You know those times when it feels you are running but without actually getting anywhere - even though you are doing the 'right' thing?
I want to suggest a different way of looking at this. What if WHAT we are actually doing is not as important as we think it is?
And instead the WHY of that behavior actually mattered more than we think?
In the approach I use, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we don’t look so much at behaviour but at the function of that behaviour in a specific context.
Or in other words:
What is motivating or driving this behavior in the right now?
We even have a snazzy acronym for this: WTF or What’s the Function?
This is a very different way of looking at human behavior.
For example, if someone is really into healthy eating asking WTF of that choice can yield a lot more insight than simply judging this as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior.
Using this example, there are many different reasons we can be obsessed with healthy eating.
This might be driven by:
I need to look a certain way in order to fit in and be loved - and this diet helps me achieve that.
I need to hold myself on a very tight leash so my life doesn’t fall apart - and controlling my eating is one of the ways I do this.
Maybe improving my eating will help me improve as a person and I’ll finally stop hating myself.
I need to punish myself by depriving myself of certain foods.
If I eat healthy enough I will avoiding getting sick / getting old.
I know I feel better when I eat healthy and I want to choose what is best for me.
So again we take this behaviour: Eating healthy.
And when we examine the WHY behind it, or what is driving it, we have two main categories.
Away moves or Toward moves.
Are we moving away from something uncomfortable or toward something that matters?
Are we trying to get away from unwanted thoughts like:
I am not enough.
I need to control myself.
I need to avoid getting sick or old.
And emotions that go with these thoughts like anxiety, shame and even self-loathing?
Or are we moving toward values - things that matter to us - like:
Wanting to feel our best.
Wanting to treat our bodies well.
Perhaps you will notice the same behavior has a different feel to it depending on the WHY behind it.
Because here’s the deal:
When we are trying to avoid something - when it is about getting AWAY from something in our internal village of thoughts, emotions, sensations - we can spend our life running without feeling like we are ever getting somewhere.
We are constantly in motion, seemingly doing the ‘right’ things and yet…
We are simply getting away from something and not necessarily moving towards anything. Even when we have goals (the latest fad diet! a marathon!), once we reach these goals, we are left with a feeling of emptiness or what next?
We are like a rabbit being chased by a fox. The rabbit’s energy is focused on just getting away. But where is it going and will it find some yummy grass on its way? It doesn’t matter in this context because the poor rabbit is simply trying to avoid something unpleasant (in this case, getting eaten).
Think of the same rabbit moving towards something it wants. The rabbit might be doing the same behaviour (moving / running) but this time it is driven by appetite, by a desire to eat something yummy, to seek food. It has an aim that is life-nourishing.
Fluffy (as I decided to call this imaginary rabbit) is not simply trying to get away from something but is moving towards what matters.
The thing that is tricky with most situations when you are a human and not a rabbit though, is that the distinction can be quite subtle. And often we are not aware of the beliefs and emotions driving our behaviour.
Here is a more complex example.
Helping others is very valued in our society.
And yet, like any behavior, we can only truly understand what is happening in the context in which it developed.
If we look at the WHY behind it, there are many potential motives:
I want to help others because this is the kind of person I want to be - it is a value I hold dear.
I feel unloveable and by being there for others, maybe they will like me / accept me.
If I am always the one helping others, I don’t have to admit I have needs.
If I am always the one helping others, I can keep them at a distance because I don’t have to reveal anything about me or show any weakness. I am the one in control.
I only ever felt valued as a child when I helped others so I continue to do so because this is the only way I believe it is possible to be loved.
If I help others, they will help me without my needing to ask for it.
It might feel painful to read this. To examine more deeply the WHY behind your actions.
I know. And I know this is especially painful when what we do feels like a source of pride. And yet, when we are doing things as more of an Away move, we can never truly win because we are mostly trying to avoid painful stuff - not fully choosing to do something because it matters to us.
We can always make a subtle shift in how we approach the same behaviour though. And the first step is to notice whether what you are doing feels like more of an Away or Toward move.
Any behaviour is usually a mix of both Away and Toward elements. Yet which feels more dominant?
Here is a hint:
Away moves have a rigidity about them - they feel like rules or obligations. They are held very tightly. For example: I must ALWAYS eat healthy, otherwise I am a bad person.
Or: I don’t feel I have a choice, I am always the one helping others.
AWAY moves are driven by a core belief around ‘I am not enough’.
Towards moves have more flexibility - they are driven by values and are consciously chosen. They are held more lightly. For example: I WANT to eat healthy most of the time because I know this is when I feel my best AND I can also make less healthy choices when this feels kinder towards myself.
Or: I want to help others because I want to live in a world where people help each other. Realistically, I sometimes also need to say no when my own well-being is at stake. And it goes both ways: I can also ask for help in return without judging myself for this.
TOWARD moves are driven by a core belief of ‘this matters to me’ or ‘this is the kind of person I want to be’ - even if there is still anxiety / fear / beliefs around not being good enough / doubts - this is discomfort I can allow to be there, I can make room for it because this behaviour matters enough to me.
Realistically, probably nobody does TOWARD moves all the time.
So if you realize that a behaviour is actually more of an AWAY move than a TOWARD move, that’s OK. You can always change this.
Because what if the pain / discomfort is not something you need to run away from? What if thoughts and emotions, even if they are uncomfortable - actually do not have the power to stop us from doing what matters?
And what if, instead, we allowed ourselves to make choices based on doing what matters to us?
Even if it means acting AS IF we were enough, AS IF we were already worthy of love and belonging?
Don’t move the way fear makes you move.
Move the way love makes you move.
Move the way joy makes you move.