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Considering the Consequences

Christy Matta, M.A.

Do you ever wonder why you or those you care about act in unhealthy or problematic ways? Why do some overeat or eat unhealthy foods? Why do people find themselves addicted to substances, over spending, shouting at their children or engaging in self harm? Most problem behaviors, aren't planned or purposeful. They often are a result of extreme emotions. However, emotion alone does not always explain them. Other factors contribute to their continuation.

dominoes falling downThe world can be viewed as interconnected, with actions having an impact on your surroundings and vice versa. In order to better understand your actions, you need to look beyond yourself to contextual factors.

When investigating problem behaviors or attempts to implement more effective solutions, it is necessary to attend to the context surrounding the behavior.

Often when people struggle to change habitual problem behaviors they turn their frustration inward and consider themselves lazy, unmotivated or hopeless. But there are unintended consequences to our actions that actually make us more likely to engage in problem behaviors again and again. When you want to change your eating, spending or self harm, but find yourself repeatedly returning to it, against your better judgment, there are many possible environmental influences. What happens just after we engage in a problem behavior often has more of an impact than we realize.

Take self-harm, for example. Most people who engage in self-harm describe experiencing overwhelming and debilitating emotion prior to the self-harm. Afterwards, they describe a brief respite from painful emotion. For many, initial incidents of self-harm are accompanied by expressions of concern from those around them. In this scenario there are two unintended consequences to the self-harming behavior that likely impact its continuation. Both the reprieve from intense, painful emotion and the addition of care and concern from others increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.

When you want to change how you respond to problems in your life, instead of blaming your motivation, consider the context in which they occur. Some consequences increase or strengthen a behavior by adding something positive, like caring and concern from others. Other consequences increase behavior by removing something negative, like extreme and painful emotion.

The immediate effect of your action is just one of the contextual factors to consider, but it is important and often ignored. If you're stuck in a cycle of problem behavior, pay attention to what happens just after the behaviors occurs. You might find that context is more important than you thought.