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How to Avoid Recurring Mistakes

If you’re tired of repeating mistakes, it’s time to build new coping habits.

Key points

  • Coping habits are what the brain automatically does when faced with discomfort or waning physical or mental resources.
  • Coping habits determine behavior under stress and are distinct from behavioral habits.
  • We must train the autopilot brain to activate better coping habits when the conditions that activated maladaptive ones recur.
  • Rationalizations must not interfere with the formation of new conditioned responses. Explaining or justifying coping habits ensures recurrence.

Coping habits are what the brain automatically does when faced with discomfort or waning physical or mental resources. They determine behavior under stress and are, therefore, distinct from behavioral habits, such as yelling at the kids. Yelling at the kids results from blaming them for the discomfort they seem to be causing. Blame is the autopilot response, which makes it harder to control the overt behavior resulting from it, in this case, yelling at the kids. If the autopilot coping response were to improve discomfort, the resulting behavior would seek to calm the children, not rev them up with yelling.

Therapy is great at developing insights that can be helpful for depression and many forms of personal and relationship discontent. But insight–understanding the why and how of behavior–does not change coping habits. Insight into why you yell at the kids won't alter the autopilot coping response of blame. In some cases, insight strengthens undesired coping habits by justifying them.

"I yell at the kids because my parents yelled at me and because, like my parents, they don't appreciate me."

Coping habits run on autopilot, bypassing consciousness, the cradle of insight.

Focus on Changing Coping Habits, Not Behavioral Habits

We can consciously stop behavioral habits with willpower, but willpower is easily depleted in stressful conditions with diminished physical and mental resources. That is, when we most need to curtail an undesired habit, we’re least able to do it. Conscious control of behavioral habits is usually too little, too late.

For example, after eating the whole cake, the over-eater remembers, “I should have had a V-8.” Tragically, after the partner is hit, the domestic violence offender remembers, “I should have taken a time out.” These are examples of what psychologists call “crossing domains.” Information learned in a calm emotional state is unlikely to be accessed in an aroused, stressful, or mentally diminished state. Mr. Hyde won’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in therapy or anger management class.

To overcome the restraint of crossing domains, we must recondition the autopilot brain to do something incompatible with the undesired coping habit when the conditions that activate it recur. Treatments that focus on what not to do, for example, don’t act aggressively, yell, disrespect, over-drink, or overeat, creating confusion about what to do instead. When the brain doesn’t know what to do under stress, it regresses to old habits, as do the brains of all mammals. That’s why they have basic training in the military and preseasons in sports, where skills are practiced under conditions of increasing stress.

A practice session of reconditioning the autopilot brain looks like this:

  1. I recall a time when I blamed, denied, or avoided responsibility, recalling my physical and mental states at the time.
  2. I imagine improving the situation (trying to make things a little better), appreciating (the issue is complex; I love my partner), connecting (realizing that the well-being of my partner is important to me), or protecting.
  3. I recognize that I like myself better when improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.

In my clinical experience, it takes about 500 practice sessions spread over six weeks to replace autopilot blame, denial, and avoidance with improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.

Caveat: We cannot recondition the autopilot brain with insight into possible causes, explanations, or justifications for self-defeating habits. Rationalizations interfere with the formation of a new conditioned response; discomfort must automatically motivate improving behavior. Explanations and justifications will merely reinforce blaming. Attempts to explain or justify coping habits of blame, denial, and avoidance create an inevitable recurrence.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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