Dr. Caroline Leaf – The human brain is designed to be habitual—this has helped us survive over the centuries. But what happens when we build toxic habits that hold us back? How do we overcome negative thinking patterns that keep us stuck? In this podcast (episode #206) and blog, I speak with social psychologist, bestselling author and podcast host Dr. Amy Johnson about how we can find true and lasting freedom from unwanted habits, how to not be afraid of change, how to build new habits based on insight, not willpower, and how to help someone change without becoming an enabler.
As Amy notes in her book, The Little Book of Big Change: The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit, a thought is essentially our ability to have an experience. This experience can be either good or bad; what is important it how we react to the experience and take it in.
If you are dealing with a recurring issue or addiction and nothing has helped you so far, it is not because you are broken or there is something wrong with you. The solutions you tried could not fix you because you don’t need fixing in the way you think you do. Your brain is like a machine; it is demanding that you do something or act in a certain way because it has been conditioned by your behavior (which often happens unintentionally). It is not something that needs to be fixed; it needs to be shifted and changed by your insight and understanding. You control the process—it does not control you. You are not bound by your past. You are free to be who you want to be; you don’t have to walk around in fear and shame.
Indeed, overcoming a bad habit or addiction is not about making something go away or stop. It is about learning how to be free of the urges to act or think in a certain a way, separating yourself from them and observing these desires as an experience, not a necessity. This deep insight will increase your self-compassion, helping you recover, readjust and overcome what you are facing. We need to see our urges as moving, changing experiences that we don’t have to act on or believe. If a thought or desire comes back, this doesn’t mean we are still sick or we have failed; it is just a passing memory. We don’t need to fear it, because we understand that it is a fleeting experience, not an illness or disease.
Essentially, where we direct our energy, the brain follows. This becomes a bad thing when we take an experience and make it a part of our own narrative, rather than letting it move through us without latching onto it. The more energy we give this habit, the more room we give it in our mind and life. Overcoming bad habits and addictions means shifting your mental energy away from the thoughts behind these habits—they are slowly dying, even though they may still affect your behavior in some way. The key point is that the habit or addiction no longer owns you. Breaking a bad habit is not about elimination, it is about shifting your energy away from the habit. Where your mind goes, your brain and body follows!
When it comes to breaking a bad habit, if you just focus on your willpower, you keep giving the bad habit mental energy by thinking about it constantly, and it stays alive. So, what’s the solution? When you are dealing with a toxic thought or habit, it is tough to do much in the moment, because this is often when we are at our weakest—it almost feels like we have been hijacked by our thinking. It is far more important to focus on the bigger picture and the insights you will gain before and after, which help you move forward. In the moment, the best thing you can do is let go and let the feelings move through you so you can “reset” instead of pushing away or numbing your feelings. When you are calmer, you can start accessing the wisdom of your experiences.
If someone you love is battling with an addiction or toxic habit, help them explore this. Be with them as they try to discover who they are and how their experience works. Be present and help them see that they are not broken or ill. Help them gain insight into what their experiences are telling them. Have those deep, hard conversations—this will allow them to tap into their natural wisdom. Don’t see the person as broken or ill; don’t just assume that they are doing this to upset you or make your life difficult. See the truth behind their behavior and know that they are doing what they do to cope; they are in pain and are afraid of facing their experience.