Fighting Against Your Counterproductive Inclinations

Sometimes, in a given situation, what we feel like doing is precisely the opposite of what would be best for us. Our natural inclinations about what action is helpful in a given circumstance can lead us in entirely the wrong direction.

Consider, for example, what happens when you feel tired. The obvious and natural thing to do is to lie down. This works well when there is time to sleep or nap. But what if you are feeling tired and should leave your house in 10 minutes? While lying down is what you naturally feel like doing, it is likely to make you feel even more tired, or cause you to be late. A better solution to your grogginess is to do things that you probably don’t feel like doing. Put on energetic music, make a cup of tea, and while it is heating, do fast jumping jacks for two minutes. Jumping jacks may sound really unappealing, but they are more likely to help you feel awake than lying down is.

Let’s take another example. When people are depressed, activities they usually enjoy very much tend to seem unappealing. Because of this, people tend to plan fewer fun activities when they are depressed than they usually do. Often, they have the inclination just to sit around their homes. Unfortunately, staying at home for long periods of time has a tendency to further people’s depression, socially isolate them, and make life seem even duller. As in the fatigue example, the solution is to fight against what you feel like doing. In this case, that means making plans and getting out of the house. To reduce depression, you should call friends to hang out, exercise, go for a walk, go out to dinner, etc. Behavioral changes like these are a key component of the therapeutic system known as behavioral activation, which studies indicate is one of the most effective treatments for depression.

Yet another example of our natural tendencies failing us is our reaction to our own anxiety. People who are anxious naturally tend to avoid whatever is making them anxious. The problem with this response, however, is that when we have irrational anxiety or fears that are blown out of proportion, running from the things that frighten us tends to reinforce our irrational reactions. If a man who is phobic of spiders runs away at the sight of one, he is reinforcing this behavior (via negative reinforcement). Whenever he runs from the spider, his anxiety is reduced (so the behavior leads to the removal of the negative stimulus, which acts as a form of reward for unhelpful behavior). A person with that fleeing behavior never truly learns (or becomes used to) the idea that most spiders are safe. If he had instead done the opposite behavior, and stayed in the room with the spider, it is likely that eventually his brain would stop reacting so strongly. Sitting in a room with a spider for 10 minutes may be terrifying when you are phobic, but sitting in the room with the spider for 5 hours is going to be downright boring. This technique, facing up to the things that make us anxious, is a key component of exposure therapy, which randomized controlled trials show is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety.

Anger, like anxiety and depression, also leads to counterproductive behaviors. People who feel angry tend to overact, take risks, attack, and damage relationships. But in the modern world, yelling often prevents people from discussing situations calmly and finding solutions, and it often furthers the anger of the other party. Anger increases the likelihood of physical violence, which rarely leads to productive outcomes. Often, the most useful way to react when feeling very angry is to fight against our inclinations and act to calm ourselves down. Walk away from the situation if possible. Take ten, slow, deep breaths, counting each one. Visualize something incompatible with anger (like petting a puppy, or watching your best friend laugh). Try to empathize with the person that has made you angry, asking “Why might he have behaved this way?” and “Have I ever behaved in that way?”

Fatigue¬† is the body’s signal for wanting rest or sleep. If it is not a good time to sleep, then you will be better off if you ignore what your body feels like it wants, and try to energize yourself rather than lying down. Depression often leads to a lack of desire to do activities, and underestimation of how fun they will be if you try them. But going with this inclination tends to promote further depression, whereas doing exactly the opposite (calling up that friend, planning that activity) tends to reduce it. Anxiety is your body’s way of warning you of danger, and there is a natural tendency to want to avoid and escape danger. But in many cases in the modern world we fear things that are unlikely to hurt us, and sometimes the anxiety is more harmful than the thing we fear. Fighting against your inclination to escape tends to reduce your fear, whereas fleeing reinforces fleeing in the future. Anger is part of a system that helps us preserve social status, and defend ourselves from enemies. But in today’s world it can get us in trouble, preventing helpful conflict resolution. We are therefore sometimes better off fighting against our impulses, and engaging in behaviors that reduce our anger.

When we are tired, depressed, anxious or angry the inclinations to do things that are not good for us can be very strong. But strategizing what is best for you to do while experiencing these strong feelings is very difficult. One solution that can be quite helpful is to, in advance, write down good strategies to use in these situations. This is rather easy to do while in an emotionally neutral state. These strategies take the form “If I am feeling Y then do A, B and C”. Then, when you next find yourself feeling Y, you can just consult this list of strategies (which ideally will be memorized). It can be far easier to follow a specific plan from a list than to come up with the right strategy on the fly. And if you get in the habit of consulting this list, the new reactions will start to feel effortless and natural.

Here are some pre-written strategies that you can save, print or memorize. You can then consult this list when the situation calls for it.

When tired, and it’s not a good idea to sleep:

  • drink a caffeinated beverage
  • put on energetic music
  • do a couple minutes of fast exercise, like jumping jacks

When feeling depressed:

  • call some friends and have a conversation with someone you like and feel close to
  • plan some activities that you normally would enjoy (even if you predict you won’t enjoy them)
  • exercise
  • go outdoors
  • force yourself to smile for two minutes straight, trying to imitate a real smile as closely as possible

When feeling anxious about something that is actually not going to harm you:

  • don’t run away or avoid this thing that you fear
  • face it, as this will help reduce your unreasonable fear in the long run
  • expose¬†yourself to similar things that you fear on a repeated basis, until you get used to them, not allowing yourself to leave the situation

When angry, and anger is counterproductive:

  • walk away, if possible, and avoid acting until you feel calmer
  • take ten, slow, deep breaths, and count them as you do it
  • think about something incompatible with anger (like petting a puppy, or watching someone you love laugh)
  • try to empathize with the person that has angered you (ask yourself “Why is he behaving this way?” and “Have I ever done something similar?”)


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