You know you shouldn’t do it. You know that if you keep calling and leaving messages he’s going to think you are needy, or pathetic, or just plain crazy. You know that if you keep asking her if she’s seen her ex-boyfriend, she’s going to think you are insecure, or jealous, or maybe even controlling.
It’s not unusual to feel some insecurity in a relationship – particularly a new one. But showing that insecurity to your partner can be a major turn-off. Looking through their phone log, checking their email, stalking their Facebook page, quizzing them on where they’ve been and who they’ve been with, demanding frequent proof of their love and commitment – these are the kinds of behaviors that smell of desperation, and can easily drive a wedge in an otherwise healthy relationship.
You know you’ve got to stop – but when you act out of insecurity, trying to stop means tackling a powerful psychological force head on. After all, if it were easy, you would have done it by now.
Fortunately, there is a scientifically-proven technique you can use to put an end to your relationship-sabotaging ways. Recent research by Sylviane Houssais, Gabriele Oettingen, and Doris Mayer, shows that two strategies, when used together, create a particularly potent combination for bad habit-fighting: mental contrasting and if-then planning.
Mental contrasting, in a nutshell, involves thinking positively about how it will be when you achieve your goal, while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there. First, you imagine how you will feel attaining your goal (e.g., to stop acting out of insecurity) and then you reflect on the obstacles that stand in your way. For instance, if you want to stop calling your partner constantly, you would start by imagining the sense of calmness you would feel if you could stop giving in to the impulse, and how your self-respect and confidence would grow. You would then spend about five minutes writing down a description of the thoughts and feelings you imagine having.
Next, you would think about what will make not calling difficult – the feelings of neediness, fear, or jealousy that sometimes plague you. Spend another five minutes writing about these challenges.
Studies show that mentally contrasting your goal and the obstacles you’ll face in this way is energizing, and that it helps bring into focus what you need to do to be successful.
Finally, you need to create an if-then plan for overcoming your obstacle. If-then plans spell out exactly when, where, and how you will do it: If I am in this situation, then I will take this action. In their study, the researchers asked participants to create plans that would keep them focused on whatever it is that they are currently doing, rather than focusing on the feelings of jealousy or neediness that generate the impulse to call.
If I am feeling jealous, then I will continue with my ongoing activities.
It’s that simple. If you are feeling needy while you are working, plan to just keep working. If you are feeling jealous when you are out to dinner with your friends and he’s out with his, plan to just focus on enjoying your own meal.
But does it work? Yes - brilliantly. People who used this strategy for a week reported giving in to insecure impulses only about half as often as they had before. And while the control group (who did not use the technique) reported a drop in relationship commitment after two months, those who used mental contrasting with if-then planning reported that their relationships had become more committed.
So you really don’t need to be a victim of your own insecurities – you can learn to control how they are expressed with this very simple but powerful technique. Of course, it’s also a very good idea to work on the source of your insecurity itself – but in the meantime you can keep it from sabotaging your happiness.
For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.
Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.