Do you know why you do the things you do?

Everything we do, we do for a reason. All behavior, no matter how irrational or self-destructive it may seem, serves some kind of emotional purpose. It’s not that somebody “shouldn’t” be acting in a certain way; it’s that they ARE acting that way—to satisfy some personal need.

Even the worst drug or alcohol addict has some objective, however foolish or illogical it may be. Often it’s as straightforward as ‘escape from reality.’ The question to ask about puzzling behavior isn’t, “Why are they doing it?” It’s “What are they getting out of it?”

Think of something you did recently that made no sense to you. ‘Why did I do that?’ you ask. Then change the question to, ‘What did I get out of it?’ (Or, perhaps, ‘What did I THINK I was going to get out of it?’) The answer might not be obvious, but, good, bad or indifferent, there’s a purpose or goal in there somewhere.

The expression, ‘Everything happens for a reason’ is a good one, but not in the sense people usually mean it. In fact, everyone does have a reason for what they do, be it known or unknown, conscious or subconscious, rational or irrational.

Some mental health professionals use the term ‘secondary gain’ to describe the hidden or less obvious reason we do something that on the surface ‘makes no sense.’ Secondary gain refers to motivation, so it’s quite personal, and could be just about anything. Common examples include: getting attention from others, financial gain, feeling a greater sense of personal connection with somebody, or escaping from work, chores or whatever.

Children or young adults with behavioral or emotional problems are no exception. Like everybody else, they do things for a reason. I like to ask, ‘How does the symptom serve the system?’ Or, more directly, ‘What is this person trying to cover up (or achieve) with these symptoms or outrageous behaviors?’ Often, a young child can’t articulate a reason. A teenager can, but either won’t, or hasn’t done the self-reflection necessary to figure it out.

It’s just as true with adults. For example, when a spouse has an affair, it makes sense to ask, ‘What did the affair accomplish?’ Maybe he’s not satisfied with some aspect of his marriage. Or maybe he’s satisfied with some aspects, but not with others, so he had an affair rather than going through a divorce and looking for a new partner. Of course, when viewed critically in the light of day, what he’s doing has serious flaws. But on a subconscious, emotional, half-aware level, it’s easy to see how it could happen. The ‘symptom’ of having the affair served the larger ‘secondary gain’ of getting more satisfaction out of life and love.

Don’t confuse secondary gain with ‘hidden agenda.’ A person has a hidden agenda when she won’t tell you about a motivation she consciously holds. For example, if you have a second home at the beach, someone might casually ask, ‘So, when are you going to the beach this summer?’ On the surface, the question implies an interest in what you’re doing. Yet, the underlying purpose might be to arrange for an invitation. A hidden agenda is not subconscious; the person who holds it is entirely aware of it.

When figuring out if something ‘makes sense,’ it’s important to distinguish between rational sense and emotional sense. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but they often are. You might say, ‘It makes no sense that she would act that way.’ OK, you’re probably right—rationally speaking. But she’s still getting something out of it—so, to her, it made perfect ’emotional’ sense. To understand people, you have to consider both approaches.

A reason for doing something is not always an excuse for doing something. Having an affair because you’re not getting what you want from your marriage is not a justification for lying; it’s just an explanation of why lying seemed like a good idea. Trying to escape painful memories or stressful situations is not an excuse for alcohol or drug abuse; it’s just an explanation of why ‘self-medication’ can be a compelling motivation. Explanations are simply that—not justifications, not condemnations—just explanations.

Figuring out your ‘secondary gain’ can be of practical use. When you know what’s going on in your mind, you’re better equipped to control your life. Imagine driving your car without being able to see clearly through the window! The same is true with your mind. If you’re on a self-defeating or self-destructive path, you can stop and change course if you’re able to figure out why you’re on that path to begin with.

Personal insight and perception are great alternatives to self-condemnation (which never works anyway). Knowing what you’re ‘getting’ out of your seemingly irrational behavior helps you to take responsibility in a way that’s supportive and understanding. Armed with that knowledge, you can confront, and begin to correct, the real reasons why you do what you do. It’s an excellent course of action for getting—and keeping—control of your life.