October 18

Why Do I Do the Things I Do? How To Know and What To Do To Have More Control and Freedom in Life

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We have all repeatedly done something we wished we hadn't that has made us ask ourselves, 'why do I do the things I do?'. The short answer is that we do these things because we are operating in those moments from unconscious patterns of thinking, acting and feeling that were created in our past and designed to get unmet needs fulfilled. Our actions may seem incongruent with what we think we want at the time, they can even be damaging to the self, but if we have not explored and resolved our past hurt to find who we really are, we run the risk of our unconscious motivations taking over.

In this article I want to address the question of why do I do the things I do by detailing the process that results in problematic and difficult behaviours. We can then look at how we can have more control over these processes to have more choice and freedom to express who we really are, even in difficult situations.

The Foundation of the Problem

The idea that there is a real self and false self is a long standing notion in psychology and psychotherapy. Of course you are you and in many ways you are always you no matter how you are acting. But is not as simple as that, and that is why we start to ask ourselves why we do things that we don't want to.

The real self

The real self is the core of who we are. They are our values, ideals, and principles that are important and significant to us. Without them, we would no longer be us.

In any given situation we can act (more or less) according to those values, ideals, and principles, or not. When we do, we feel that we have been true to ourselves. When we do not, we feel that we have sold ourselves out or let ourselves down.

When we are able to express ourselves according to these core aspects of who we are we feel that we are being authentic or genuine and other people experience us as that.

How we come to hide our real self

When we are young we cannot do anything other than express who we really are. We cry because we are hurt and upset, we sing and dance without fear of judgement, we reach out for a hug because we need comfort. This is us expressing our needs in a spontaneous and authentic way.

But when these expressions are met with indifference, conditions, judgement, criticism, ridicule, and all the other ways that demonstrate that they do not appreciate, like, or condone such behaviours the child begins to see that expressing themselves in that way is painful.

If these mismatched, inappropriate, or abusive responses are consistent the child learns to develop strategies to protect themselves from pain, hurt and discomfort. This is how we hide who we really are.

The false self

It is not just that people develop ways to hide who they really are as a form of protection. It is that they create a new ideal for who they are - a false self - that is believed to solve the problems they have by getting their unmet needs fulfilled.

As fundamental human needs for safety, security, love, belonging and recognition are ignored, unacknowledged, or ridiculed, children begin to imagine or fantasise about a world in which these needs are met - about what it would take and what it would feel like.

Did you ever imagine what it would be like to be a king or a princess? To win the school sports day race? To do come top of the class? To be rich beyond your wildest dreams? Etc.

It is perfectly normal for children to dream and fantasise but in the context of insecurity from not being able to be themselves these fantasises take on a new meaning. They become the goal to finally get people to take you seriously, or to give you love, or to keep you safe. So the development of the person becomes about realising this idealised version of themselves as this will resolve the pain and hurt they have experienced and stop it happening again.

This false self looks like it holds the key to having their deepest desires addressed - to feel safe and secure, to be loved and belong, to be valued and respected.

Why The False Self Makes Bad Decisions

The aim of the false self is to realise an idealised version of the self - an imagined version that was forged in a fantasy of getting all your unmet needs fulfilled.

Seeking to realise this idealised version of the self, the decisions that are made are rooted in the past - the place where the those needs were not met. So if you were ridiculed for being stupid you may believe you have to be intelligent to be worthy and loveable. If you were ignored you may believe you have to be really engaging and entertaining to be recognised. There are so many possibilities here but I hope you get the idea.

But decisions that are rooted in the past are not necessarily what you need today. The consequence is that thoughts, beliefs, habits, decisions, and actions can, at best, not represent who you are well and, at worst, be harmful to you.

If you have a need to be intelligent, the pursuit of more knowledge, credentials, and credibility than others can lead to neglecting relationships and other important areas of life. If you have a need to be beautiful, the pursuit of being the prettiest can lead to prioritising finances and even safety (for example through surgery) on achieving that. etc.

When The False Self Fails

The problem is that an imagined idealised version of the self is impossible to achieve. You cannot always get it right, you cannot be perfect, you cannot always win, you cannot be the most beautiful (certainly not forever), you cannot be the most intelligent in all areas, etc. No matter how much you want it, or how much you believe it, or how much you try, being human means you will never live up to whatever ideal has been created.

As the false self fails to achieve what it set out to achieve it has 3 options: To ignore reality, to find an excuse, or to blame the real self.

Ignoring reality

A convenient way to address the gap between the need to be a certain person or do certain things and the reality of not being able to be that person or do those things, is to ignore the reality.

People can live in a fantasyland where their version of reality is the truth. This results in a lot of conflict, which requires more ignoring and asserting of their truth.

Ignoring reality will lead to poor quality relationships, unsatisfying work, and a sense of not being fulfilled. It is hardly a life worth living.

Finding an excuse

If deep down you know you are going to fail then it can be convenient to find a reason why you should not try ('it isn't worth my time' or 'it is rigged against me', for example), why you cannot try ('I am injured' or 'I have to go and do some other much more important thing elsewhere', for example), or why you could not prepare sufficiently ('I was way too busy' for example).

Such excuses keep the false self intact by deflecting any threats to its integrity. The result is action that is fear based - you do not try as well as you could in case you fail.

Blaming the real self

If you are unable to achieve what you feel you need to, then blaming the real self is always a possibility. This results in self-limiting, self-damaging and self-harming behaviours.

