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Frequently a client will come into my office talking about their anxiety, perfectionism, worry, inner critic, basically some habit they want to change. And one of my favorite questions to ask is “How is it serving you?’ Frequently clients will look at me stunned and say “what?!?!” “Serving me, this behavior is driving me crazy, I want to change it that is why I am here!”. And then I quickly explain that even negative behaviors ‘serve’ us in some way.
- They protect us from getting hurt.
- Keep our fears at bay.
- Keep us small so we don’t have to risk.
- Keep us hopped up so we don’t have to face ourselves.
- Keep us energized so we feel like we accomplish more.
We get something from the negative behavior. Being able to name what you get helps us in two ways.
1. Until you can name what you are getting or how it serves you…you won’t be able to change it. As long as you are ‘getting’ something from the behavior why would you want to change it? So even if it driving you crazy to be overly anxious secretly, you enjoy that your anxiety allows you to accomplish a lot. So in order to make any change you have to deal with that secret belief. You have to look at the price you pay to potentially ‘get more done’. And then ask yourself the truth—are you really getting more done or are you just feeling like that because you are so hopped up and anxious.
2. By paying attention to how the behavior is serving you it takes the ‘evilness’ off of the behavior. It is hard to change something when we have demonized the behavior. Let’s take a basic example: You want to change the fact that you tend to run from thing to thing to thing and spend your days frantic. You demonize this behavior telling yourself it is a bad thing and you need to change it. So you try to calmly go about your day, and you have success for many 4 hours and then before long you are frantic again. Now, not only are you frantic but you are beating yourself up for failing and engaging in the negative behavior. So now you are frantic AND haunted by your inner critic.
Let’s go back and say you realize that the frantic behavior serves you by giving you energy because when you stop being frantic you are honestly exhausted so you hop yourself up on to do lists and anxiety to accomplish anything. That isn’t evil that is human. So when you go to change the behavior you know you are going to have to have parameters in place to deal with that exhaustion. For example: Turning off the TV and going to bed earlier, establishing sleep rituals, changing the expectations of what needs to be done in a day, or allowing time for 15 minute power naps in the day.
The point is by looking at how the behavior serves you, rather than demonizing yourself you can start to get at what is underneath the behavior and that is where real change occurs.
Whenever you notice a behavior that annoys you or something you would like to change–ask yourself ‘How is this serving me?’