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How to Control Your Irrational Behaviors

Unless you’re the first entirely sane person on the planet, you’re carrying around your own suitcase full of crazy. And in order to successfully face down another person’s crazy, you first need to deal with your own irrational behaviors. This isn’t a comfortable thing to contemplate. In fact, right now you may be feeling a strong urge to skip this chapter and get on to other people’s crazy (which is much more fun to think about). However, you can’t get through to another person if you aren’t seeing things clearly yourself.

Viewing reality through a distorted filter can lead to very bad outcomes...in any aspect of life. It can keep you from listening to people. It can steer you to wrong solutions. And when you’re talking to “crazy,” it can set you up for a big fall. Before you tackle crazy, you need to identify the ideas that distort your view of the world. In this case, I’m talking about unconscious messages you’ve internalized as a result of your life experiences, especially during childhood.

Our early experiences help to define how sane we are. Ideally, we’d all receive perfect nurturing, and as a result we’d be perfectly sane. But in reality, none of us comes through our early years completely unscathed, even if we have the best of caregivers. As a result, we all carry around some negative messages that skew the way we see reality. For instance, you may have internal messages that tell you:

  • “No matter what I do, I’ll never be good enough.”
  • “I need people to take care of me.”
  • “I can’t trust people.”
  • “People will hurt me.”
  • “I’d better not take chances.”

These hidden ideas will cloud your view of the irrational person you’re trying to reach. For example, if you grew up with an abusive father, you may view a mildly irrational spouse as dangerous. Or if you were coddled, you may unconsciously feel anger toward a demented elderly parent who can no longer protect you from everything and—worse yet—is now your responsibility.

That’s why before you lean into someone else’s crazy, you need to take a little time to explore your own. When you identify your irrational ideas and behaviors, you’ll be better equipped to view someone else’s irrationality clearly. And here’s another reason to investigate your own crazy: If you’re dealing with an irrational person who knows you very well—a parent, a child, or a spouse, for instance—the most powerful weapon that person will use to defend his crazy is to attack your crazy. Just like the irrational people you’re trying to reach, you have buttons as a result of the negative messages you’ve internalized. Irrational people will find those buttons, and they will push them as hard and ruthlessly as they can.

To help prevent situations like this, you need to inoculate yourself by identifying as many of your own negative messages as you can. When you spot them, take steps to neutralize them. Here’s how: Schedule some quiet time when you can think without interruption. Then begin with the following two exercises.

2 Exercises to Control Your Irrational Behaviors

Exercise 1: Back to the Future

This exercise will empower you to spot many of the crazy ideas you’re carrying around in your head. When you bring these ideas from your past out into the open and analyze them, they’ll begin to lose much of their hold over you. In addition, you’ll be able to identify your default responses to various situations and decide if your defaults are serving you well or not. Once you’ve finished this exercise, you’ll see things more clearly—and you’ll have fewer buttons for irrational people to push.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Think about and then write down the most important events in your life. Make your list from these possibilities or others:
  • Your first day of school
  • Summer vacations
  • Experiences with brothers or sisters
  • Fights you got into
  • Triumphs and losses
  • Your first sexual experience
  • Problems with the law
  • Your most embarrassing/shameful incidents

Start chronologically and describe each event in writing. Don’t edit yourself. Just write down your words as they come to your mind.

  1. Wait a day and then look at your list again. Select the most positive and most negative events that happened in each of the following stages:
  • Your early childhood
  • Your later childhood
  • Your preteen years
  • Your adolescence
  • Your adulthood (if you are old enough, break this down into early, middle, and late adulthood)
  1. For each event, answer these questions:
  • What happened? What were your immediate thoughts, feelings, and reactions?
  • What did the people you looked to for support do or say during or after the event? What did you think and feel as a result?
  • What actions did you take, and what were the consequences?
  • What beliefs did you form about yourself and the people around you, and how safe or unsafe did you feel as a result of the event?
  1. Either on your own or with the help of a friend or partner, ask yourself these questions:
  • Are the beliefs you formed during these experiences limiting how you live today?
  • If the beliefs made sense at the moment after the event, do they serve you well now?
  • Do the beliefs you formed after negative events seem to have more of a grip on you today than the beliefs you formed after positive events?
  • Can you spot any buttons you have as a result of these experiences?
  • Finally, and most important, if an event similar to one you experienced in the past happens again in the future, can you think of a new response and/or different belief that would better serve you?

Exercise 2: Back to the Future—One More Time

For this exercise, follow the same process you did in the first exercise. However, think specifically about events that involved the irrational person you’re trying to reach. As you identify your negative ideas from your past, consider how this person might use your resulting buttons against you.

Once you’ve done these exercises, you’ll have more insight into the negative baggage you’ve been carrying around. And that’s a good start.

Mark Goulston

Starting off as a clinical interventional psychiatrist and UCLA professor of psychiatry, he learned to "hack" into the minds of suicidal and potentially violent individuals to prevent acts of destruction to others or themselves. He next went on to train FBI and police hostage negotiators. His company, The Goulston Group, is hired by Founders, CEO's and Boards of Directors to help them create a "gotta have it!" response to their services and products. Mark is a passionate social activist and is the White co-host on the weekly Black radio show, Zo What Morning Show, where he focuses on leveling the playing field and empowering the African American community.

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