By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.


One of the issues often presented by clients in psychotherapy is reflexive or conditioned behavior, thoughts, and feelings which seem to have a life of their own. That is, they tend to occur automatically and without any conscious intent. If these behaviors, thoughts or feelings are healthy and adaptive the automatic quality is welcomed. On the other hand, if such behaviors are self defeating or self destructive, there is cause for alarm and reason to change them. The change in self defeating personal styles consists of reshaping them such that the maladaptive behavior or style is replaced with an adaptive one. Fortunately, people have the capability of evaluating their life experience and making decisions about creating permanent change. While it is clearly not easy to alter automatic ways of being and acting, it is ultimately easier to make such change than to continue over a lifetime with self defeating action and the personal pain it causes. One of the key elements in structuring such change is questioning what is your best interest? This simple question is helpful because it can help disrupt a long conditioned pattern and bring it to consciousness, hence rendering it changeable.

To exemplify this consider Janet who, in psychotherapy, discovered that she tended to engage in ongoing self critical internal dialogue that served to stimulate old negative childhood thinking, feeling and responding. Through the course of our discussion in my office it became clear that this kind of internal response system was not productive and resulted in her feeling worse about herself rather than better. In addition, it only served to diminish her self esteem and promote no end of self defeating and self destructive life experience. We explored and came to understand the origins of her self defeating pattern and this allowed her to feel less resistance to change. Next, she was able to stop her negative internal dialogue when it began, and replace it with the simple question, What is in my best interest? Once she was able to regularly catch herself, in the beginning of her identified pattern, and use this simple question as a tool, she was able to make a change in her self critical automatic response pattern. She found that changing the old conditioned responses became a matter of repeatedly asking the question, "What is in my best interest?", evaluating the origin of her self defeating impulse, answering the question as to what was in her best interest, and replacing the maladaptive behavior with a new, adaptive and productive one.

Often there is a negative parent-child quality to self defeating behavior, thinking and feeling as there was with Janet. Just as often the maladaptive sequence results in destructive self criticism and inevitably diminished self esteem occurs. Interrupting an unwanted automatic behavior, thought or feeling by questioning what is in your best interest facilitates an adult-adult kind of internal dialogue. The adult-adult self talk is logical, rational and nonjudgemental rather than impulsive, irrational and harshly critical. It also eliminates self degradation and internally self critical statements. By examining this question, understanding the origin of the conditioned response sequence, and finding the answer to what is in your best interest, you are left with a present day and healthy response. This enhances self esteem rather than diminishing it and allows for more positive life experiences.