The Positive Intention of Negative Behavior

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All behavior has behind it some intention and some purpose. Behavior is creative and strives to meet a need or fulfill a want. However, the behavior may appear to be irrational and dysfunctional from a “normal” perspective. For example, it’s certainly not logical for self sabotage to be in some way helpful or useful, but it often is. Self sabotage can protect a person from facing success which can be terribly frightening. I’ve worked with several college students who suffered with text anxiety. They knew the information cold but when it came time to take the test, they would freeze up, do poorly and get a C or worse on the test. In just about every case, after some discussion, it became clear that if they were to get an A on the test they would feel the pressure to keep it up and by only getting C’s, that pressure was eliminated. They sabotaged their success to avoid stress and pressure. There is a positive intention in that – it is somewhat protective. Now, the problem was no longer text anxiety but rather the pressure and stress of maintaining success, which was addressed.

Another common example is a child who misbehaves in the home. In many cases the misbehavior is tied to parental conflict. When the parents are fighting or in some form of conflict, the child misbehaves in an attempt to draw the attention away from their conflict and to the child. And, it often works. If parents are squabbling about something, when the child misbehaves, the squabbling stops and they have to focus on the child’s behavior. There is a very positive intention in that misbehavior! Even if parents are not in conflict, a child’s behavior is often a means of getting attention. In a child’s mind, negative attention is often better than no attention at all. For a child, gaining parental attention is a positive intention. Or, take a situation in which an adolescent is involved in gang activity. The gang offers a sense of belonging which the adolescent may not get at home. The motivation to belong has behind it a very positive intention.

Emotional states such as depression and anxiety can also have at their basis a positive intention. Depression can keep a person from facing difficult challenges in their life. Although this is avoidance, it is also protective. A person with fragile self confidence may feel threatened by the possibility of failure and rather than acknowledge that and work to improve their confidence, they simply create a situation wherein they are not able to meet that challenge – they become depressed. The depression is protecting their sense of confidence. Granted, this is somewhat irrational. But, the mind is a funny place and can “make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” The same is true for anxiety or panic attacks. The positive intention behind these emotional/behavioral experiences can in some way be highly protective. Obsessiveness too can be protective in that it occupies the mind with recurring thoughts about something irrational while something else more important, more pressing, but which may also be painful or difficult to deal with, is pushed aside. Protection is a very powerful motivator and although we may protect ourselves in odd ways, the underlying intention is still protection, which is positive.

Even some horrific behaviors such as rape or murder can be viewed as having a positive intention behind them, although there is no argument that the behavior itself is unacceptable. These behaviors are almost always an expression of power and control. Rape is not about sex and murder most often does not have as its goal the ending of the other person’s life. The goal in these cases, more often than not, is to experience a sense of power and control and that, in itself, is a positive intention because we all need to feel, to some degree, a sense of power and control over our life. People who strive to experience power and control through these types of behaviors are clearly maladjusted. But, it’s hard to argue against the positive intention of seeking a sense of power and control. The question is how can we best satisfy that intention, without harming others? Wars are fought to try and ensure security. Who would say that seeking security is not a positive goal? Destroying “enemies” is about seeking safety. Who would say that safety is not a positive objective? Suicide is an escape from intolerable pain. Or, in some cases to escape dishonor. Those are not negative intentions. That course of action is so often not a wise choice; yet, the underlying motivation is positive.

Despite the fact that so much of our negative behaviors arise from underlying motivations which are reasonable and, in some cases, even noble, we too often focus on the behavior. We criticize and condemn behaviors without considering the needs from which those behaviors arise. This is not to suggest that we should condone such behaviors. But, we could, and should, place much more emphasis on correction than on punishment. For, one of the hallmark qualities of being human is our capacity to be corrected, to adjust, to change….given the proper education and support. We can learn better ways to satisfy the intentions which give rise to our behaviors.

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