Are Your Behaviours Helping or Harming You?
(3.5 min read)
Much of the time, we engage in a behaviour in an attempt to escape or avoid something undesirable, or to obtain something desirable (O’Neill et al., 1997). When a behaviour serves us well, we repeat it, and when it doesn’t serve us well, we don’t repeat it. This tendency can be either helpful or harmful, however. Being repeatedly kind to others, for example, is generally considered to be a healthy behaviour because it helps us make and maintain friendships, thereby allowing us to avoid loneliness and obtain an overall sense of wellbeing in the long-run. Drinking in excess, on the other hand, is generally considered to be a harmful, or unhelpful, behaviour because it’s detrimental to our physical health and relationships in the long-run, and it prevents us from getting to the root of whatever problem is driving the drinking to begin with. The behaviour is reinforcing, however, because it allows us to avoid uncomfortable emotions and obtain an immediate sense of pleasure.
Harmful behaviours can take many shapes and form, but unfortunately, we often fail to see them in ourselves. This is because there’s a fine line between what makes a behaviour helpful and what makes it unhelpful. In other words, many times we think we’re engaging in a healthy behaviour, when in actual fact, it’s preventing us from moving forward in life.
How do we distinguish between helpful and harmful behaviours?
As a general rule of thumb, consider the following definition:
An unhelpful behaviour is that which interferes with our long-term ability to function well in day-to-day life.
Going on Instagram, for example, might be considered healthy if it’s limited to, say, 15 minutes a day, promotes creative inspiration, relaxation, and maybe some social contact. Instagraming for hours each night, on the other hand, is probably not very healthy if it prevents you from moving on with your evening, gets in the way of spending quality time with loved ones, or simply makes you feel worse about yourself as a result of comparing your life to those of other seemingly “perfect” Instagram users.
A form of problem behaviour that is very common but particularly hard to detect is avoidance. Avoidance is a strategy adopted by many individuals as a means of, as the name suggests, avoiding uncomfortable circumstances, and ultimately, avoiding the uncomfortable emotions that accompany these circumstances. This phenomenon is called Experiential Avoidance and has been popularized in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes, Strosahl & Wilson, 1999). According to ACT theory, the chronic “avoider” thinks their avoidance of social gatherings, for example, is healthy because it feels comfortable in the short-term. However, as in the case of the drinker, short-term gains are only temporary and fail to get to the root of the real problem, such as feelings of self-consciousness, sadness, anxiety, or even boredom.
So with an idea of what harmful behaviours look like, how do you know if your behaviour is healthy? It’s actually really hard to find a definition of a “healthy behaviour.” In fact, I’ve never actually come across such a definition myself.
Instead, I’ve come up with my own, which goes something like this:
A healthy behaviour is that which is beneficial in the long-run, not only for the person engaging in the behaviour, but also for family and loved ones of that person (in the form of cooperation).
In the case of an individual who seemingly has a lot of “problems” in their life, and who vents about these problems on a continual basis, this person may be causing more harm as a result of dwelling on the negative, which thereby reinforces a negativity bias in their thinking style and makes it more likely that perceived negative events will be observed in the future. Simultaneously, loved ones who are at the receiving end of this negativity “dumping” become burned out, and important relationships are negatively affected. This further reinforces the belief that “bad things always happen to me.”
A healthy variation of this behaviour might look more like this: The venting session is limited to maybe 15-20 minutes per day, allowing for a sort of cathartic relief as well as for social support to be obtained, while also leaving room for distraction. By replacing prolonged venting sessions with the planned experiencing of positive activities, feelings of joy and relaxation can be experienced in place of ongoing anger and frustration. The experience of more positive emotions can, in turn, leave little need for venting sessions, and puts a lot less strain on important relationships. In the end, this leaves everyone feeling a lot happier.
Of course, it’s usually a lot easier said than done. Nobody’s perfect so we’re all bound to make some unwise behavioural choices in our lifetime, but we can learn from our mistakes and try to ask ourselves the following questions when we’re faced with choices in the future:
1| “Is this behavior going to help or harm me in the long-run?”, and,
2| “Is this behavior going to help or harm others, particularly my loved ones?”
Ultimately, it also helps to keep in mind the middle-path as taught in Buddhist practice – the idea of balance and moderation.
Is it alright for me to unwind at the end of a long day with a glass of wine? In most cases, sure! (unless you have a liver disease or are a recovering alcoholic, of course). But, also try to be aware of your emotions and be mindful of the above questions when you think about pouring yourself a second or third glass.
Likewise, is it alright for me to complain about my boss after work? Yes, of course. But, try to get it off your chest and then move on. Will I, and my husband/wife/partner, really benefit from talking so much about what my boss said or did this morning? Or, would our relationship be better strengthened by, maybe, watching a fun movie together or talking about our upcoming vacation instead?
At the end of the day, you’re the only one who can decide which behaviours are worth your time and energy.
The question is, which ones are you going to choose?
Hayes, S. C.; Strosahl, K. D.; Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
O’Neill, R. E., Horner, R. H., Albin, R. W., Sprague, J. R., Storey, K. & Newton, J. S. (1997). Functional assessment and program development for problem behavior: A practical handbook (2nd Ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.