Breaking Bad; A New Way to Break Old Habits

woman deciding whether to eat healthy food or sweet cookies

I have developed a 3 Step model of getting rid of old unwanted habits that I’m excited to share with you. This model is based on what has worked for me and my clients, as well as recent research in the field of habit change.

Some of this research has been in the field of mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a term that’s bandied about a lot lately, and simply put, means awareness.

One study found that the actual grey matter of meditators’ brains changed after just 8 weeks of learning and practicing mindfulness meditation. Specifically, the left frontal lobe, which governs positive feelings increased in size during this time, increasing the subjects’ capacity to experience positive emotion, or happiness.

It doesn’t matter what the habit is that you want to change. It can be eating sugar, procrastination, nail biting, playing video games, shopping and spending too much money, watching porn or anything at all.

I would like to outline this 3-step approach here:

Step #1: Mindfulness training

The first step in solving any problem is awareness of that problem. Sounds simple, but most people who engage in habits that they label negative are not aware that they are engaging in the behavior at the time.

Mindfulness teaches us to quiet the thoughts in our minds and focus on the object of meditation, which here is our breath. In this way we can train to become aware of subtle sensations, thoughts and emotions that are occurring in the moment.

Here’s a simple technique that you can do on your own:

Start by placing both hands, on your belly, just below your navel. Close your eyes and sit comfortably, either cross-legged on a cushion or up straight in a chair.

Notice how when you inhale, the belly expands and when you exhale it contracts. This is not a deep breathing exercise. Just breathe normally and observe your belly and your breath

So, it’s one, inhale, the belly expands, exhale, it contracts,
Two, inhale, expands; exhale, contracts. And so on until you’ve counted 10 complete breaths. When you notice your mind wandering off in thought, just gently bring it back to your breath, your belly, and the count. When you reach the count of 10, slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.

Remember, it’s not how often your mind wanders; (that’s a given) it’s how often you bring it back to the breath. Notice if there’s any difference between how you felt at the beginning of the exercise and how you feel now. Notice if there are any changes in your body. This is a great way to start the day, and is extremely portable because the breath is something you always have with you!
If you practice this on a daily basis, even if for just 10 minutes a day, you will feel more calm and your awareness will grow sharper.

Great, you might say, but what does this have to do with changing habits? If we can be more mindful of a negative habit, say nail biting, first while we’re doing it, and then when we first feel the urge to do it, in that moment we have a choice of whether or not to act on the impulse. It takes some practice and commitment, but I can attest to the fact that it can be done.

Step # 2: Working with Beliefs

Here I’m talking specifically about negative or limiting beliefs that get in the way of our optimal functioning. Some examples of these kinds of beliefs are, “I’m not good, pretty, smart, loveable, funny or whatever enough,” “I don’t deserve it,” “I can’t_______”, “I’ll never be able to have a good relationship, make enough money, loose weight, or _________.”

So how do negative beliefs relate to bad habits? Let’s take the nail-biting example again. Most people bite their nails or engage in any negative habit to cover unpleasant feelings. So the first step would be to notice the feeling that precedes nail biting. Often it is what is called free-floating anxiety, or a feeling of uneasiness.

As a thought always precedes a feeling, the next step is to trace the thought that triggered the negative emotion. If you spend even a few seconds, you can usually trace the underlying thought.

An example might be that I become anxious when I face a deadline and have too much work to do. That might be when I notice that I bite my nails. I then need to ask, what am I telling myself about myself right now? Let’s say that I find that I’m telling myself, “you never get things done on time, and you’re a failure.”

The next step is to recognize that this is a belief I hold, a thought, and not necessarily the truth. When I ask myself what is actually true in this situation, I might find that there are indeed times when I get work done on time, and that I’ve had at least as many successes in my work as failures.

Frequently, upon examination we find that the belief doesn’t hold water, and we need to substitute it with what is actually true. When we do this, our anxiety level decreases as does the need for the negative habit, in this case, nail biting.

Step #3: Core Transformation; seeing the positive intention of the negative belief

This is where the magic happens! There is always a positive intention of the part of us that holds a negative belief. So back to our example of nail biting:

If my belief is that I never get my work done on time and that I’m a failure, the first layer of positive intention I might find is protection. If I already believe this, it might not hurt as much if someone else says or thinks this about me.

If I go deeper and ask what is even more important than protection that this part wants for me, it might be to feel better about myself. If I imagine that I fully and completely am feeling good about myself, and ask, what might be even more important than that, it might be to take pride in my accomplishments.

If I ask what might even more important, I might find that it’s a feeling of well being, a glowing sense of all’s right in the world. This is a core state, and if we take the time to get to it, its well worth the effort. If I have this sense of well being in my core, I no longer need protection, or the belief, and therefore, certainly not the habit I want to break!

It is usually helpful in the beginning to be guided in this process, but after a short time, you can use it on yourself. When we consider the 3 Step process of Mindfulness, Negative Beliefs, and the Positive Intention behind them, we have a new model of changing negative behavior patterns. Look for more info on this in the coming weeks, and visit my website, for your free copy of my eBook, Mindfulness in Daily Life.

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