Exercise – Bad behavior

Suggested time allocation: 15 minutes


We sometimes react in ways that we are not proud of: we explode in anger, we’re mean to people we care about, we hide our feelings, or we’re just unreasonably anxious. While painful, such moments can be opportunities to learn about ourselves, our personality, our inner conflicts and our needs. In this exercise we’re going to try to explore one such experience. The results may vary a lot depending on the experience you pick. The more loaded with emotion the experience is the better.

The exercise

Take about 3 minutes for each step.

  1. Recognition: Think of the last time you felt a strong emotional reaction to an event, strong anxiety, or you behaved in a way that you regret. Your reaction may have been entirely justified or over the top – it doesn’t matter. Just write about what happened without judgment. Describe the scene, the surroundings, background noises, the temperature, the light. Describe what was said and done by each person present.
  2. Exploration: List your feelings towards of each person and thing in the situation.
  3. Reflection: Now try to explain the emotions of each of the other people from a first-person perspectives, e.g. “Person x: I felt… because…”.
  4. Seeing patterns: List all the times that you remember feeling similar emotions. For example, if you were angry, list things that make you angry in a similar way. If you simply behaved in a hostile way, list times when you behaved similarly. If you were upset, list times when you were upset. Brainstorm and list as many as you can.
  5. Consolidate: Reread everything you wrote. Underline things that seem important, contradictory or surprising. Write a few lines about these. Pay particular attention to any recurring patterns (e.g. are you angry/upset/distant in particular types of situations?) Mark with an asterisk sentences that might be worth further exploration at a later time. Either continue exploring these points now, or schedule another writing session to do so.


Freud first developed and systematized the idea that we have different ways of repressing thoughts, memories and desires, and that such repression may lead to unexplained dysfunctions or neuroses. This idea remains somewhat controversial, since it’s almost impossible to know for sure whether a particular behavior is the result of something repressed, or should be taken at face value. For example, I may have a feeling that a particular person hates me. This might be explained by me having a repressed hatred for them and projecting my dislike onto them; Or, I might simply be correctly intuiting their feelings. A similar game can be played with many of Freud’s “defense mechanisms”. These are: repression, projection of our own feelings onto others, and rationalization of our behavior.

However, you can benefit from this exercise regardless, if you simply use it as a way of openly and non-judgementally questioning yourself. Simply being more aware of our feelings and behavior teaches us important things about ourselves.

I highly encourage you to reread what you wrote a few days later. You may find that with fresh eyes you are able to see things more clearly.

Remember: you’re an observer of your mind, not its victim.

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