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Article : Why do we do the things we do?
Name : Christopher Semmens
City: West Perth
State : Western Australia
Country : Australia
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Why We Do The Things We Do


This article was written by clinical psychologist Christopher Semmens.

Sounds like a song title doesn’t it? But seriously, have you ever wondered why we do the things we do?

Our collection of life experiences contributes to the making of us. We are who we are and we do the things we do based on the residual effects of the things, circumstances and memories of our past.

Why do we do the things we do?

Close your eyes for a minute and think of a memory.

What is the first one that pops into your head? Is it a strong memory? Is it a good memory or is it a bad one?

Now consider your frame of mind – right now: Are things going really well for you or, perhaps, not so well. How are you processing what’s going on for you - right now: With a optimistic attitude or with a negative bent?

Think back again to the memory you just brought to mind and consider whether what you do or how you do what you do could be driven by underlying unresolved life issues.

Dealing with unresolved life issues

Where things seem to be consistently not going well, there may be not just one but many unresolved life issues that have stacked up one on top of the other - on top of the next like a precariously balanced pile of pancakes. You’re coping quite well until bang – the pancake stack topples and you just can’t function as well as you would like let alone see yourself going anywhere else but further down.

Many mental health practitioners appear to approach the provision of care to their clients from a standpoint of applying a diagnosis which then points them in the direction of various treatment approaches relating to the diagnosis. A cynical view here could be that this can amount to a pigeon holing of clients and a subsequent railroading of treatment.

A person centred approach rather than a diagnosis driven treatment plan can mean that a more open view of the whole person in the context of their life history can be considered. This way any relevant and important contributory issues can be considered rather than there being the risk that they can get overlooked or even ignored.

Mental health practitioners who find themselves overly oriented towards diagnosis can lose sight of the individuality of the person; the idiosyncratic collection of experiences and circumstances that bring the person to the symptoms with which they present.

An example of this may be the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) diagnosis of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). In order to be diagnosed with PTSD one needs to exhibit a certain combination of 17 symptoms. This can be seen as a legal issue more than a mental health issue as to whether one is PTSD or not. In preference, let us talk about traumatic stress which includes those who may tick the right boxes for PTSD but it also includes many others who might not tick the right boxes but are still distressed and have the quality of their lives adversely affected.

Unresolved traumatic stress

Some things can be very distressing and traumatic for some people that may not affect others in that same way. This is sometimes referred to as sub-syndromal traumatic stress and it is a very useful way thinking about these disturbances.

In fact unresolved traumatic stress, amongst other things, can be important in tipping vulnerabilities into symptoms. A vulnerability to addictions may manifest as, for example, problematic drinking. A vulnerability to anxiety may underlie the life interrupting experiences of panic attacks. Numerous academic studies support the notion that traumatic events are really quite common. There is universal acceptance in the mental health world, for example, that sexual abuse (in a defined way) is part of the experience of something between 25 and 30% of women before the age of 18. And that is just sexual abuse. What if we look beyond that to, say, physical abuse and emotional abuse? Further, we could consider not only these categories of abuse of commission but also abuse by omission such as neglect, abandonment and emotional unresponsiveness by primary caregivers.

A diagnosis driven focus usually leads to primary attention being directed at “symptoms”.

When the individual is not adequately considered, some very important and relevant contributory factors/issues can get ignored. As a result of this, relative inefficiencies in regard to treatment can arise. Issues from a person’s psychosocial history, not only including abuse of commission and omission referred to above, but also experiences of loss and disruption, when they remain unresolved, can frequently be fundamental and foundational to presenting problems.

The person centred approach doesn’t ignore symptoms but looks beyond them.

Efficiencies in treatment can be achieved by viewing symptoms as resultant from vulnerabilities that individuals may have to various disorders. What can tip the vulnerabilities into the symptoms can be the existence of life issues and experiences that may remain unresolved. By adopting a bottom up approach of identifying and effectively treating any unresolved life issues, greater efficiency can then be achieved when it comes to actually addressing the symptoms.

One of the major obstacles to the adoption of this kind of approach is that of the relative inefficiencies of contemporary and conventional approaches to the resolution of traumatic stress which can include high expense, painfulness and high drop out rates.

In psychology today there are emerging therapeutic modalities that can be used to calm the emotional distress associated with underlying life issues in a gentle, non invasive and efficient way. Modalities such as thought field therapy (TFT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing  (EMDR) can be very effective in removing the negative charge from memories of life events usually very quickly.

So in considering seeking treatment for an emotional disturbance, ask yourself “why do I do the things I do?” and just check whether there are any underlying unresolved life issues that may be contributing and bring them up with the mental health practitioner with whom you may consult. 




Semmens, C. G. (2010). Why do we do the things we do? Nova – Australia’s Holistic Journal , 194, 23.

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