It’s Not About the Behavior

By Greg Baer M.D.

January 6, 2016

Let’s observe three people who appear to be similar from the outside. Sally, Mark, and Cynthia are all highly organized. Their computer files are thorough and indexed so that all the information can be accessed easily. Their days are neatly scheduled so that calls and meetings rarely conflict. They’re punctual and neat. But that’s only a surface characterization. Further examination reveals much more.

Sally was raised in a chaotic household where nothing was predictable, and where she was always wondering—afraid, actually—about what would happen next. She learned to diminish her pain and fear by creating an organized world around her, and she rigidly controlled that world. As a child, she arranged her toys in neat rows of even numbers. Her clothes were perfectly hung in the closet according to color. She couldn’t tolerate any deviation from her schedule of playing, watching television, and doing her homework—all the things she had any control over. As an adult, she lived in constant fear of losing control, so at work she barked orders at people all the time, trying to control them so they would never interfere with the tiny world she had fabricated. She did this at home with her husband and children too, who grew to hate being around her. She was very unhappy.

As a child, Mark was criticized all day—nothing dramatic involving screaming or hitting, just the usual parental sighs, frowns, warnings, restrictions, and more. He grew to hate it, while at the same time being unaware of how unloved he felt. Unconsciously, he put all his efforts into avoiding that disapproval. He studied hard and got good grades, kept his room clean, brushed his teeth without being told, and never made a mess. As an adult, he avoided mistakes at all costs. He never volunteered any ideas where there was a risk of failure, which meant that he contributed no creativity at work. He became increasingly compulsive about neatness and organization, which was an asset sometimes but also made him inflexible about changes in his environment at work or at home. His supervisors and coworkers hated to bring up change of any kind, because of his adverse reaction.

Cynthia was raised in an unconditionally loving home (yes, it’s actually possible). With experience, she learned that in addition to the joy of feeling loved, she could create a sense of fulfillment and confidence from doing any particular job well. She discovered that when she was more organized, there were fewer time conflicts, she could accomplish more, and rarely did she feel rushed. Her family and coworkers loved being around her because she almost always knew what was going on and what would happen next.

Although all three people were organized, only Cynthia was happy. And although organized, Sally and Mark were considerably less productive than Cynthia, because they were more focused on protecting themselves than on actually accomplishing things, which often involved flexibility and cooperation with disorganized people.

These three illustrate nicely that it’s not a particular BEHAVIOR the creates happiness. It’s the MOTIVATION behind the behavior. So how can we better spot the behaviors that are motivated by fear, so we can begin to make different choices? Let’s look at just a few signs of fear:

Obsession or compulsion. If we feel like we HAVE to do a thing—be organized, finish a task, be on time—rather than WANTING to, it’s very likely that we’re motivated by fear.

Second-guessing. When we’re afraid, we tend to second-guess our decisions. We worry—another word for fear—about our decisions.

Excessive planning or preparation. If we prepare a presentation of material familiar to us, but then we go over it again and again and again, we’re motivated by a fear of making mistakes.

Looking for approval. If we do a thing and then look around to see if others approved of us, we’re usually motivated by fear.

If you want to be happy, filling your life with activities is not the answer. You have to eliminate your fears first and learn to act out of a desire for love and happiness, and then joy will naturally flow to you and from you.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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