This part of your brain, often referred to as the reptile brain or lower brain, wants to ensure your survival – beyond that, it is not concerned about your overall well-being.
But however well-intentioned it may be, it is often misguided and holds us back from doing things like making positive change, venturing outside our comfort zone, or taking action on something that may seem intimidating.
As a society, we have been hijacked by our thinking. Our thoughts masquerade as “who I am”, when truly, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Instead, our thoughts are simply manifestations of conditioning and programming, our perception and beliefs, our expectations based on biases that we have developed. They are not innate; they are not who we are at our core. And the thing about thoughts is that they trigger emotions, and when the emotional center of our brain gets hijacked, we lose all logic and rational thinking. We then act in ways that are not in our best interests.
Your brain needs to make sense of everything in order to help you navigate through this world. So, it looks for patterns, which then allows for conditioned responses. Because the brain uses so much energy, it relies on having patterns that can be stored as pathways, so that it can react automatically.
This is why it can be so challenging to change a habit. It has become deeply engrained after doing the action so many times. Like a well-travelled path through the woods, it has etched a pattern into the brain.
It’s important to keep in mind that the first however many times we did the action that eventually turned into a habit – whether it was shopping, drinking alcohol, feeling the need to seek assurance from a partner, worrying, etc. – on some level it was helpful to us. It likely made us feel good or helped us to avoid strong emotions that may have felt threatening in the moment. The lower brain grasps onto the action as being protective, as providing safety. And when we continue to act on the urge to do the action, it reinforces for the brain that it is a “good thing” and it becomes a habit. At that point, it slides from our conscious awareness.
But habits, even those that turn out to be destructive, are not personal! They are not character flaws or personality traits. It’s simply the brain doing exactly what it is designed to do. And will continue to do until we gain a deeper level of insight about what’s truly going on.
A key strategy in overcoming habits is to learn how to gently and compassionately put some distance between "who you are at your core" and "the thoughts that you have". Especially when your thoughts are pushing and encouraging you to continue doing your habit, regardless of the cost to your health and well-being. When you gain this distance, it loosens the grip of your thoughts, lessening their believability and minimizing their power over you.
By developing a deeper level of mindfulness, we can watch the interplay of thoughts, emotions, urges, sensations, etc. without getting swept up and carried away by them. We can grow to understand that there is a “choice point” between feeling the urge and actually acting on it. Trying to control our habits, suppress them, or distract from them has the opposite result from what we intended – we actually strengthen and reinforce them just by placing our attention on them.
It’s important to keep in mind that whatever we focus on grows in importance in our minds. So, when we are intently focused on our habit, even when we’re trying not to do it, it is still holding our attention. “Will I ever be able to stop? “I really shouldn’t do it – I know better!” “Why do I keep doing this?!” We feed and fuel our habits in this way – with the energy of our attention - and they continue to grow more powerful.
What if instead, when you hear a thought in your mind that encourages you to act on a habit that you have rationally and objectively identified as being harmful or demoralizing to your well-being, you could recognize that it is not coming from “you”? What if you practice recognizing that the thought is coming from a part of your brain that is attempting to maintain status quo by maintaining a pattern, that was at one time, helpful? Our true nature, beneath the conditioning and programming, is whole, joyful, open, and loving. Anything that contradicts that is a part of your brain that has limited information and lacks awareness, mistakenly thinking it’s keeping you “safe”.
When you free up energy by withdrawing your attention from your habit, and from the self-criticism that often goes hand-in-hand with it, you can create what you do want, instead of fighting against what you don’t. You heal parts of yourself and eventually become someone who no longer feels the need to do that particular habit. You transcend it. That’s not to say you won’t backslide at times. That’s a natural and normal part of the process. But, with a deeper level of awareness, instead of criticizing or shaming yourself, you can celebrate the fact that you noticed what was happening and commit to continuing to notice.
If you’re still feeling a pull towards a habit that feels very compelling, even though you know you “should” change it, there is likely still a lesson there for you to learn. Be sure to practice self-compassion while you’re learning it!
Habits don’t happen overnight and they usually don’t change overnight. But, by building your awareness of what’s going on behind the scenes, and learning concrete ways to move past it, you can be free from the habits that have held you back!
I’d love to help you move past the habits that have held you back and build new ones that are energizing and empowering!
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Bobbi Beuree, Certified CAN Coach + Facilitator is located in Halifax, NS, and provides interactive 1:1 coaching services, as well as corporate workshops.