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The Bad Behaviour Problem: Why Good People Do Bad Things

Cain Parish

In This Article:

Self-control is harder than you’d think. It can be incredibly challenging to maintain our values in the face of trauma, ancient defense mechanisms, and the temptations that life throws us. This article is all about how good people do bad things. Let’s get started.

A man with a tie on himself struggling with impulse control and bad behaviour.

Table of Contents

The concept of shower thoughts shouldn’t be too foreign to most of you. The running water and consistent, relaxed environment create space for your brain to breathe. We go through something called emotional processing when we give our brain this serenity. In a moment where we’re not distracted by technology, other people or the instance-to-instance of the rest of our life, we come up with some of our most creative or profound ideas. Or, unfortunately, we process some of our most uncomfortable emotions. This article is a result of one of my shower thoughts.

Impulse control is a fickle bastard. We all like to imagine we’re in control of our actions, but when the circumstances allow for it, we are capable of many things that don’t fit the scope of our values or the person we present ourselves as. Things get cheated on, like diets or relationships. We commit acts that hurt other people or ourselves, and when we look back afterwards, our motivations are so deeply murky. Behaviour that has such clarity and certainty in the moment becomes entirely doubt-ridden and impossible to truly justify.

So, why? Why do we commit atrocities that during the light of day, we would absolutely never tolerate in ourselves or others?

The answer, in many cases, lies at the bottom of much journaling, therapy and liquor-fuelled pity parties. Our behaviour lands us in a complex tangle of emotions, and it’s up to us and our shaky support systems to attempt to make sense of it all.

If you’re lucky, your detective work will find a scapegoat, a defense mechanism, habitual action or belief structure that’s been with you since early ages. Identifying and understanding these defense mechanisms are often one of the big breakthroughs that can come from therapy, counselling or coaching.

For example, it’s very important that I feel safe in relationships. My childhood, whether it be parents or peers, didn’t provide me with the stability and consistency in my relationships that I needed to feel completely at ease. Now, when my relationships cause me to feel unstable, insecure or fearful, I cut and run. Or, in some horrible cases, I keep those people at arm’s length. I strike pre-emptively, causing damage to my relationship before risk of harm can befall me.

This is my defense mechanism at work. A fear for my safety based on a single shaky relationship is irrational as an adult. However, once upon a time, for a young child, that connection made absolute sense. My emotional or physical wellbeing was tied very firmly to the quality and consistency of the relationships around me.

Some people would say this defense mechanism is working incorrectly, that it’s some form of maladaptation at play. I disagree. In fact, the problem is that it’s working far too well. It was such a powerful shield to my ego, my sense of self and my emotional regulation that it stuck around long past its use by date.

In my regular life, amongst friends, romantic partners and work colleagues, I don’t feel unsafe. I have values, beliefs and a sense of right and wrong, as many people do. I chose those values very intentionally according to the kind of person I wanted to become.

But, unfortunately, all the self-improvement comes crashing down when a trigger strikes against my archaic forms of self-protection. And this, this is how good people do bad things. Like cornered animals, we snap out and bite those around us, likely people we care for that we would otherwise have no desire to harm.

The feelings surrounding these actions are complex. Ideally, we would like to be self-assured, confident that we are acting in our own best interests 100% of the time. That can’t be the case, unfortunately. Us perfectionists are screwed. 

The only thing we can do is to look inward, to take these instances of behaviour as they arise, and to reverse engineer them, looking for the individual emotions that surface and finding their root.

You may feel guilty for lashing out, or for causing harm to someone you care about. You may feel shame for doing a bad thing. Those feelings need to be accepted and separated from the mental complexity that naturally comes from such a potent psychological trigger. 

It could be that your actions were in line with your own values, but you went about them maliciously and poorly. Be that the case, your guilt needs to separate from the values you wish to keep. You can agree with your rationale whilst disagreeing with your execution. You can hold firm to your own boundaries whilst accepting that you may have done something bad to keep them.

Your behaviour likely doesn’t change the circumstances. Cheating on your diet doesn’t fix the desire for you to lose weight, just like sleeping with someone else in a relationship doesn’t fix your desire for something outside your partner. You can acknowledge your own impulses without judgement, whilst condemning your actions. Feeling a pull for something outside your partner is something to identify and understand. Acting on it, however, can be malicious and reprehensible.

If our goal is to reduce or halt bad behaviour, then we must understand our triggers. Your impulse control works nine times out of ten. You’re not walking around cheating on your diet constantly, at work or when you’re asleep. You cheat on your diet when someone comments on your weight, when that negative self-perception leads to seeking comfort amongst empty calories.

It’s not something that happens overnight. Personal growth and change is a steady process, fraught with mistakes and grey areas. You haven’t sinned for the last time. Whatever drives you to forsake your values in the name of emotional comfort will stay inside of you until you look at it with a microscope and take the steps to fix it. 

But take comfort in that it can be done. We as humans believe in rehabilitation. Forgiveness is a core human value. What kindness you would extend to your friend, neighbour or partner, find a way to extend to yourself. Acting on impulses installed in you as a child is not worthy of self-judgement. Failing to take responsibility for your actions and preventing them from happening again, absolutely is.

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Cain Parish

Cain Parish is the owner of A prolific writer, educator and relationship coach since 2019, he specializes in dating, relationships, emotional intelligence and social skills. He is also the author and creator of the world’s largest and most comprehensive database for dating and relationship advice, which can be found on his website. His first book, I’m Sorry I Egged Your House, is due to be published in 2024.

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