When we’re talking about behaviours we want to change, habits that are no longer helpful to us, acknowledgement is the first step and, for some people, the hardest. Noticing our behaviours, our emotions and our triggers is absolutely vital if we are to make positive changes.
But I’ve realised, through my own experience, that acknowledgement doesn’t automatically equal change. It seems to be a facet of human nature (or at least my own!) that we can absolutely know that something is unhelpful or even harmful, but we continue to do it anyway.
Sometimes that is necessary, for a while, until we get so fed up of our repetitive behaviours and the cycle of feeling guilty or ashamed that we suddenly stop them forever, whether it’s quitting smoking, drinking or contacting a particular person who is bad for us.
Sometimes I think repeating the behaviour after acknowledgement can be a sort of little test, borne out of childlike curiosity or mild defiance. “I’ve done really well for two weeks… let’s message that person, just to say hi. It can’t hurt.” Or “I just want to see if eating that whole bar of chocolate even bothers me anymore. I probably won’t want it anyway.” I have totally done these things, and continue, frustratingly, to do so at times.
We make excuses, we justify and sometimes we sabotage our efforts without really thinking. Occasionally we fall back into those old patterns because they simply feel more comfortable, but sometimes it’s because we might be daunted by our achievements and sink back into believing that we’re not really worthy of this new lifestyle, this fitter body and healthier mind.
I don’t believe that it’s ever really easy to lose an old habit and create a new one. But it is doable. And taking those little steps back, designing little tests for ourselves or making excuses, just makes it infinitely harder. You know how it goes. You give in once, you give in six times that week…
But if you practise resisting the old habit and replacing it with a new, positive one–or, ideally, with just sitting with your feelings, thus identifying the triggers for your unwanted behaviour and giving them room to breathe without having any negative consequence on you–your old habit will weaken and the effort required to resist it each time will lessen.
I’m reluctant to call it willpower, because it’s more habitual than that–we are not always feeling motivated to make the right choice–but there is a sense of strength that comes when we realise that we can resist what we once ran to for comfort.
Pema Chodron writes in ‘How to Meditate: The Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind’ about the fact that scientists discovered: “When you do the habitual thing, when your mind is on automatic pilot and you’re swept away, lost in thought, or escalating into your emotions, it’s registered in the brain as deep grooves. They’re like habit grooves, and they get deeper every time you do the same thing. This is the actual neurological explanation for why it’s so hard to break a habit: it’s because we keep making the groove deeper and deeper.”
She goes on to say that, when you notice, acknowledge and see the habit with fresh eyes, you create a gap that allows your being to breathe and open up a whole new pathway. It is possible to predispose yourself to a new way of seeing which, on fMRI graphs actually appears as unblocking or opening new neurological pathways. “In other words, you’re creating your future here. The choices you make are creating your next moment, your next hour, your next day, your next month, your next year.”
This was extremely powerful to me when I read it. I knew this stuff innately, but to realise that these habitual patterns represent themselves so physically in my brain made it very real.
It’s a challenge that begins with acknowledgement, but I think the real work starts once that part is over. It’s what we do, repeatedly, after acknowledgement that really matters.
If you’re feeling a little like me this morning, tinged with frustration and a slight despondency about falling into the tempting trap of an old habit–make friends with yourself, right now. Don’t beat yourself up. It happened and it’s over. Be kind.
This moment is the one that matters. Only this moment. And the possibilities, if we create just enough of a pause between the event and our response, are endless.
Please do let me know how you get on today. Are there any particular habits or behaviours you are trying to change? I’d love to read about your successes–and your challenges. Have a wonderful day!