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Why You Should Never Try to Change Your Behavior

It was then that I realized that I’d been scratching my right thumb on the top of the steering wheel by rubbing it vigorously backwards and forwards. As I was doing that, my extended right index finger was moving quickly in what looked like a pointing motion.

Someone’s scratching is another person’s pointing.

This is a fairly innocuous example of what can sometimes be dramatic differences between the insider’s, first-person perspective of behavior, and an observer’s, third-person perspective of behavior. Have you ever been asked “Why did you do that?” only to reply “Do what? I wasn’t doing anything.”?

We can never fully appreciate how our behavior appears to others just as others can never know the experience our behavior has for us. When I go through a stretching routine after having been on a run, I move my arms and legs in particular ways. Stretching for me, though, is creating particular feelings in my muscles. I definitely need to move my limbs to create those feelings but it’s the feelings that are important to me, not the configurations I place my body in to create those feelings.

A couple of days ago I wasn’t getting the feeling in my hip flexors that I had been able to create previously so I googled “hip flexor stretches” and found a couple of pictures of different body positions that looked like they might be suitable. Then I went through a Goldilocks routine of “too much,” “too little,” “Ah, just right” until I found a new way of creating the samefeeling of stretched hip flexors that I had previously experienced.

My description here seems to make a mockery of the title of this article because I definitely changed my behavior. Well, uh-huh. OK, sort of. What I changed, from my perspective, was the feeling I was getting in my hip flexors. It was what I wanted, not how I acted, that was crucial here. The positioning of my arms and legs was definitely affected by what I wanted but it was what I wanted that was paramount.

When you drive your car to work in the morning and then back home again in the afternoon, you’re consuming fuel and helping out with the global devouring of the world’s natural energy resources. But is that really what you’re doing from your perspective? Of course not. You’re just transporting yourself to the place you want to be. Other things are affected by that but, for the most part, you’re only aware of what it is you want.

In essence, we are want-satisfying, or goal-achieving, or state-maintaining creatures. Those times when you think you want (ah, there’s another want!) to change your behavior are usually the times when two wants are engaged in an evenly matched arm-wrestle. You really want to shed those last few pounds but you also want to go out with your friends and not draw attention to yourself. Or you really want to leave your sneaky, dishonest partner but you also want the security and companionship of a relationship. Or you know you should get out for some exercise but you really want to finish this report before the rest of the house wakes up.

It’s never behavior we need to change. We don’t even know our behavior except for the feelings, sounds, and sights it creates for us. So what does need to change when things aren’t going the way we want? Well, wants are always satisfied relative to other wants and also in particular contexts. If you want to eat pizza, you better make sure you’ve booked a table at an Italian, rather than a Vietnamese, restaurant. Taking yourself off to a Vietnamese restaurant when your pizza-want requires placating is never a happy event.

Perhaps most importantly though, if you’re not getting what you want at any point in time, first check that all of your wants are playing nicely together in the sandpit! Maybe you’re becoming increasingly irritated at this insufferably, but superficially, polite Sunday lunch you’re having with your partner’s family. Right at this moment you’d rather be anywhere else on the planet – or even off the planet. Could it be that the rage you’re keeping a lid on is the steam that’s coming out of the brawl between you wanting to support your partner but also wanting to tell her family how ashamed they should be of the way they’ve treated her all these years?

For any particular want or set of wants there are always wants in the background that are using the wants at the front of your mind to make sure the background remains calm, well-ordered, exemplary (just like in the Mary Poppins’ song). Finding out what these wants are, and focussing on them for a time, will help to restore harmony to the warring wants.

So when you’re feeling an intense “Grrr,” think about what you want, then why you want it. What do you really want? No, really!

When things need changing, it’s the wants that need attention not the behavior. Getting to know all that you want could be the most important learning you ever make.