Putting Consequences in their Place

by Mental Health

Working with clients going through difficult times, many questions come up concerning fairness, justice, and responsibility. The world, it becomes painfully obvious, doesn’t respond to our thoughts the way we’d like. Our pictures/stories of ‘what should be’ rarely match ‘what is.’ Despite this, we continue to struggle on, moving from moment to moment with a sometimes grim, sometimes emotionally poignant, determination. Faced with the struggle, there is a completely understandable question in response: When will this end?!

I want to turn for a moment to the ABCs. Before you start going down that familiar song from childhood, we’ll be looking at:

  • A – Antecedent
  • B – Behavior
  • C – Consequence


Now, don’t go running for the hills just yet. This is simply a way of looking at our behavior, a framing of the world and our interaction with it. Prior to action is a factor/item (an ‘antecedent’) which has a causal relationship with the behavior, followed by a consequence(s) or result. This is just a more formal way of declaring what our parents used to warn us about concerning ‘there will be consequences!’ What they often left out in their warnings, and frankly what we often oversimplify as adults, are the influences/antecedents leading to particular behavior.

Getting Caught in Consequence

The reason for this formality is to help us see where we get stuck. The influences/antecedents is where we can find freedom, but we as a species are pretty terrible at determining what those are on a day-to-day basis. Seriously. We are. But more on that in a bit.

Where we get stuck is in the perception of consequence. When you stub a toe walking around barefoot, do you focus on the walking or are you wincing, hopping and holding on to the hurt foot? When you’ve lost a job, had a fight with a friend or see a relationship ending, do you focus on all the decisions that came before it or are you caught up in the emotional cacophony of the loss?

Further, even after the initial pain is worked through, consider how the consequence is still front and center in how you view the world. From the item on the floor that ‘shouldn’t have been there’ to ‘that person/group is horrible’ and ‘I always make horrible decisions,’ the thoughts/assessments are vibrantly colored by the shadowy influence of obsessing over consequence.

Before getting sucked into morose reflection, the focus on consequence makes a great deal of sense. Our brain/body system comes from eons of evolutionary development and biological cost/benefit appraisal. Expending energy on anything other than consequence would be a privilege. Think about it. If you’re focused on brute survival, the consequences of one’s behavior should definitely be front and center in consciousness. When faced with getting eaten, freezing to death or not having enough food, these are consequences that will direct, understandably, the attention of anyone.

Revealing the Influencers

We’re not going to remove our tendency to obsess over consequences and we should definitely not ignore consequences either. However, if we want to change our future behavior, reduce negative consequences and expand how we work through situations, then we need to focus on more than consequences. Here come the influencers.

Biology

The one area of our lives we have the most control over is often the one area we rarely consider in effecting our decision-making: our biology/physiology.

How well and how much have you been sleeping?

What kind of food are you typically eating? Full meals or snacks? High in sugar? For that matter, what’s your caffeine intake and how close to sleep time are you taking it?

Focused exercise? Not just wandering around but an actual exercise routine.

Meditation practice? Even 10 minutes a day is a huge help. Meditation isn’t about adding yet another activity, it’s about slowing down and seeing how the cacophony of our every-day lives is not the same thing as our image of who we are.

Relationships

Relationships are not just about intimate partnerships. They include family, co-workers, and even the strangers we run into at the store or on the street.

Do you feel seen by those you feel closest too?

Are you concerned about the future of an important connection?

How difficult do you find it to talk with your boss?

Relationships are the medium through which we express ourselves. As such they have an enormous influence on the decisions we make.

Environment

Environment is about both the socio-cultural expectations/rules we live under and the physical structures we live within and interact with.

Is your personal space cluttered and disorganized or dirty?

Do you feel too cold or too hot at your place of work so you’re constantly having to make adjustments?

Do you live around green spaces and/or how often do you step away from buildings and into nature?

Are family members bringing up expectations you either don’t personally care about or are things you feel shame/doubt about?

Freedom through Awareness

The questions above are not exhaustive and quite often there isn’t a right or wrong answer to them. They’re about expanding your awareness of what is effecting you, because they are and you don’t have a choice about it. You can no more stop being influenced by biology, relationships and environment than you can stop the tides of the ocean being controlled by the moon.

Freedom is not in removing yourself from influence but by becoming more aware of them. This allows for the exploration of potential responses rather than being trapped into “what I’ve always done” or “feeling overwhelmed” or “I don’t know what came over me.”

We can’t remove ourselves from consequence, but we can help shift what consequences we will experience.

Main photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash

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