One part of the person considers another part to be the reason why they cannot achieve certain high standards. That part of the self then attacks the other part. It tries to stop it from doing things that would be good for it - sabotaging further education by socialising rather than studying or sabotaging a relationship by arguing and sulking, for example.

This can move from self-sabotaging behaviours to more damaging and harmful behaviours. If one part hates the other, it can get very difficult.

So Why Do I Do The Things I Do?

With this understanding we can now answer the main question, why do I do the things I do? and other related questions.

The answer is that when operating from a position of insecurity we revert to our habitual patterns of behaviour that have developed overtime to get our unmet needs fulfilled.

The things you do are indications of what your false self believes it needs to do to keep you safe and secure, to be loved, or to be recognised.

These behaviours are usually compulsive, as in you do not have much choice over them because they are deeply ingrained into a part of your personality that is in the driving seat.

And when these aims are frustrated the false self finds ways of ignoring reality, finding excuses, or blaming the real self - all of which result in difficult and challenging behaviours.

Why do I not do the things I want to do?

The false self is in control and is making the decisions. Your real self may see what it wants and needs to do to express who you really are but it does not have the ability to act.

This can be seemingly benign. Say you want to do something fun with your friends, go dancing or an adventure activity, but you get there find you can't get on the dancefloor or you can't do the zipwire. You may say you changed your mind, that you never really wanted to do it anyway, that it looks stupid, etc. but really the false self is calling the shots and stopping you from the possibility of looking stupid for not being as good as your friends or simply not being able to do it.

Why can't I do the things I want to do?

This question demonstrates the compulsive nature of this process. It is not simply why do I not do the thing I want to do, as in the question above, but it is why CAN'T I do the things I want to do.

Those benign examples above change from you saying you never wanted to do that anyway, to saying to people you can't do them, and potentially getting upset about not being able to and not really knowing why.

Why am I not doing the things I need to do?

This question further demonstrates the compulsion that comes with behaviours derived from the false self. You know you need to do something - like say something important to someone, or do something that you need to do, etc. - but find you just can't do it. You have the motivation but something is preventing you from doing what you need to do.

The false self is either trying to keep you safe or secure, to protect you from being hurt again, or to try and ensure that you are fulfilling some other aim, or it is trying to sabotage you!

For example, you may not tell your partner you love them when you want to because you are protecting yourself from potential rejection; you may not revise for an exam until the last minute because you don't want to try too hard in case you fail and that kind of failure would be too hard to take. Revising at the last minute always gives you an excuse, 'I would have done well if I have revised a lot'!; You may ridicule a friend for their lack of knowledge on a topic because you are demonstrating how intelligent and knowledgeable you are, even if that means hurting them and even if you didn't mean to hurt them. etc.

Questions Like 'Why Do I Do The Things I Do' Stem From The Inner Conflict

These types of questions are really revealing an inner conflict between the false self and the real self. The hidden real self is feeling sad, depressed, or ashamed of what it is seeing the false self do. It does not recognise this person.

But inner conflict is the birthplace of personal growth. It s a crack in the consciousness where the real self is showing itself, even if only in questions or feelings deep down. But it is the start of being able to become who you really are.

Breaking Away From Unconscious Behaviours


Living from the place of our false self we never really feel alive, engaged with the world, or fulfilled in what we do.

Everyone needs to break free from unconscious behaviours so that they can live more satisfied and fulfilled lives.

To do this, there are 3 components: self-awareness, self-discovery, and authenticity.

Self-awareness

Questions like why do I do the things I do are important and serious questions to ask. It is the start of becoming aware of what is going inside of you.

As you explore how you feel in different situations, observe your behaviour, see how much choice you feel you have in different situations, you will start to notice what is a compulsion and what is not.

Journaling, writing, talking to others who understand this stuff, are all useful tools to help build and develop your self-awareness.

You can read an article on awareness here for more details.

Self-discovery

By becoming more self-aware you can start to discover what is the real you and what is not. What is there as a pretence to hide who you really are and what is an inherent part of your core self. You can start to get clarity on what makes up your core self - the ideals, values, and principles.

This is a hard step but a really transformative one. It is the reason we developed courses in the first place as it is easier to do this with structure and support.

You can find out more about our courses here.

Authenticity

Being authentic is the next step from discovering who you really are as it is continuing that process by staying true to yourself and breaking free from the limitations provided by the false self.

It is having your feelings be spontaneous - coming up and experiencing them as they ebb and flow through life.

It is having choice about how to act - rather than feeling compelled to act in certain ways in certain circumstances - or acting and then asking afterwards why did I do that?!

It is an expression of who we really are, which makes people feel more alive, engaged, and in tune with the world and those around them.

As an illustration, this is what one course participant said:

Emotional education has allowed me to be the person I was meant to be, not the person I was made to be 

To Sum Up...

We do things that we don't really understand because there are parts of us that we do not fully understand.

When we do not understand ourselves fully, unconscious behaviours and motivations can take over and we can lose ourselves.

Our lost self is that part of us that allows us to make good decisions for ourselves and fosters genuine and meaningful relationships.

If we want to have more choice and freedom over what we do and how we do it, we need to explore who we really are in depth and put in place strategies that allow us to stay true to this part of us.

Ultimately, no matter what you do in life, discovering your real self and living life through it is the only life worth living.


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  • I have always wondered “Why I do the things I do?” and this post really gave me lots of answers. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • For the last 4+ years I have been becoming who I am today in every sense of the word becoming. I am learning, always, to love who I am. I very much enjoyed this posting and it helps re-inforce that while my self-awareness is a constant work in progress, I am worth the work. Thank you for sharing this.

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