Charles Duhigg wrote a truly remarkable book entitled The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. His personal example was a habit of taking a "cookie break" at work that was adding unhappy-making pounds around his middle. It was a brilliantly simple way to illustrate that every habit—whether results are positive or negative—starts out as a choice but ends up as a formula our brain automatically follows:
Cue, Routine, Reward. Repeat.
Here we are, the only fully conscious beings roaming the planet. Dreamers who have proven time and time again that we can create nearly anything we can visualize. We can accomplish, plan, collaborate, communicate, execute, inspire, motivate, catalyze, heal, transform, transcend, and defy all odds—including at times, the laws of nature and the boundaries of time and space. We not only have the power of thought, we can observe our own thoughts.
In order for our human mind to free up bandwidth for all those God-like creative super powers, our ever-efficient brain wants to cruise-control through anything that no longer requires attention or thinking. The area of the brain that handles these off-loaded responses also deals with survival instincts including arousal, fear response, and conditioned responses to pain and pleasure. And it's this "primitive" part of our brain that connects us most closely to our animal nature.
That's right, in a very real sense, we are Pavlov's dogs: We can be conditioned (or condition ourselves) into any non-thinking, automated response through reward or punishment. Most of us know that process by its nickname, Habit. In a perfect world our habits would all be positive. But we don't live in a perfect world, not even close.
Our lives are filled with cues and triggers: Stress, anxiety, fear, loss, depression, self-loathing, body image issues, boredom, loneliness, unresolved trauma, mental illness, emotional pain, physical pain, bad news, good news—people, places, and things. Now consider the flood of opportunities to escape, medicate, tune out, turn on, calm down, and get high. Mix well with the primitive brain's deep under-belly influences like memory, motivation, pain, pleasure, and survival. It's no mystery that our culture is drowning in self-defeating behavior patterns and full-blown addictions.
In the appendix to his book, Charles explains that everyone who discovers the "science of habit" is hoping for a secret formula to rapid and sure change. No such thing exists because the formula varies from person to person and behavior to behavior. He does suggest that we dig to the bottom of the "reward" we are truly seeking and start substituting a healthy/positive "routine" that offers the same benefit. Which sounds simple enough—until the moment a craving or urge hits.
Having an itch you won't let yourself scratch is going to run the gamut from mildly uncomfortable all the way to freakishly unbearable.
It takes time and sustained effort for our primitive brain to form new neural pathways of cue-routine-reward, and it can be ever so compelling when it's convincing us that pretty much anything we feel like doing or eating or drinking in the moment is "good" for us in some way. Something we deserve, something we will enjoy, a little relief, a bit of relaxation. Life is short and way too tough and we can start fresh tomorrow. (My brain is wild about the idea that tomorrow is the perfect day for any positive changes.) In the case of negative habits that have progressed into physical or psychological addictions or both, that lizard brain clings to the old routine with Rambo survival fierceness.
That's where our higher brain power kicks in, our ability to "be with" discomfort without giving in to that loud scream or the cleverly disguised self-sabotaging impulse. Which is not the same as resisting. "Being with" means staying as peaceful as possible and observing the flood of thoughts and feelings. Maybe grabbing a journal and dumping out every thought and feeling. Noticing and describing body sensations. Closing our eyes and taking a deep dive into "feeling what we feel" without judgments or stories. What is it, exactly? Deprived, anxious, frustrated, angry, hopeless—unbearably sad?
It would be impossible to estimate how much time and energy we invest in trying to fix, change and deny our emotions, especially the ones that shake us at our very core like hurt, jealousy, loneliness, shame, rage and grief. —Debbie Ford
Few of us grew up learning how to accept and move through the full spectrum of our emotions without numbing or buffering, much less how to heal our wounds and release trauma. In the words of Rumi, "Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.” But we do live in a world where self-help and professional support resources are everywhere, including therapists who are working with promising new modalities.
Habit may be our worst enemy, but it's also our best friend along the journey to health and wholeness. The way our miraculously efficient brain forms neural pathways of cue-routine-reward works for us too—but with one teensy wrinkle. Most of the habits we want to break fall into the "quick fix" category. Immediate gratification, fast relief. The positive, healthy habits we want to form are more likely to offer delayed rewards.
For a while it might feel like all push and no glide, but the easiest path is straight through for a couple of reasons. Our primitive brain's craving patterns fade the fastest when the reward stops cold. Intermittent reinforcement keeps the itch alive and often makes it stronger. Being consistent with our new cue-routine-reward cycle also gives our primitive brain the time it needs to form cravings for earned rewards. Before long, our miraculous body is going to be shouting out loud and clear messages: MORE OF THIS! More healthy nourishment, exercise, time in nature, outdoor adventure, yoga, meditation, creative pursuits, meaningful activism, daring exploration, loving relationships, and the joys of deep intimacy. Whatever it might be that lights you up and turns you on. What might that be?
Every human has four endowments—self awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom... The power to choose, to respond, to change. —Stephen Covey