanded things from her and gave little or nothing in return.
Raised in a family with a tyrannical and erratic mother, Edward and his brother had two possibilities for surviving their childhood: submission or rebellion. Faced with unpredictable emotional storms, Edward’s brother came to believe that he had in some way caused them, and did his best to placate their mother. Edward, on the other hand, recognized that what he was faced with was unreasonable. As soon as he was old enough, he made it clear that he rejected their mother’s authority. He endured frequent physical abuse for his rebelliousness and met her anger with his own anger. He ran away from home for the first time at 13, and his conflicts with his mother escalated to the point where the police had to be called on several occasions.
While Edward’s brother, having felt responsible for his mother’s behavior, became convinced there was something wrong with him and fell into a depression, Edward had no such issue. He knew that he’d been raised in a dysfunctional situation. However, his childhood strategy of meeting fire with fire persisted and was self reinforcing: he would react angrily at the first sign of disagreement or confrontation, and instinctively resisted anyone exercising authority over him. This led others to react angrily in turn, which only fueled his own hostility. His career, friendships and romantic life were all suffused with conflict and anger, leaving him anxious and isolated.
We are all the product of the interaction of our environment and our genes, our experiences and our nature. And sometimes we find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t seem to make sense and aren’t helpful. We can choose to say “That’s just the way I am” or even “Why don’t other people behave better?” But it’s at times like that that we should, instead, ask ourselves if our behavior is an unhelpful relic of an earlier time — a time when that same behavior was very, very helpful.