Do You Wonder Why You Do What You Do?

Conscious and unconscious forces can push us to behave in unintended ways.

Posted Jul 17, 2020

David Griff, used with permission
Source: David Griff, used with permission

Do you sometimes wonder why you do what you do? After a promise to yourself to eliminate sugar, do you find yourself eating a piece of chocolate cake? After intending to spend your morning working on taxes, do you find yourself reading to your preschooler? After expecting to fill the weekend with a thorough overhaul of the basement or garage, do you find yourself hiking on nearby trails? After carefully planning a week’s worth of dinners, have you put the can of salmon back on the shelf and pulled out the frozen scallops? Have you gotten into the car to go to the market and found yourself instead visiting an aging relative?

How aware are you of what motivates you to behave in ways you have not intended? The above examples can be the result of either internal or external forces. (Yes, even the chocolate cake, if your body knows the states that serious sugar and excellent chocolate can chemically create in your body…)

With time and attention, you can learn to identify the source of your motivation. When does it stem from what is going on within you? Perhaps a sensation or emotion within your body is pushing you to fill a need, either to secure something that feels lacking or to avoid a troubling sensation or emotion. Either condition can prod your unconscious to point you towards an unintended behavior. If you can sit still long enough to investigate what is going on inside of you, you may be able to identify the origin of your impulses. Common sources, well-known to those who practice 12-step programs, are hunger, anger, loneliness, feeling tired.   

Try this exercise. Sit still in a comfortable position and take a few deep breaths. Allow yourself to relax into your body so that sensations can arise. What do you feel? Are you hungry? Your body will let you know when desire is related to a sensation of emptiness. The chocolate cake is only one solution. Perhaps you need to go deeper to be able to find a less destructive, more positive, and perhaps more relevant solution. What are you hungry for? Is it even food? If you crave bananas, are you lacking potassium? If you yearn for pretzels, do you need sodium? Chocolate could signal a yearning for stimulation or for pleasure, a reliable activation of the reward centers in your brain as the cocoa helps release endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, even caffeine. Your body may be telling you that something is missing, whether it is nutritional or emotional. Do you really want food? Or are you yearning for a reward, a pleasure, a respite?

You might even be feeling an internal hunger to avoid an experience you expect to be unpleasant. Were you dreading the concentration required to work on your taxes or the memories that the past year’s experiences might evoke? Remember the Premack Principle: You can get anyone to do almost anything by pairing it with a less attractive alternative. You may not love reading Frog and Toad for the umpteenth time but it sure beats working on your taxes! Cleaning the garage or basement? Who wouldn’t prefer fresh air? And scuttling the needed marketing trip? Are you yearning for human company, either because you can cheer up someone else and thus feel super-competent or because you are starving for companionship, affection, or appreciation? 

The second set of internal triggers are anger and other “negative” emotions. (All emotions serve to provide us with information that can be valuable as we choose how to live our lives.) When your body is filled with a negative emotion and you just want the feelings to dissipate, you well may gravitate to an activity that will dilute or distract you from the anger, sadness, fear, or pain. In this instance, avoidance is royal; it can feel highly adaptive. Perhaps walking or running off the adrenaline that makes you want to lash out is a more productive response than screaming at someone you love or work with. Perhaps a period of listening to music will create a shift from emotions of fear or anxiety. Perhaps doing the laundry or cleaning a closet will soften feelings of helplessness, giving you a needed confidence to tackle a challenging task. Best of all, perhaps sitting with the unpleasant feelings and allowing the sensations to run through you as their chemicals weaken will be the most effective response of all. Those who meditate appreciate the impermanence of emotional responses.

David Griff, used with permission
Source: David Griff, used with permission

Loneliness is an often-unrecognized source of internal “push”. We are hard-wired for human (or animal) contact, both close personal relationships and those that are more formal social ones. When deprived of human contact, our craving can lead us down the path to countless unintended behaviors. We can find ourselves with an impulse to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a supermarket line, to feel an attraction to a friend we had not heard from in a long time, to “need” the warmth of a hug or a cuddle with a pet or a person. Check your body temperature. Are you feeling cold, a yearning for some warmth? The research of psychologist John Bargh and his colleagues has demonstrated that unconscious forces may well be at play! If the need is connection, think through possible responses that would not undermine other needs you might have. 

Finally, an impulse can come from unacknowledged exhaustion. We live in a world of speeding expectations. Getting “caught up” with demands can feel impossible while the inputs constantly pile up, overwhelming our own outputs. Especially for conscientious people, doing the “responsible” thing, rising to fulfill the demands of others, can lead to overwork and exhaustion. The need to give your drive system a rest goes unheeded; pleasure, restoration, balance go by the wayside. Sheer depletion can create the internal need drawing you towards an activity that can soothe, restore softness and receptivity to neurons that feel fried. A period of meditation can work to restore, as can sleep, rest following an exercise workout, a shift in focus from external demands to internal attention, as in a yoga or journaling session. Perhaps your need is simply to allow yourself to breathe, to be compassionate towards your essentially human status and limitations.

Source: Claudio_Scott/Pixabay

Of course, these are only internal sources of motivation. Those outside of us—the appealing look of that chocolate cake, the gorgeous day that follows a period of rainy ones, the plea for a visit from an older relative—can also lead us to do what we do. Next time I will explore some of the factors that lie outside of our bodies and that can motivate us to behave in ways that may sometimes surprise us.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Stockbusters/Shutterstock


Bargh, J. (2017). Before You Know It. Atria Books.