Putting a stop to poor behavior

Article contributed by Amy Sargent.

Have you ever reacted poorly to a situation that you regretted later?

Yeah, me neither.

Of course I say that tongue-in-cheek. If we are human and breathe air, we all have reacted in a way that could’ve left something to be desired, probably more times than not. When our ‘hot button’ is pressed, it is easy to slip down a path of hurtful, destructive behavior.  In the moment, reacting out of frustration or anger ‘seems’ to be the right thing.  But later, you know the sick feeling that sets in. Whether it’s when you’re cut off in traffic, or being disrespected by your manager, or during an argument with a loved one, it’s easy to allow someone else to trigger our bad behaviors.  But we are not helpless to our poor choices. Notice I used the word allow.  Others can’t make us act poorly — that’s on us.  We get to decide how we allow ourselves to react in difficult situations.

I don’t know how many people I’ve heard say, “This is just who I am” in response to being called out on poor behavior.  As if there’s nothing that can be done because it’s who they are, down to their DNA wiring. And that’s usually where the excuses follow: “My dad was this way”, or “that person made me mad”,  or “she disrespected me”, “I felt lonely”, or “it’s the only way I’ve known.” Think of the excuses you’ve heard when you’ve called someone out on poor behavior.  Or think of the excuses you use when someone calls you out. But reacting poorly does not need to define who we are — it defines what we do…actions, responses, behavior.  And the good new is, behavior can be changed.

Behavioral self-control is a competency of emotional intelligence and one that has a powerful impact on the quality of our relationships. Those who are strong in behavioral self-control are able to manage their impulsive feelings, even when distressed or in trying moments.  In times of pain or conflict, they can think clearly and remain ‘cool under pressure.’  They are able to restrain negative reactions that can be hurtful to themselves and others, and make the choice to not escalate the problem when attacked or provoked.

Those that struggle in this area — which is most of us — tend to react impulsively and respond to struggles in a non-constructive way. They tend to get involved in inappropriate situations because they don’t think they can resist temptations, and become angry, depressed or agitated when faced with stresses that trigger hurt feelings.

“He who blows his top loses all his thinking matter.” — Chinese proverb

If you’re one to tends to act poorly when under stressful or hurtful situations, take heart. Again, this is not who you are but how you’re acting.  Making an effort to  shift ways of thinking and behaving is something we are all capable of.  Self-awareness is a good first step. Do you recognize poor behaviors in your past?  Do you recognize any trends (are you doing the same sort of things when the same sort of negative events are encircling you)?

Once you’re aware and decide that you’d like to make a shift, consider asking yourself these questions to move toward more healthy reactions:

  • What are my triggers? Write down the incidents and feelings that cause a negative response.  These may be the same situations in which you act on impulse, and it is good to name these.  At this point, don’t try to figure out why they are hot buttons–just write them down to get them out in front of you.
  • What am I feeling?  In these trigger moments, what are you feeling and where in your body are you feeling it?  Does your heart race?  Do you get a headache?  Do you feel shame?  Do you feel angry toward someone not involved in the current situation? Do you feel sick to your stomach or do your hands start to shake? Do you feel depressed or discouraged?  Start noting what you’re feeling in these moments of tension.
  • What am I telling myself?  Positive self-talk is vital to making a shift from poor behaviors to more constructive ones.  Note what that little voice whispers to you in the moments of stress.  Some common negative self-conversations are: “This [insert poor choice] is what I get  because I’m a bad person”, “I’ve worked hard so I deserve [insert poor choice]”, or “I always mess this up, so what does it matter if I [insert poor behavior]?” Be honest on this one — learning to hear your negative self-talk and stopping it when it happens can help you rewrite your behavioral story.
  • How do I react? Write down any typical behaviors you’ve engaged in when you feel those feelings and hear that negative self-talk.  Do you drink too much? Do you lash out at someone else?  Do you hide and withdraw from relationships? Do you seek out unhealthy relationships just to feel connection? Do you go shopping? Be honest with yourself and note the route you usually choose when your triggers are set off. Again, being aware of these is a great place to start.
  • How do these behaviors make me feel? In the moment, poor behaviors can give us a temporary ‘lift’ — but the guilt and regret that sets in shortly after often take away that high and can lead to self-loathing and depression.  Make a 2-column chart and label the first “what I do” and in the second “how I feel”.  It’s helpful to see the correlation between behaviors and the resulting feelings.
  • What damage have I caused? Take a moment to write out the cost of the hurtful behavior.  It may be “I blew my budget again”, “I had a terrible hangover”, “I’ve ruined my chance at a promotion”, or “I’ve broken someone’s trust”.  Whatever it is, the best thing at this point is to own it by recognizing damage done.
  • How could I respond differently? Again we’re back to choice — we get to choose how we respond.  For each of your triggers, write out an alternative response that could potentially bring about more positive results.  Knowing there are other choices to make can help when your button is pushed next time…and there will be a next time.  Coming up with new ways of responding is a way of preparing yourself for those future struggles.
  • How will I feel when I choose a better response? Self-worth, proud, happy, confident, etc. Come up with your own words, write them down, and post them somewhere you can see them every day.

Finding a trusted friend, counselor, or coach to help you stay accountable as you embark on this new path can be a great resource. Just speaking your intentions out loud to someone can help with awareness next time it happens. You don’t have to do this alone.

Finally, learn to forgive yourself. You’re going to mess up — we all do — and even though you had good intentions on reacting better, you’ll still find yourself saying or doing something you wish you hadn’t have from time to time. Apologize where needed, ask yourself the above questions again, spend some time talking to  friend, coach, or counselor, then get out there and try again. Author Steve Goodier says this:

“Bring it up, make amends, forgive yourself. It sounds simple, but don’t think for a second that it is easy. Getting free from the tyranny of past mistakes can be hard work, but definitely worth the effort. And the payoff is health, wholeness and inner peace. In other words, you get your life back.”

Some hurtful actions may have greater consequences than others, and you’ll have to deal with those. Poor behaviors, especially those you do on a consistent basis, can destroy friendships and break down relationships. Some relationships will need to be put to rest because some behaviors are too painful for the other person to deal with or forgive. But don’t let that keep you from getting up the next morning and trying again.

Remember that making shifts in a new direction isn’t something that happens overnight, and it’s not easy. It’s hard work, exhausting at times, and you may hit places of doubting whether or not you can ever behave any differently.  Stay in the fight. Your progress may be slow, but well worth the effort.  Your sense of self-value, knowing that you have control over how you act, is empowering and will open you up to healthier, happier relationships.  You got this.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world, as in being able to remake ourselves.” — Mahatma Gandhi

 

 

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