Learning--it's what we all do. Every day, in uncountable ways, we learn things. And, as our lives march down the road, different behaviors develop, some forming habits (or automatic reactions). Any single situation could cause a vast number of reactions, sometimes those reactions begin to sabotage our happiness. We seldom think much about our learning history, and it begins to control us without our realizing it. If we have developing self-defeating habits, those patterns can hurt our chances of a fulfilling life. When we repeatedly do harmful things, most of us ask, "Why do I keep doing things that are so self-defeating?" The answer is…..because we learned to react that way. Unfortunately, we only think about the “why” after a self-defeat, not before. To change sabotaging habits, we will need to think about them before sabotaging ourselves.
Hot Experiences and Learning
To understand how strong unhealthy habits are, first we need to know how strong our feelings were when we learned them. Emotions are a built in alerting systems. Feelings often occur strongest when warning us about possible risks and threats. A real, or imagined, risk can easily trigger strong, painful emotions, and flood us with stress or dread, sometimes beyond our ability to handle them well. Psychologists call such a strong reaction “dysregulation of emotion.” And….these feelings heat-up learning. Hot experiences make the chances of a habit (even one that’s self-defeating) greater. At first, the sabotaging reactions occur only when situations are quite similar to the original events. As the habits develop, we find ways to escape or avoid reminders, and we learn a new, self-defeating, habit: isolation. Our hope of avoiding painful reminders distances us from fun experiences and the warmth of closeness with others.
The Pesky Problem of Generalization
Once a habit is learned, it begins to appear more and more. Situations, similar to the original learning moment, begin to trigger the overwhelming feelings and the related self-defeating habits. Even if we just anticipate having those painful emotions, we react to avoid. The expansion of these habits, beyond the original situation, is called “generalization of learning.” When our past has too many negative experiences, we learn to generalize that most of life will hurt us. We see life as threatening and painful. Generalization can cause irrational reactions when the real-life moment contains no actual risks. We become victims of the pesky problem of generalization, expanding the isolation in our lives.
Why These Habits Defeat Us
Once generalization spreads (like the roots of a weed), we react so automatically that we self-sabotage without understanding why. We feel angry, sad, afraid….even when we know the situation does not fit our feelings. Usually, these well-oiled habits confuse our partners, friends, and co-workers. Others do not understand why we are feeling and reacting so strongly, so they become alienated from us. Our habits push them away, and they gladly exit—causing more isolation and loneliness. Eventually, we become angry at ourselves. We end up feeling doomed to repeatedly ruin our lives. Our histories defeat us through these learned habits of avoidance, isolation, and risk-aversion. We sabotage ourselves more and more.
Winning over Self-defeating Habits: Your New, Future History
Write a Plot Twist: Think of your life as a book with pages written every day. If the story of your life has a self-defeating storyline, you must first decide to change your life’s “plot.” Most of us are taught that past behaviors predict future actions, and often that’s true. But, to change self-destructive patterns, we must first believe we can change those habits. A new life begins by accepting that we can control our reactions…in the here and now. We have the ability to create a new storyline of our future life.
Controlled by your self-defeating habits?
Know What Triggers Your Self-defeating Reactions: We really can change unhealthy habits, by re-engineering our reactions. The change grows out of knowing the triggers of our sabotaging patterns. By understanding these triggers, we set the stage to create new, healthy habits. One great way to learn your triggers is to keep a diary of your self-defeating habits. The diary should include a description of the key features of the situation, your feelings, and your behaviors. The diary helps us to understand when we are most likely to sabotage ourselves before we defeat ourselves, not afterwards.
Control your Triggers: Re-engineering our lives involves taking control of what we expose ourselves to. If we are attracted to people who always seem to hurt us, we want to stay away from people like that. If we avoid social events with friends, we go out with those friends. The key to overcoming isolation and loneliness is to control who, and what, we allow into our lives. We change when we manage our triggers and build healthy experiences into our life.
Replace Self-defeating Habits: Old habits never just disappear: but they can be replaced. In addition to controlling our triggers, we also benefit from building healthy habits into life. Involvement in healthy situations gives us naturally rewarding experiences, and those rewards build strong, happy habits. If we begin to feel old, overwhelming feelings, we replace avoidance with skills to soothe our emotions. We calm ourselves and take charge of reactions—psychologists call this “emotional regulation.” Self-soothing can be as simple as taking a deep breath or centering ourselves at our core. It can involve distracting our attention for a moment. And these new, calming habits become stronger as they work repeatedly. Healthy reactions forge healthy habits.
Keep Moving Forward: When old habits fight back, do not be surprised. All of us will risk temporarily falling back into old patterns. The key to permanent change is keeping our minds in the present, and on the next moment. We can control the now, and the next moment—but not the past. We move forward into happiness by shifting our perspective to a mind-set of opportunity, in the here and now. The new perspective allows us to avoid self-criticism and write happier pages in our life’s book.
The Final Word
No one chooses to self-sabotage. We learned self-defeating habits and feelings from unfortunate pasts. In the todays of our lives, we can change the impact of the past. We can build a new "future past," so that, in a month or a year, our life heads in a better direction. Self-defeat ends as we teach ourselves to be happy.