People often ask mental health professionals whether or not something in their lives should be viewed as a serious problem. 'Is it a problem that I have casual sex?" "Is it a problem that I eat a lot of ice cream?" "Are my long workouts healthy, or are they a problem?"
In my experience, the easiest way to initially self assess whether or not the activity you are concerned about is problematic is to ask yourself the following two simple questions:
1. Does it cause personal distress?
Maladaptive behavior is often accompanied by negative feelings. If something is weighing on your mind, occupying your thoughts, causing you to cry or to feel shame, it is a problem.
Take the issue of casual sex as an example. If a person feels shame and regret after a one-night stand, then that behavior is a problem for them as it is causing their quality of life to decrease. However, another person may engage in the exact same behavior and leave the one-night-stand feeling happy and renewed. For the first individual, casual sex is a problem; for the second person it’s not.
I recently gave a lecture on disordered eating and a student approached me afterwards with a question. Once a week her husband takes her children out, giving her a much needed break. She told me that she spends those evenings watching TV and eating ice cream for dinner. She wondered “is this a problem?” I countered her question with one of my own and asked her how she felt about it. She replied she loved it! According to my student, she normally ate a healthy diet but her weekly ritual of ice cream entrees left her feeling indulgent and relaxed.
2. Does it impact daily functioning?
Sometimes a negative behavior does not cause someone distress, yet it still gets in the way of their daily functioning.
Seventeen year-old Aaron works out almost every day, often spending more than an hour in the gym. His parents tell him that they are concerned with what appears to be compulsive behavior, bordering on obsession. Aaron counters his parents concerns by noting that he enjoys his time in the gym and the results of his efforts. He tells his parents that he feels great when exercising, however, he realizes that when he doesn’t hit the gym he feels distressed. In this instance, Aaron needs to take a look at how his working out is impacting his daily functioning. Is he spending less time with family and friends? Is his exercising causing him to neglect his schoolwork? If so, he has a problem that needs to be addressed.
Back to the first example, casual sex in and of itself may not cause a person to feel distressed. However, if they find themselves avoiding a colleague or two at work and testing positive for another STI, it is likely a problematic behavior. And if my ice-cream loving student is suffering health problems from her consumption, then she has a problem that needs to be addressed.
If you are wondering if there is a problem in your life you need to address, start by asking yourself these two simple questions and give yourself an honest answer. If you do think you are ultimately facing a problem you dont think you can resolve on your own, a professional can help you work it out.