According to Clark Hull’s Drive Reduction Theory of Motivation, “Any repeated behavior by an organism is an attempt to meet a need for that organism.” Meaning, we repeat the actions that we believe will yield the results necessary to satisfy our needs. Ok, so that’s pretty obvious and basic, right? We eat when we’re hungry so we’ll be nourished; we rest when we’re tired so we’ll be recharged, etc. That makes sense, and it doesn’t take an anthropologist to figure it out.
Now, here comes the interesting part. What about when we do bad stuff that doesn’t seem to have any benefits? Why do we cheat on our spouses, yell at our children, or gossip about our friends? Exactly what need(s) do we desire to meet when we do those things? Aren’t we going to get found out, and won’t the consequences eventually be catastrophic? Can it be that we do it because we’re just in a bad mood, or we can’t help ourselves? Maybe we’re under a lot of pressure at work or a health crisis is making us feel “not like ourselves” lately. Do these kinds of explanations really hold water? What needs can we possibly be trying to satisfy when we engage in behaviors that are mean, selfish, unhealthy and/or down-right self-sabotaging?
Well, first of all, let’s clarify: I’m not talking about something you do one time, clearly identify as a mistake, and never do again. We’ve all done things that we look back on and think, “Whoa, what was I thinking?” I’m talking about patterns of behavior that are harmful to ourselves and others, yet we’re seemingly powerless to stop repeating them. Often, we’re “unaware” it’s even a problem. We rephrase our problem behavior into benign sounding expressions like, “I only date bad boys,” or “ladies know I like to play the field.” We say, “So what if I have a temper? I’m at every PTA meeting, and all my kids are on the Dean’s List,” or “Everybody knows I’m sarcastic; if they can’t take the heat, they need to stay out of the kitchen.” We imply that the person on the receiving end of our misdeeds is somehow complicit by saying things like, “She knows I don’t mean it,” or “If he doesn’t like it, he can just leave,” or “He knew what he was getting in to when he asked me to marry him,” or the ever popular “Hey, she does it, too. What’s the big deal? Nobody’s perfect.” At work, we excuse our gossiping and sabotaging of others as “office politics,” “business as usual,” “how the game is played.” We claim innocence and pretend that if we don’t go along with it, we’ll be shunned or sabotaged ourselves.
I have to say that I think we are driven to engage in these behaviors because we’re trying to satisfy unmet needs within ourselves. We perform these behaviors again and again to abate some nagging compulsion within us. If we can just stand back and look for connections, reasons, explanations for the insatiable needs that drive our undesirable behavior, maybe we can begin to say things like, “Ah, there it is. I think I know why I’m so critical and sarcastic and negative. Perhaps it’s because I wasn’t allowed to be vulnerable or make mistakes as a child. No one cared if I was sick or hurt or sad. I had to suck it up; for if I dared to show my feelings it was somehow unacceptable to my caregivers, and I was shown what happens to ‘crybabies.’ Being my true self wasn’t tolerated-it was something to be avoided at all costs. I learned at an early age that it was far better to disavow my ‘weakness,’ and so I became a victimizer rather than a victim. Now I loathe the weakness I perceive in others, because it reminds me of the unacceptable little person inside me that I was forced to abandon if I was to survive. My only standard is that I have to be right, perfect. I need to be, or everything is wrong and it’s intolerable.”
Fortunately, when we are in an emotionally safe place such as therapy, we are able to sort through all those thoughts and feelings we have harbored so deep within ourselves. We are able to examine our values and motivating factors in a way we never could by ourselves or with even our closest friends. Sometimes as adults we can become so engrained in patterns of behavior-especially bad ones, that not only do we forget where they started, we also stop noticing that they’re even bad. The only trouble is, everyone else around us notices that there’s a problem.
I like to watch this wonderful/horrifying/fantastic new show called “The Walking Dead.” It’s about the apparently impending Zombie Apocalypse. When I watch this show in rapt amazement and witness the mindless, sometimes limbless zombies stumbling through the city looking for people to eat, I have to give them respect. They have no pretense or convention to adhere to anymore. They have only one need, and they stop at nothing to meet that need. Absolutely nothing else matters to them, and they are relentless. Maybe this Hallowe’en is a good time for all of us to look at what needs we’re repeatedly driven to satisfy in this zombie-like fashion and decide to make some changes. The counselors and life coaches at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando are ready and waiting to take your call. Oh, and watch out for zombies. They’re truly relentless, and hungry!
To Contact: TherapistKimMurphy@gmail.com