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How to Act in Your Best Interests

It’s often easy to see, but so hard to do.

Key points

  • Behavior choices in one’s short-term best interest are elusive; choices of long-term best interest can seem out of the question.
  • Kurt Lewin famously held that behavior is an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces.
  • Change is more likely to occur by reducing the restraints than by increasing the drives.
  • The key to acting in your best interest is to identify the restraining forces and, one by one, eliminate or reduce them.

The hardest thing to achieve in clinical work seems like it should be easy because it’s so obviously common sense. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to convince clients to act in their best interests.

Henny Youngman made the point in an old joke:

A guy goes to a doctor, twists his arm behind his back, and says, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor says, “Don’t do that.”

My clinical practice is centered on recovery from chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse. Incoming clients recognize that it hurts when they resent, criticize, stonewall, yell, name-call, frighten, or shame their partners. Yet they’d persisted in those self-defeating behaviors for years.

Kurt Lewin famously held that behavior is an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Change is more likely to occur by reducing the restraints than by increasing the drives.

The key to acting in your best interest is to identify the restraining forces and, one by one, eliminate or reduce them. The key question for lasting change: What keeps me from acting in my best interest?

Probable answers are:

  1. Ego defense. Functionally speaking, "ego" is how we prefer to regard ourselves and how we want others to regard us. Though values are more central to the sense of self, ego defense typically surpasses value disagreements in emotional intensity. The hard-wired threat-detector embedded in the central nervous system to keep us safe from harm has been commandeered in modern times to protect the ego. No longer about mere loss of status, ego threats can seem wrought with danger.
  2. Validation over empowerment. Empowerment is the ability and confidence to make something in your life better. Validation is understanding and accepting your beliefs and feelings. Seeking validation for self-defeating attitudes is a massive restraint on behaving in your best interest.
  3. Preoccupation with "why." Most of my clients are referred by other therapists. They arrive with a rich vocabulary to describe why they behave the way they do. Their psychological explanations about adverse childhood experiences become self-fulfilling prophecies, restraining behavior in their best interest.
  4. Resentment/Contempt. Resentment and contempt are formidable restraints on behaving in your best interest. Justifying resentment and contempt turns restraints into stone walls.
  5. Focus on not doing it. The brain can’t not do something; it must do something incompatible with what you don’t want to do. For instance, trying not to be resentful or contemptuous is never successful. Trying to look at things from wider perspectives and more compassionately is.
  6. Resource-depletion. When tired, hungry, stressed, angry, anxious, overwhelmed, or impaired by alcohol and drugs, the drive to behave in your best interest deteriorates, automatically strengthening restraining forces. We tend to retreat to primitive coping mechanisms, such as blame, denial, and avoidance.
  7. Autopilot motivations. These are conditioned responses and coping habits. They're restraints to acting in your best interest because they failed in the past. You'll automatically feel like criticizing your partner's choices, despite the repeated failures of criticism to make positive changes in the past.

Reducing Restraints

I'll use a client to illustrate each of the following points. After the initial psycho-educational session, my client set this goal for treatment:

“I want to be more compassionate and loving to my partner, who is still resentful about hurt I inflicted in the past.”

  1. To reduce the restraint of ego-defense, act on your deeper values, not your ego. Driven primarily by values, conflict is always respectful—respect for human dignity is a core value. Disagreements can be disappointing but never personally devaluing. Acting on values fortifies the sense of self and makes self-defeating ego-defense unnecessary.

    My client’s ego defenses make him react negatively to his wife’s resentment. But acting on his values (protecting loved ones) helps him understand that she needs to feel safe before she can drop her defenses. Compassion and respect for boundaries will help her feel safe.

  2. Focus on self-validation. Know who you are and get clear on what you want. Then you can improve, rather than seek validation from others.

    My client focuses on behaving like the person and partner he most wants to be, even when he doesn’t feel like it and without an expectation that his wife will validate him.

  3. Focus on how to reduce restraints. The answer to how will not be in the past. If you solved similar problems or behaved in your best interest in similar contexts in the past, the restraint would not exist.

    My client practices interpreting compassion for his wife as its own reward, thereby reducing the fear of rejection that restrains him. This lessens his neediness, which had rendered him insensitive to boundaries and made his wife feel unsafe.

  4. Everything we resent about loved ones we can also look at more compassionately, and everything that we're compassionate about we could also resent. Choosing compassion will make negotiations about behavior more successful and reduce a major restraint to acting in your best interest.

    My client lists all the resentments and negative judgments he has made about his partner and gives a more compassionate interpretation of each.

  5. Never justify behaviors you want to change. Justifying seizes mental focus and increases the likelihood of repeating mistakes. Worse, adrenaline typically drives self-defeating behaviors. The brain craves adrenaline when resources are low. Justification gives it an excuse to seek adrenaline with the same behavior the next time you’re tired, hungry, stressed, overwhelmed, or impaired. Rather than justify the behavior, practice how you’ll enact the desired change under similar conditions in the future.

    My client practices recognition of his wife’s hurt when she’s resentful, thereby reducing restraints of compassionate behavior.

  6. Make no judgments and take no meaningful action when resources are low. Set times when you're rested and nourished to seek solutions.

    My client practices validating his wife’s feelings and then asking for a specific time to discuss her grievances, when he has the mental and physical resources to give her the attention she deserves.

  7. Reducing the restraints of autopilot judgments requires deliberative consideration of contrary evidence. Whatever negative judgment you hold of your family members, look for contradictory evidence. Truth emerges from dialectic—evidence vs. counter-evidence—not from prejudice.

    My client practices alternative interpretations of negative attitudes about his wife. This softens his emotional demeanor around her and garners a more positive response.

Your Long-Term Best Interest

The autopilot brain is short-term oriented. Reflecting on long-term best interests is a difficult process, due to uncertainty and the number of variables involved. When the past is fraught with pain or failure, people tend to stop thinking about the future. The post, “Regret Prevention” can help.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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