- The pain of our bad habits is where the action of real change lies.
- Your brain forms bad habits to deflect discomfort and bring pleasure. It is short-sighted and can't see your goals.
- True habit change requires going beyond willpower and positivity to updating your brain's sense of the pay-out and costs of your habits.
Aspirational memes and motivational quotes and catchphrases abound online. When it comes to breaking bad habits of reaction to suffering, it can certainly feel good to get a quick dose of positivity!
Personally, I turned 50 in November. There were moments of joy and sharing with family and friends, and there were moments of suffering. The suffering was the result of my habit of repeating and fixating on thought stories of expectation for my now-squarely midlife status. What I rediscovered and have known professionally in my work for many years is that aspirational jolts of positivity are not enough.
Bad habits like this must be felt for what they cost, what they take. Only when I am willing to hold onto my hat and look squarely at what my unskillful habits take from me and from others—the compound interest of suffering they incur—is a willingness to do the work of change possible.
Only when I feel the pain of my unskillful habit of thought-fixation without flinching can I take honest stock of the poor pay-out of continuing to sign up for this habit. Only with courageous clarity can I see that while such habits may give moments of relief, certainty, or control, they ultimately rob me of being present and enjoying what I have. The cost of such habits also includes the missing of opportunities—nuances of meaning, solution, and creation that tend to nestle into these here-and-now moments.
So, here’s my question for this week: Want suffering? If so, then continue doing the following:
- Fixating on unrealistic stories of expectation
- Blaming oneself or others
- Wondering “Why me?” or “Why this?”
- Doubting oneself
- Self-medicating discomfort
- Holding that grudge
- Harboring resentment
- Heaping shame on oneself or others
- Saying one thing and feeling/meaning/wanting another
- Dominating/controlling others
- Lecturing/having to be right
Obviously, it’s just a short list of the many ways I—you—can play short-term “habit-defense” against discomfort and then create heaping helpings of more suffering in the long run.
A Lesson From Organic Gardeners
Organic gardeners have something important figured out. They know the importance of aligning their efforts with how things actually change and grow in nature. They don't force the sprouting of wonderful fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The greatest organic gardeners know that the best outcomes happen when you patiently and diligently show up consistently to the change principles that actually work. One of those natural principles is to use nature itself as the best fertilizer of what you want to grow.
That's right, nature's fertilizer: organic garbage—composted waste and sometimes crap itself! Compost contains the best nutrients for seeds to spark to life and grow.
You can do the same with the bad habits you want to break and the new ones you want to sprout. It starts with getting clarity on what your bad, unskillful habits are and then pausing to reflect— deeply—as to how these habits are affecting you and your life.
Dr. Jud Brewer, in his bestselling book, Unwinding Anxiety, summarizes the research on how your brain maintains bad habits because the human brain is wired to put habits on autopilot. Habits are especially likely to cable-length in your brain if they give you a quick exit ramp from emotional or physical discomfort or snag up some pleasurable resource.
When you try to break bad habits, you (and most of us) tend to launch too quickly toward achieving grand results based on positive thinking and willpower. Brewer's (and others') research is clear that rainbow thoughts and unicorn-horn–pointed willpower don't work well. Your motivation fizzles, new habit change efforts fade. Another New Year's Eve arrives, and you re-enlist in the same positivity-willpower charade.
It's time you considered organic gardening your bad habits. It is much more consistent with the research (and the principles of organic gardening) for you to bring time and mindful attention to the feelings, sensations, and emotions that come up for you during your bad habits. Mindful contemplation of what actually happens in your thoughts, bodily sensations, and behavior, and the results these "loops" or habits bring you leads your brain out of the habit loop knot.
Mindfully feeling the results of your bad habits (without tipping over into the shame–blame game) allows your brain to snap out of its habit autopilot trance and update its assessment of how rewarding these habits actually are. Only awareness leads to change. Thinking, willing, or believing won't cut it (or those habit loops!)
Today, try sitting, reflecting, journaling, and just breathing through the discomfort of clear inner acknowledgment of the costs incurred by one of your own less-than-ideal habits. Breathe, feel, and ask: What does this habit give and what does it take?
Learn more about habit "decluttering" and find free resources at: https://linktr.ee/drmitchabblett.
Brewer, J. (2021). Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows You How to Break The Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind. Avery.
Brewer, J. & Abblett, M. (2021). The Unwinding Anxiety Card Deck: 60 Science-Based Strategies to Break Cycles of Worry and Fear. PESI Publications.