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Our life stories: needs, beliefs & behaviours

This post describes the "Needs, beliefs & behaviours" diagrams, best viewable on screen in PDF format (slides 1 & 2 and slides 3 & 4), but also downloadable in Powerpoint format (slides 1 & 2 and slides 3 & 4).  The post below is downloadable as a Word format handout. 

introduction:  The needs/beliefs/behaviours model can be useful in many situations.  Primarily it helps makes sense of how we feel, think and act in our lives.  It explains different forms of adaptive and maladaptive behaviours, why they have arisen, and what can be done to put them right.  Life, of course, is much more complex than any model - the countryside is richer and much more fascinating than any map.  However maps help us to find our way, to explore, and to get to where we want to go.  This needs/beliefs/behaviours map is a good one.  I hope it helps you on your journey.  

basic needs & the five behavioural systems:  Living organisms flourish when their needs are met.  It makes good sense, from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, that we are pre-programmed with behavioural systems that help us meet these basic needs to survive and to  reproduce.   The researchers Phil Shaver and Mario Mikulincer describe five behavioral systems that they have studied so far - attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex and power.  They argue that each of these systems is activated by appropriate external (or internal) circumstances.  It's a bit like using different computer software programmes depending on the specific task one is facing - for example word processing, slide preparation, database management, and so on.  In a similar way, the care seeking attachment system is activated by threats to safety, the care giving system comes on line when one is drawn to provide support and encouragement, the exploration system acts to learn about external and internal experiences, the sexual system is orientated to promote sexual activity with a desirable other, and the power system competes for and protects valued resources.  For more on this see the handout & blog post "Behavioural systems: attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex, & power"

Although I have described these five systems as being like a set of different programmes making up a suite of computer software, they can be conceptualised in other helpful ways too.  Another good metaphor is of the five behavioural systems as members of a musical quintet - say a jazz quintet.  We want each of the systems - each jazz player - to be able to play excellently.  Sometimes a player will have a solo, but mostly there are blends of several instruments playing together.  So a conversation between friends can be seen as ‘music' involving a shifting blend of care seeking, care giving, and exploratory systems - possibly with sexual and power systems putting in occasional appearances as well!  Even an interaction as apparently straightforward as a conflict or a sexual experience will usually not just involve the power or sex behavioural systems.  Exploratory, care giving and care seeking systems are also likely to join the music.

Some "blends" may be particularly powerful or functional styles of music.  So in relationships, the person-centred triad (that I often think of as a hopefully well-balanced three-legged stool) of authenticity, caring and empathy is a rich blend of potentially all five behavioural systems.  In a similar way self-determination theory's model of three meta-needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) can inform and be informed by these five basic systems.    

toxic beliefs & dysfunctional behaviours:  Ideally, as we grow up, our five behavioural systems learn to function very well - coming on line when the appropriate external or internal situation occurs, operating to a successful outcome, and then going off line again.  Unfortunately it's probably very rare for someone to grow up only experiencing excellent learning environments and interacting with people - parents, siblings, teachers, friends, school - who encourage them to ‘play' the different behavioural systems appropriately and well.  What then happens - in these poor learning situations - has probably been best researched with the care seeking (attachment) system.  See, for example, the handout & blog post "Attachment, compassion & relationships".  The successful, so-called, secure-base attachment script runs something like "If I come across difficulties, I can seek comfort and support from significant others, this will be provided, I'll feel better and be able to go back to other activities soothed and confident."  If in key attachment relationships this primary attachment strategy is repeatedly unsuccessful in eliciting understand-ing, care and encouragement, people then develop internal working-models of self and others that are much less confident or trusting.  They will increasingly be likely to develop so-called secondary strategies involving hyperactivation (fight) or hypoactivation (flight) of the basic programme.  With the care seeking attachment system, hyperactivation leads to unproductive worry, vigilance to signs of rejection, and excessive demands (anxiously attached), while hypoactivation involves strong emotional inhibition, self-reliance and emotional distancing (avoidantly attached).

Mikulincer & Shaver propose that all five of the behavioural systems they have studied have primary strategies for attaining their key goals of security, safety provision, exploration, sexual activity, and power.  They further propose that when these primary strategies have been repeatedly thwarted during an individual's early development and subsequent life experience, then there is a tendency to switch to secondary strategies.  Again for all five systems these secondary strategies are likely to involve either hyperactivation (intensify the system's primary strategy) or hypoactivation (suppress or down-regulate the primary strategy).  The authors have developed and tested assessment questionnaires for all five behavioural systems and are continuing their expanding research programme.  See, for example, the handout & blog post "Assessing attachment in adults".   Other forms of assessment that can be helpful here include the "Adverse childhood experiences questionnaire", the "Parental bond inventory", and the "Intimate bond measure".  These two latter scales - PBI and IBM - clarify the success of our care seeking system and, if our children or partner complete them, also the success of our care giving system.  The "Early maladaptive schemas" descriptions, the "Inventory of interpersonal problems", and the "Personal community map" questions all also throw light on how well our basic behavioural systems are achieving their goals.

It's fascinating to consider the relevance of these ideas to so many areas - for example, burnout/compassion fatigue, overintrusive caring, agoraphobia/phobic avoidance, procrastination/perfectionism, sex addiction/promiscuity, hypoactive sexual desire, lack of assertiveness, and bullying/domestic violence/aggression.  These ideas don't dictate therapy, but they can certainly usefully inform therapy. 

healing, psychotherapy & personal growth:  So what happens when - largely because of poor learning experiences - aspects of our basic behavioural systems don't function as well as we would want them to.  It often seems helpful to work at all three corners of the needs/beliefs/ behaviours diagram.  It can be good to contact and validate our needs for care seeking, care giving, exploration, sex, and power.  This links with healthy primary emotions that direct and activate us to get these needs met.  See the handout "Emotions, arriving & leaving" for a simple way of conceptualising this - and for highlighting the distinction between healthy primary emotions and toxic secondary emotions & beliefs that we have been brainwashed into through bad learning environments.  And see too "Emotions, awareness & regulation" to illustrate the value of feeling our emotions so that we can be informed & energised, but not swept away.

New life experiences can give us better learning opportunities - for example a responsive, caring, encouraging partner, teacher, boss or friend.  Therapeutic relationships, one-to-one or in a group, can also help in this way.  Observing healthy behavioural systems in action is good.  And sometimes more direct work on toxic beliefs may be very useful.  From a cognitive therapy perspective this may involve trauma work.  Methods from emotion-focused therapy and schema work - such as dialogue techniques - can also help a lot.  And there's a place too for incorporating ideas from self-criticism/self-compassion therapies. 

A focus on new and healthier behaviours can be crucial too.  Behavioural activation methods and behavioural experiments come into their own here.  So too does value-directed action and mindfulness.  In a way this is ‘sacred' work or - like gardening - it's weeding, providing support, nourishing, and celebrating the new growth as it comes.


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