Why do you act that way?

Why do you even act that way?

At least once per day, I make the statement “behavior meets a need” when talking to clients, colleagues or even friends.  (my poor friends, they get therapy even when they don’t want it.  Sorry, pals!)  One of the reasons that I expressed interest in the workings of the mind and then entered into this field is because that is my belief-all behavior is about an unmet need or, as we grow older, a way that we have adapted to meet our needs even if it affects our relationships.


What. The. Heck. Does. That. Mean.


I have written previously about how humans work and how we survive this life.  How we are neurobiologically wired to behave in such a way that the human experience is about just that-survival.  Our emotions function to drive our behaviors so that we can make it from one step to the next and that translates into our needs being met.  Think about it.  When a 2-year-old is cranky and acting a fool, one of the justifications for that behavior is “oh, he/she is just hungry” or “he/she hasn’t had a nap yet.”  Part of that is simply that a 2 year-old has not yet learned to regulate their emotions but part of that is the fact that said two year old does not necessarily have the understanding or the words to say “hey there, I am a little hungry, would you mind making me a sandwich?”  or “hmmmmm I think it is about nap time, isn’t it?  Better get Mr. Teddy Bear ready.”  Instead, their brain tells them to act out so that their caregiver knows something is wrong and thus uses their deductive reasoning to figure out what this cranky pants kid needs.  It is really pretty simple-you have a need, so you have a behavior and your need gets met.


This does not change when we enter into our older years.  This is true whether I am talking about adulthood or adolescent-hood, it is just that the needs change as our bodies evolve and the life stage changes.  Are you familiar with Mr. Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs?  Here is the jist-we have some needs as humans and if those needs are not met, it impacts us and our ability to live a fulfilled life deeply.  The term hierarchy refers to the idea that these needs have an order of importance from the basic physiological needs of food, water, warmth and rest to needs for safety, belonging and love, esteem, and self-actualization.  Although I think Mr. Maslow’s point is that we all have needs in each category as humans, I would like to point out that as small children, our parents are in charge of them.  This is important for when we don’t have the words or the ability to meet even our basic needs.  As we grow and develop, we slowly start to take over responsibility for doing things like feeding ourselves and keeping ourselves safe, but the basic idea that it is our behavior that creates a scenario in which those needs are met does not change.  When we are two, that behavior might look like a temper tantrum, but when we are 12 or 22 or 32 or 42, that looks a little bit different.  Instead of slamming our whole body to the ground (my parents used to refer to this as “the death fall”) to indicate that something is wrong, perhaps we break a rule to get some attention, or use a substance to numb some overwhelming feelings or tell a lie to escape getting trouble at school or work.  Although the needs change and the behaviors change-the concept pretty much stays the same.


Why is this important?  So that we can look at people behaving inappropriately and say “awh, it is totally okay for you to act like that-you are trying to meet a need.”  Um, no.  I actually think this is important as it pertains to the relationship we have with ourselves.  I cannot speak for the whole world, but I know that I struggle a bit with personalizing it when someone in my life is behaving a certain way.  With this line of thinking, guess what?  That behavior is NOT ABOUT ME!  It is about them and their attempt to meet a need.  In this case, having awareness of that is half the battle.  Does it stop hurt feelings?   No.  Do I intend to mean that we need to let it go if someone is being hurtful to us?  Also no.  Those things perhaps require a little deeper conversation than can be had in the words of a blog.  I do think, however, that looking at the words and behaviors of others allows us to find a little compassion for the world we live in and, hopefully, also find some compassion for ourselves in the process.

With Gratitude, Jessica Brubaker

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