The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions – Positive Intentions Behind Negative Behaviours

When working with unhelpful or unwanted behaviours it can be helpful to consider the original purpose or intention that the behaviour evolved to serve. One of the presuppositions of neuro linguistic programming (NLP) is that every behaviour has some positive intention behind it, or in other words it has at least at sometime served a positive purpose. NLP is of course a theory and this is a supposition not a proven fact. It does seem sensible, however, to assume that as human beings we seek to behave in ways that meet our needs, that is we do not deliberately self sabotage ourselves.

Accepting that we originally derived our behaviour in order to meet a need does not mean that we have to like or accept the behaviour. Indeed it may now be unhelpful or destructive to ourselves or others. Nevertheless, if we can identify and accept the positive intention that was behind it, this can help us to find more compassionate approach to change and one that results in changes that are more likely to be maintainable.

For example a person may overeat in order to meet the need for self-soothing, the need to ally boredom, or the need to be distracted from difficult thoughts or feelings. Recognising these needs allows us to consider whether they are any longer being served by the behaviour. It is much more likely that change can be sustained if alternative ways of meeting these needs can be found. When a behaviour, though unhelpful is continuing to meet a need this is also termed a ‘secondary gain’. For example secondary gains from anger might be feeling energised, feeling in control, or being able to maintain an emotional distance from others.

Secondary gains are often about getting more of something (e.g. power or attention) or about avoiding something we don’t like facing (e.g. difficult emotions, doing something that we are not confident about.)

Whilst we can sometimes recognise the positive intention of our behaviour at other times we may not be consciously aware of this. This is often the case when behaviours began in childhood. Children generally have less choice than adults when it comes to making meaning of their experience and meeting their emotional needs. For example the child who growing up in an unpredictable environment might meet their need to feel safe by striving to always behave perfectly or avoiding attention. This may result in the persistence of unwanted perfectionist or avoidant behaviour in later life.

As we grow our awareness of the world develops allowing for new meanings and choices to be made. Sometimes a part of us get stuck unable to move on this way. The therapeutic space is one in which we can start to recognise this and create for ourselves new meanings choices and behaviour.