I Know Better, But I Don’t Do Better
I’m a therapist who works with highly intelligent individuals.
One of the most common things I hear from my clients is that they know what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but don’t actually do it.
For example, one client had a boyfriend that she knew was unhealthy for her, but she couldn’t manage to leave him (I get it, I’ve been there too).
Another client knew she shouldn’t be so hard on herself, but she couldn’t stop.
Another knew why she needed stronger boundaries at work, but she still over-extended herself.
People caught in this space (knowing better but not doing better) are often filled with immense shame. Shame that says, “I’m a bad / broken / illogical / dysfunctional/ crazy person because I cannot manage this.”
The first thing I like to do with these clients is to reassure them they are not alone. I break down the shame by letting them know that this is something all humans struggle with, myself included.
It is especially poignant in highly intelligent and neurodivergent people because they have high levels of self-observation, analysis, and critical thinking. Their minds are intensely aware of the “logical” or “right” thing to do.
This intensity and frequency of self-analysis can be overwhelming and exhausting. When you add on self-judgment and shame, it can lead to a life that feels disappointing, crushing, and far less than one hopes.
For people stuck in self-judgment and “knowing better,” I often find they are disconnected from their emotions. It’s not that they don’t feel them. If anything, they usually feel overwhelming and painful. The disconnect comes in not accepting the emotions. They do not understand why they are present and wish they would just go away.
I teach clients to identify what needs (met or unmet) are fueling their emotions, a method developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
For example, an individual may feel joy when they talk to a loved one because it meets their need for connection.
In another instance, an individual may feel angry after a conversation with her friend because her needs for listening, presence, connection, and understanding were not met.
By understanding the need behind the feeling, we can understand why we feel the way we do. We can see our emotions as helpful messengers.
This perspective also helps us to understand the gap between “knowing better” and “doing better.” For example, for the client who wanted to end an unhealthy relationship, we looked at all of the emotions present. She was unhappy and was able to identify this was because she was not understood, heard, or seen by her boyfriend.
We then explored what emotions were present when she thought about breaking up. She identified fear. She was afraid of being alone. We looked at the needs behind that. She was able to identify the needs of belonging, connection, community, and safety.
It then made sense why she had difficulty leaving. She was not sure how she would get those needs met outside of her relationship. This insight also helped her to identify actionable steps, such as reaching out to family, building more friendships, and investing more time in her community.
Similar to this client, I find that when we dig deeper, there are clear explanations for why people have difficulty acting even though they “know better.”
Doing the deep work can be difficult and scary (and why I recommend people seek out a therapist), but it is worth it in the end. It brings self-compassion, understanding, and eventual action toward what people know will benefit their wellbeing.
I provide therapy for highly intelligent individuals with overwhelming thoughts and emotions.