I’ve been sitting on this post for awhile in my head, continually adding and revising what point I wanted to make, the examples I wanted to include and the theme I hope I would convey… and I’m laughing at myself now as the very act of my procrastination lends itself to the subject of this post: behaviour is communication; communication of a deeper need and/or the attempt to soothe/cope with something.
As a child, I simply thought of behaviour as what I did. Some of it was good… and, sadly, some of it was deemed as “bad”. The good behaviours were what I needed to do to be loved, accepted and cared for — the bad was cause for separation and abandonment.
BEING GOOD and well behaved became a matter of survival.
As a new parent I remember in my daughter’s early years being determined to “groom” her into “good behaviour”, still believing this was the key to being accepted, and loved… I have a video I took of her in a meltdown and what shocks me now when i watch it is me being heard in the background saying “This isn’t how we behave…. you’re not going to get what you want behaving like that”.
Then I had this idea flipped on it’s head the day I sat in on a lecture by Deborah McNamara sharing the importance of tears and feeling sadness. It was a revelation to understand that being sad and crying was NOT bad behaviour…. and in fact it was signalling something very important: crying and feeling my sadness was the emotional brain’s brilliant way of signalling a need for closeness and connection in the face of a loss.
Later, it was Gordon Neufeld’s perspective on frustration and aggression that further challenged my old idea that aggression was bad: Aggression was the manifestation of frustration gone foul… it’s what happens when its too hard to feel the futility of something and when nothing can be done to change it. It’s the brains last ditch attempt at communicating that something is not working.
It wasn’t until I started my personal growth journey and counselling school that I finally started to integrate this idea on a personal level. My depression in my early 20s was communicating that I had had no safe places to feel. I learned that resorting to cutting in my teens was a way of communicating how much I couldn’t feel and desperately wanted to feel SOMETHING, with the side benefit that the pain of cutting momentarily soothed the intense emotional pain I was suffering. My suicide attempts were a desperate communication of helplessness and need for connection in a very dark place.
And now, as a mother, I am more grateful than ever that I came to this new perspective on behaviour even before my son was officially diagnosed with Autism. It was this very lens that I saw my son’s meltdowns and aggressive outbursts that moved me to seek support and assessment for him — not for the purposes of stopping what others might deem as “unacceptable behaviour”, but rather that as the intensity increased, I understood the urgency behind what he was trying to communicate. He was literally fighting for his life, his surroundings and situation at school were so overwhelming for him, all which (as I would later find out) was due to his Autism.
This past weekend we braved a 30min line up to get our ski passes and within 2 mins of joining the line, M began to get increasingly agitated, and upset — his boots were too tight and hurting the top of his foot, the jacket was too warm and the sounds of a crying baby were assaulting his ears (he was covering his own ears, crying and grimacing as anxious bystanders looked on, their looks seeming to say in my mind, “Why don’t you just take him home”…. or so it FELT like this as my old pattern and conditioning what there’s “GOOD” behaviour and BAD behaviour was seeping in.
It did admittedly cross my mind to just call it quits and go home but somehow, I realized that this would not serve him in the long run, nor us as parents. If behaviour is communication then what were his hot tears and cries of frustration trying to say??? In this case i chose to meet the message with kindness. I also gave him a gentle vote of confidence and reminder that as hard as it is right now, I KNOW how much fun he’ll have if he stays.
I did not tell him to stop crying. I told him instead, “I get it buddy — THIS IS a lot. So many things are uncomfortable right now AND I know we can get through this.” When he screamed how much he hated his boots I said, “Ok — when we’re inside the office we’ll have a break and you can take them off in there.” And when he said, “I hate this, i never want to ski again.” I responded,
“I hear you — that’s how frustrated you feel RIGHT NOW AND i know when we finally get on that mountain you’re going to have fun!”
I won’t lie — this was hard. I had no idea if or when he would settle. I just knew that if I stifled the message he was trying to communicate I would create bigger problems later.
And like the dark storm clouds parting, and the sun streaming through suddenly, M suddenly wipes his tears away when we get to the counter and the lady needs to scan his pass for his lift ticket… he looks up at me, silently, I nod, and she scans his pass. She hands us our lift passes and as we go outside M says, “Can I put my boots back on now?”
It’s moments like these where I’m in awe again and again by the transformative nature of the simple act of being WITH someone in a difficult place.
There was no need to change what was happening — while safety is of course always a consideration, I did not let the perception of what his behaviour looked like to others sway me from being what he needed in that moment: someone to be with him and hold him capable to come through, as uncomfortable as it was.
I reflect now on my own “behaviours” as a teen and how so much more suffering was caused from the shame that came with pain coping behaviours like cutting, as mentioned, or another “strange” one — hair plucking (ie. trichotillomania). In bouts of high states of anxiety i would pluck my hair out strand by strand, leaving bald patches i would try and hide; the pain from pulling giving me a mini-dopamine hit to soothe and distract me from the heightened state of intense alarm i was feeling. The message: I needed my anxiety and alarm to come down, I needed to FEEL and I needed company and connection there.
How about Less obvious ones — like my procrastination? This one also speaks to an underlying level of anxiety and alarm- the message being something is instilling fear and that fear is making me “freeze”.
Then there’s what others deem as “socially unacceptable” or “bad” like being bossy and dominating. The behaviour again, is till communicating a deeper need. Bossiness (or Alpha-Complex as Neufeld calls it from an attachment perspective) is a call of feeling “unsafe” and therefore the need to “take over” and gain control. As a therapist, I strive to guide my clients to see their perceived “bad behaviour” as making sense in the context of the situations they’re in or based on their own attachment and trauma history . While it may be causing dysfunction, it persists as long as that underlying message remains unheard/or unreceived.
By no means am I supporting harmful or dangerous behaviour — all necessary measures to maintain safety for all involved is prioritized regardless of the message underneath. If anything, this signals the severity of how long the underlying message has gone unheard.
However the ripple effect of viewing all behaviour in this lens is transformative. I long to see an anti-bullying campaign that acknowledges how much the bully is in need of help as much as the victim. Getting to the root of what a bully is trying to say by being a bully would eliminate the need for Pink Shirt Day altogether.
In another post I’ll speak to how this communication is being driven- it’s emotionally driven. I will speak to the importance of really feeling our feelings (and not just talking ABOUT them) in order to get to that transformation on the other side.
My hope is that you find yourself in reading this with an expanded awareness of the purpose of behaviour. There tends to be so much focus on the “right” and “socially acceptable” behaviour, the important messages that come with the “bad behaviour” gets completely lost and thus create conditions to increase this kind of behaviour because the message is not being heard. As Marianne Williamson so aptly put:
“Everything is either LOVE or a CALL for LOVE.”