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Five Very Common But Unhealthy Psychological Habits

Why we maintain damaging psychological habits

We all have bad habits, some of which we’re more aware of than others (read Top 50 Relationship Pet Peeves here). Anyone who has tried to change behavioral habits such as fingernail biting, cigarette smoking, or interrupting people before they finish speaking, knows how challenging it can be to do so. Unfortunately, psychological habits can be even harder to change than behavioral ones. And yet, many of our most common psychological habits are also extremely damaging to our mental health and emotional well-being.

One of the reasons we maintain maladaptive psychological habits, despite the harm they cause, is we convince ourselves they have some benefit. Our erroneous rationalizations allow us to minimize or ignore the negative impact the habit has on our psychological health and our relationships. Therefore, in order to change these damaging habits we must first realize the damage they do and disavow ourselves of the false belief that they are beneficial in any way.

Five Common Psychologically Damaging Habits

1. Being Self-Critical When Our Self-Esteem is Already Low: The most common and most damaging psychological habit we have is employing negative self-talk when our self-esteem is already hurting. We often respond to rejection, failure, and other blows to our self-worth with an inner dialogue that is punitive, harsh, and even abusive. We rationalize this brutal assault on our self-esteem by telling ourselves we ‘deserve it’ or that we’re just ‘preparing’ ourselves for future disappointments. Yet, annihilating our confidence and demolishing our self-worth only makes it exponentially more difficult for us to succeed and in essence, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The best way to avoid future rejection, failure, and other blows to our self-worth is to nurse our self-esteem back to health when it’s hurting rather than stomp it into the ground (read Why Self-Esteem Functions as An Emotional Immune System here).

2. ‘Psyching Ourselves Out’ after a Failure: One of the most common responses to failure is to convince ourselves that although we’ve tried, our goal is impossible to reach and that our chances of doing so in the future are poor. We believe we’re just being ‘realistic’ and that it is prudent to lower our expectations to avoid the inevitable disappointment to come. However, such thoughts are neither ‘realistic’ nor prudent as we are merely succumbing to the perceptual distortions that get activated after a failure. Instead of indulging such fears and damaging our motivation as well as our chances of future success by doing so, we need to have an open mind and a positive mindset. We can then analyze our failure, identify all our areas of weakness, and plan ways to strengthen, manage, or work around them in the future (read How to Become Failure Proof here).

3. Pushing People Away When We Feel Lonely: Loneliness has a devastating impact on both our mental and physical health. One of the most common habits we develop when we’re lonely is to unconsciously push away the very people with whom we might forge deeper and more satisfying personal or social connections. We feel so vulnerable to rejection and so convinced others will disappoint or hurt us, we believe that avoiding situations in which we might get hurt or keeping a low profile when we do attend them is the smartest thing we can do. Sadly, we don’t see how our avoidance, caution, and suspicion push other people away and makes them less likely to approach or engage us on a deeper level (read Why Loneliness is A Trap and How to Break Free here).

4. Indulging the Urge to Brood and Ruminate: While it’s natural to reflect on upsetting, angering, or distressing events when they occur, the point of doing so is to figure things out, learn what we can, and decide on potential action we might take, as reaching these insights eases our internal tension and allows us to move on. But sometimes we get stuck. We replay the same scenes, worries, or experiences in our minds, reach no new insights, and experience no easing of internal tension. Indeed, indulging the urge to brood and ruminate unproductively only increases our emotional distress and makes the habit of replaying the same scenes and worries even stronger and harder to resist (read The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding here). We rationalize our compulsive rehashing of things by telling ourselves that ‘processing’ our feelings in this way must be good for us. However, we are not ‘processing’ our feelings at all because brooding and rumination does not lead to insight, learning, or action, only to demoralization and passivity. Unless we take a problem-solving approach and fight the urge to stew over the same thoughts, we are likely to become stressed out, miserable, irritable, and increasingly depressed.

5. Distancing Ourselves When We Feel Guilty Instead of Repairing the Relationship: Guilt usually arises when we intend to do or have done something that can cause harm to another person. To ease our guilt we avoid the action or take corrective steps if we've already caused harm by apologizing and repairing any damage our relationship might have sustained. But studies indicate that our apologies are typically extremely ineffective and often fail to garner authentic forgiveness (read The Science of Effective Apologies here). As a result, the tension between us and the other person lingers, as does our guilt, which we manage by avoiding the person and damaging the relationship even further. We rationalize our behavior by telling ourselves that we’ve already apologized (even if poorly) and therefore the remaining tension is the other person’s fault. We fail to realize that our apology was deficient in that it likely lacked the most 'active' ingredient—a fleshed out and clear empathy statement that conveys we ‘get’ how our actions impacted the other person from their perspective.

By opening our eyes to the rationalizations that allow us to maintain these damaging psychological habits we will be able to challenge them, and in time, replace them with healthier versions—habits that promote psychological health and emotional resilience.

View my short and quite personal TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:

To learn more about damaging psychological habits and how to replace them with healthy ones, check out Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

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