Q. What is your definition of a dysfunctional behavior? I'm personally sick to death of the term but I hear it everywhere!

A. My brain's opinion is that the word dysfunctional is simply the flip side to the word functional. Yes, it has become one of those fad words but it can be a fast short-hand method for identifying a behavior that isn't resulting in positive outcomes. I tend to use the terms bad behavior versus better behavior.

What is a bad behavior? Admittedly there are probably as many definitions as there are brains on this planet contemplating the topic. For me, a bad behavior is one that results in undesirable consequences. This perspective can help neutralize some of the subconsciously absorbed expectations that every brain internalizes, especially during childhood years. These expectations are often presented in terms of "that behavior is bad" versus "that behavior is good." There are few absolutes related to behavioral designations, so nomenclature typically has more to do with what the individuals making those pronouncements want and whatever it is they hope to gain or accomplish.

In adulthood, the question then becomes: if my bad behavior is resulting in negative outcomes (undesirable consequences), how can I develop a better behvaior so that I achieve positive outcomes (desirable consequences)? Some individuals exhibit a specific behavior and it seems to get them what they want initially (a perceived positive outcome for them), but the results to those around them are definitely undesirable and/or the long-term results to the individuals themselves are undesirable.

Take the person who numbs out painful feelings with too much alcohol (or prescription medications, or street drugs, or food, or gambling, or sex, or you name it). Take the person who numbs out painful feelings with too much alcohol (or prescription medications, or street drugs, or food, or gambling, or sex, or you name it). Yes, the behavior may temporarily help to subdue recognition of the emotional pain but also it typically results in others around that person picking up a lot of slack, making excuses for appointments not kept, and finding a way to get neglected work done. The undesirable outcomes can impact every aspect of the person's life as well as the lives of those around them. Even pets can suffer!

Many people bemoan undesirable consequences in life, when they recognize them, but have difficulty identifying and connecting the triggering behaviors with those negative outcomes. Some have been caught in the cycle of routine habits or additive behaviors and seem unaware, if not powerless, to alter them. Often they can be heard to whine, “If only I knew how to change,” or “It's too much work!” And, unfortunately, some get caught in the blame game, trying to shift responsibility for the negative outcome to others (usually inappropriately).

Everyone human being has problems. The difference between the people who thrive (versus those who just survive) is how they approach the recognition of desirable versus undesirable outcomes and the time and energy they invest in the improvement of related behaviors. They outwit, outlast, and outplay the dysfunctional behaviors (in the words of the popular TV series, Survivor) but they do so in a functional manner. That is, they learn how to tweak their behaviors to achieve positive outcomes. Some have even figured out how to utilize willpower in the way it was designed to be used most effectively.

There is good news. Current brain-function studies have opened windows of information that can help people to create better behaviors. Yes, you still to make choices and access willpower. When you understand the process more clearly and can picture the steps required, it can be easier to identify bad behaviors and develop better replacement behaviors that can result in more positive outcomes.