There are times when we do things that just don’t make sense to us. Something happens, and we just find ourselves feeling, thinking, or behaving in ways that we don’t want to. But somehow both the actions and the thoughts and feelings that follow seem involuntary/compulsive. This cycle of acting out and not understanding why can leave you feeling helpless, crazy, or even scared of certain situations or events, perhaps because you fear that you will lose control again and engage in this unwanted behavior no matter how hard you try to fight it. However, sometimes putting these situations under a microscope and really looking at what happened can help shed light on how you got from point A to point B. This type of purposeful self-analysis can also reveal how to step in and create a different outcome next time. The following process of understanding your own behavior is adapted from Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) exercise entitled “Chain Analysis of Problem Behavior.”
- Identify your compulsive behavior.
This could be an actual behavior, such as self harm, binge eating, restricting food intake, or biting your nails. However, it could also be thoughts or feelings, or emotional responses such as panic attacks, lashing out in anger, shutting down, or dissociating. If you’ve chosen to read this, I would guess that you had something in mind when you clicked on it. If not, I would go back to the top and reread the first few sentences of this blog and see if any recent situation comes to mind.
- Identify the prompting event.
A prompting event is an event in your environment (external to yourself) that begins the chain reaction which eventually leads to your problem behavior. It could be the presence of a certain person or type of person, a conflict, criticism, news story, etc. It may be helpful to ask yourself questions such as, “What was happening when I started to recognize something was wrong?” or “Why did this behavior happen today instead of another day?” If you already know what some of your triggers are, start there and see if any of those were present. If you have difficulty identifying your triggers, it might be helpful to work through this process backwards, finding the links from the problem behavior to the prompting event.
- Identify your vulnerability.
What made you more susceptible to being influenced by the prompting event? Vulnerability factors could be within yourself or your environment. Look for things like hunger, negative self-talk, physical illness, substance use, lack of sleep, stressful events or circumstances, boredom, or the presence of strong emotions. Typically, environmental influences are aided by these other factors in order to cause the chain reaction leading to the problem behavior.
- Fill in the blanks.
From the moment the prompting event happened and things started to go south, what sequence of events occurred that eventually led to engaging in your problem behavior? Be as specific and detailed as possible. As stated in #2, it may be easier to start from the behavior and work backwards toward the prompting event. Do whatever makes the most sense to you. These chain links could be actions, body sensations, thoughts, external events, or emotions/feelings. I know it may seem as if there was no time between the prompting event and the behavior, or you have no idea what happened in between, but if you take the time to slow down and really consider what was going on inside and outside, you can usually piece together a logical series of events.
- Consider the compulsive behavior’s benefit and cost.
What does/did the problem behavior do for you? These behaviors usually exist because they bring short term relief. You are not simply acting out or rebelling against yourself or your environment, there is a probably a very real payoff, however brief. Understanding what this payoff is, what relief you are seeking, can help you start figuring out how you may replace the problem behavior with a more helpful and effective solution. However, the behavior likely would not be a problem unless there were long term consequences. Consider these as well. Is the short term relief worth the long term consequences?
- Finally, rework the chain.
Once you have thoroughly analyzed and parsed out your behavior, its goal, and how you got from point A (prompting event) to point B (behavior), you may begin thinking about how to take a different path next time. Look back at the chain you identified in #4, and brainstorm ways those links could have been different. List new, more effective behaviors you may have used; new, more effective responses to events. You cannot change the past, but knowing that there are alternatives and visualizing where those alternatives lead (ideally not to the problem behavior) prepares you and strengthens you for the next time a prompting event occurs. You don’t have to keep engaging in this behavior! There are other ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and once you are aware of these and that they are possible for you, you are freed up to pursue them!
This process can feel overwhelming and hard to tackle on your own. If that’s the case for you, I would love to help! Please email me at LauraL@acorncounseling.services or call 940-222-8703 ext. 705 if you’d like to set up an appointment. I hope to hear from you soon! I have a flexible schedule and discounted sessions for college students.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT skills training handouts and worksheets. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.