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Why we all Make “Bad” Choices…Even When we “Know Better”

Being put into a tough situation rarely brings out our best qualities. Feeling stuck, helpless, or defeated, doesn’t tend to bring forward our best decision-making either. Yet, we find ourselves feeling ashamed for things we have done during those times. 

Let’s take, for example, a woman who keeps fighting with her partner. She finds herself feeling hurt, getting angry, and saying things she later regrets. She loves her partner, but keeps finding herself frustrated and making – what she realizes after the fact – are bad decisions. Her partner may leave, and most of us wouldn’t blame them if they did. There’s no excuse for hurting people we love, and frankly, she messed up. 

But if she knows better, and feels remorseful, why does she keep making the same bad decisions? Why do any of us make questionable decisions that we know ultimately hurt us? If the answer were easy, we would all be perfect and live in a fairytale world. But until we can figure out how to curate this perfect fairytale, we’re all left dealing with the realities of our pasts. 

There’s a lot of factors that motivate our decisions, some benevolent and some not-so-much. Regardless of our motives, we all make decisions through the lens of our individual lives. If our lives are chaotic, we might view the world as such, and operate in that chaos. We might also make attempts to rectify that chaos, but without knowledge of what peace truly is, find that we just end up perpetuating that same chaos. Now, this is not an excuse or an allowance to go out and create chaos purposefully in the world. But it may offer an explanation for why you can’t seem to stop yourself from creating chaos in your own life. 

The woman mentioned in the earlier example, as noted, is feeling hurt. Regardless of why she feels hurt, we can see that this is the lens she is viewing the fight with her partner through. She is behaving in response to the perception that someone she loves has just hurt her. If you’ve ever been betrayed, you can empathize with that gut-punch of an experience. But sometimes our current experiences are clouded by prior ones. Perhaps, this woman’s partner didn’t do anything wrong at all, but this woman has been hurt by others in the past. Maybe her partner did something that reminded her of that past, and she is reacting to that

She’s reacting in a way that her nervous system believes is protective, even if her logic is telling her otherwise. In short, our nervous system is a network of nerves in our brain and spinal cord that are connected with our stress, energy, mood, and overall sense of safety.  It’s the nervous system’s job to alert us when we are at risk of experiencing pain or danger, and to either energize or relax us in response to that risk.  Our nervous system is well-versed in identifying potential risk, which is partly why humans have survived as a species.  However, our nervous system is not so great at differentiating between real and perceived risk.  It often gets really confused when it’s sent mixed messages (don’t we all?).  When we’ve experienced a particular stimulus (e.g., a sound, a feeling, a person, a place, etc.) as harmful to us at one point, our nervous system doesn’t always get the message when this stimulus or related stimuli are not harmful anymore.  For example, some veterans or victims of gun violence perceive loud noises like fireworks or a car backfiring as distressing, because their nervous system associates that noise with war or violence.  If we’ve been harmed by people in past relationships, our nervous systems might similarly start to associate relational closeness with risk of harm.

Despite what we may logically know we should or shouldn’t do, or how we may feel about what we do, our nervous system is really just trying to keep us alive and well.  If our nervous system thinks that we’re unsafe – whether this is factually accurate or not – we’re going to struggle to control our behavior.  All of our behaviors serve some function to us, and though these behaviors are often misguided, their intentions are good.

The woman in the example I mentioned may be lashing out at her partner in a way that her nervous system thinks is protective.  The seemingly maladaptive pattern of fighting her partner may be harmful to her relationship, but protective through the lens of her nervous system.  While this example is of an imaginary scenario, most of us can identify a real scenario in which we acted in a way that we later felt remorseful for.  If we’ve ever hurt someone we love, we may look at what the function of our behavior was in that scenario.  Perhaps we yell at someone or attempt to manipulate them because we are worried that, if we don’t, they might do the same to us.  Maybe we cling to someone too strongly because we are worried that they may leave.  We might also isolate ourselves or purposefully abandon meaningful relationships to prevent the possibility of being hurt by them.  These behaviors may make little logical sense, but make a lot of functional sense when viewed through the lens of past hurt or trauma.

Even some of our most hurtful behaviors, like self-harm, substance abuse, and eating disorder behaviors, likely serve us some function.  I detail the functionality of disordered eating behaviors in depth in my article, “When You Don’t Want to Recover from Your Eating Disorder” (linked here).  Regardless of what behaviors you find yourself engaging in, regardless of your motives, regardless of their impact, you are very very very likely serving your nervous system some function.  I am not condoning nor heeding to any behaviors; I am, however, suggesting that we give ourselves more grace.  We are all just trying to survive and taking missteps along the way.  Your missteps do not mean that you are not broken, defective, or bad, no matter what you may do – you are human, and you deserve grace in your path toward authenticity and happiness.

Have questions or think you might be struggling with a dysregulated nervous system, trauma responses, or disordered eating? Help is available!  While I cannot currently provide individual psychotherapy services privately, you can click here to learn more about working with me in other capacities.  Check out my social media below for free resources and updated information on my services!  

If you are having serious thoughts of killing yourself or hurting someone else, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room.  You may also receive help at:

  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org
  • Crisis Textline: Text “Start” to 741741
  • Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQIA+ support): call 866-488-7386

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