Why do we get stuck in negative cycles, repeating the same bad behavior again and again? Let’s look at the function in the dysfunction. What good comes from the negative behavior? No one makes bad choices for bad reasons. They engage in negative behavior because it makes them feel better in some way. There’s some “function” in the dysfunctional behavior.
Think about a time when you did something you believe is wrong. Why did you engage in that behavior even though you knew it was something you wanted to avoid?
Let’s take yelling for example. We have determined that we do not want to yell at our kids when we are trying to gather everyone to leave for the day, but why do we find ourselves yelling over and over again? There’s function in the dysfunction. Yelling works, right? If we want to get someone’s attention, and talking isn’t doing the trick, yelling seems to do the job. However, does it work well in the long run? No. That’s why we call this the function in the dysfunction. If we really want to overcome yelling, we can deconstruct our behavior, asking ourselves, “What needs are met by yelling?” As we gain understanding about our needs for control, respect, obedience, safety, etc. we can then look for long-term solutions.
For example, if we find that yelling meets a need to get someone’s attention, earning the respect that we feel we deserve, can we begin to unpack whether or not yelling actually builds respect? It may gain obedience, but it leaves an unmet need rather than building respect.
Instead, we can look for ways to get obedience and respect. Now that we look at the unmet needs, we can work to meet those needs in a healthier way. If we speak with our children when all of us are calm, discussing our expectations about how we should leave, and if we remember to implement the plan, we will see some results. If expectations are clear, and especially if verbal encouragement is provided (sometimes small rewards can help as well. For example, if everyone can get into the car by 7:30, we can listen to a certain song.) Tracking behavior with simple construction paper and tally marks can help as well.
But this technique is not simply a parenting technique. Let’s say you’re tempted to have an affair. What’s the function in the dysfunction? You have an unmet need, and the affair quickly meets a need that you feel is going unmet in your marriage. In the short term, if may be easier to meet a need by an affair, but in the long term, it will wreck your life. What if you deconstruct your emotions and behavior?
What is the function in your dysfunctional behavior?
What is the function in your family member’s dysfunctional behavior? There is function. It does not excuse the behavior. Our behavior can lead to maladaptive behavioral responses in ourselves and our loved ones. Or, we can seek to understand ourselves, ask for what we want and need, and make a plan to increase functional behavior. This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and a great amount of effort. But you can do it.