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“Why Do You Do That?!” The Root Causes of Odd Behavior

(3 minute read)

Sometimes, the way people behave is enough to drive us crazy. What makes this person so critical, that person so irritable, another person jealous or withdrawn or sad or unreliable or nervous or whatever other kind of behavior that grates on us?

Sometimes these people end up in my counselling room, and as I get to know them, I come to understand what leads them to behave like that. And as unreasonable and irritating as their behavior may seem to others, or even to themselves, once I really understand them, that behavior makes perfect sense.

Everybody is different, and the same behavior in two people can come from two entirely different sources. So I never put people into diagnostic boxes. I might have some ideas as to what could be driving them, but I put those aside and listen to my client until I understand their world, rather than imposing my own thoughts. Having said that, here are some behaviors that are often — but not always — driven by a specific set of emotions.

Jealousy. People who are extremely jealous often feel they have no control over their jealous behavior. They simply can’t stop themselves from looking at their partner’s phone, checking their browsers, emails and messages, looking at their social media pages and stalking their partner’s ex lovers through social media. It feels like a compulsion, and until they have done their latest check-up on their partner, they can’t think of anything else. That check-up offers relief, but only temporarily: over time, the urge builds up again until it is once again irresistible. They may hate themselves for what they do, even step back and look at themselves and say “I can’t believe I’ve turned into this”, but even such awareness isn’t enough to enable them to stop.

Often, this intense jealousy is caused by a sense that they are not, at their core, a lovable person, and that sooner or later their partner will discover this and will leave them, confirming their unconscious suspicion that they’re not lovable. This causes tremendous anxiety, which can only be soothed by checking to see that the partner does not (yet) have one foot out the door. The longer the time between check-in’s, the greater the possibility that the partner has put that one foot out the door, raising the level of anxiety until another check-in becomes essential.

Niceness to a fault. These people are delightful to be around. They’re always willing to accommodate, always helpful, good listeners, never in a bad mood, never get into fights and have lots of friends. But they are often not the happy person they appear to be, and can be concealing deep sadness and feelings of unworthiness. They are afraid to show how they really feel for fear of becoming a burden to others, and perhaps causing their friends or family to reject them. They sometimes feel that others will only want to be around them if they are helpful and cheerful. It’s exhausting to keep up appearances, and it can be easier for them to beg off social engagements due to the pressure of work or ill health than to participate and keep up the facade. People who are this nice often avoid conflict by bending over backward to ensure other people aren’t upset with them, leading them to feel quietly irritated or even angry at others.

Serial one-night stands. Some people — and it’s usually but not always men — spend years in pursuit of sex without emotional attachment. Their sexual encounters can be anonymous or can result in a couple of dates, but as soon as any kind of attachment forms, they break things off. Some hide their behavior, others publicize it, but over time, they find their actions unsatisfying and shameful. They are often driven by two competing needs: on one hand, like all human beings, they need connection and intimacy with other people, but on the other, that intimacy is frightening and has to be avoided. Brief sexual liaisons are the way to square that circle; it gives them some measure of intimacy, but not so much that they become uncomfortable. The reasons for that fear of intimacy can vary. Some people fear being abandoned so much that they make sure it can’t happen by leaving the other person first. Some fear being taken over — that they will lose their independence and sense of self once they become part of a couple. Others cannot bear to be vulnerable, fearing that others will reject or hurt them.

Substance abuse. It’s now common wisdom that people who abuse alcohol or drugs are self medicating, escaping from intolerable feelings of anxiety, shame, sadness, guilt, etc. Unfortunately, the abuse results in bad behavior: lost jobs, failed relationships, betrayal and disappointments that cause great shame and guilt. Thus, a person who began to use substances to avoid feeling bad ends up behaving in ways which make them feel bad, which requires them to use substances to avoid that feeling in an ongoing vicious cycle. Pointing out the damage they’re doing to themselves and their loved ones generally makes them feel ashamed, leading them to deny or minimize their behavior and continue using so as to avoid those feelings of shame.

Flaking. This is particularly common among people in their 20’s: making appointments and either staying home or going to another event that has come up that looks more attractive. Sometimes this is caused by fluctuating emotions: When the person first agrees to go to the event they feel excited and interested, but when the time comes, they are either too sad or feel overwhelmed at the idea of going. A sense of inadequacy can also come into play. Having agreed to go to an event, another event comes up that is more compelling. Missing that new event would make them feel that they are missing something important, which will put them at a disadvantage with their friends and peers. That sense of competition, of needing to keep up with others, and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is intense and painful.

Social butterflying. Some people seem never to be alone. Their lives are a whirlwind of lunches and dinners, parties, sports, houseguests and nights out. They’re the center of attention and we look at them with not a small amount of envy (tinged with exhaustion). Yet for some of these socialites the drive to be with people arises from a profound fear of being alone. Without other people to offer distraction, painful emotions rise to the surface.


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