Bad Habits

bad habits

After my two appointments downtown today, I got in my car, turned onto Fifth Street and carefully made my way onto 71 N.  I’ve driven this route way too many times. In fact, I think my car knows the way to the freeway and to my house by now.


The point of me sharing this bit of information with you is because of what happened in today’s journey.  15 minutes after getting on the freeway, I was passing an exit when I realized that I didn’t remember much about getting there.  How is that possible?  How did I drive 15 minutes without really being aware of what was going on?  The thought terrified me.


I bet each of you have had this experience at one point or another.  You wake up in the morning and you have your routine.  Maybe you get up and automatically run the shower and jump in.  Maybe you instantly go over to the sink to wash your face and brush your teeth.  Whatever it is, if you do it enough times, you don’t have to think too much about what comes next.  In fact, you don’t have to think at all— you just do.


Research has been done to explore this very fact.  They positioned rats in a maze and monitored their brain activity to see how long it would take them to find their way out.  In the beginning, the rats needed to search and sniff to find their way.  Time and time again, they ran through the same maze.  As the number of times that they ran through the maze increased, their mental activity decreased.  The rats no longer had to think very hard to find their way because it had become their habit.


You probably don’t like being compared to a rat, but we experience this same exact effect. When you have completed the same task time and time again, you no longer have to be fully present.  Your brain can take a little rest. Thanks to habits, you get to preserve your brain energy for the more daunting tasks.


You know those positive affirmations that you enjoy reading on Facebook?  They make you feel good for that moment but you might have problems making them stick before the bad thoughts sneak up on you again. You know why?  The very same reason that you automatically get up in the morning and fix your breakfast without having to think so hard.  It’s possible that these same negative thoughts have become a bad habit for you.


They creep into your mind without you even being aware of it.  They run on an endless loop in your brain and reading a positive statement once a day is not going to solve the problem. Being told to “change your attitude” is not going to solve it either. The problem runs deeper than that.


The good news is that you can break this bad habit.  You can learn to change the thoughts in your head but you need to be present. You need to be engaged in the process and be at full brain capacity to make this change. By consistently monitoring the conversation in your head and using targeted strategies to change each negative statement into a more positive one, you can slowly change your life.


It’s hard to quit a bad habit. To make a change, it takes hard work, commitment and consistent awareness. However, it’s worth the work when you realize that the change can positively impact every single aspect of your life.


Facing the Fear

It all started five days ago. I was eating breakfast and I heard a rhythm of knocks at the door.  It stopped for a while, but it soon started up again.  Knock, knock, knock. I opened the door and looked around but I didn’t see anyone.  I went upstairs to focus on my work.


I wasn’t sitting at my desk for more than five minutes when I heard the rhythmic knocking again.  Knock, knock, knock, knock.  On and on it went until I ran back down the stairs and opened the door.  Again, I didn’t see anything and I closed the door.  I asked my husband later that day if he had heard that same sound emanating from the front door.  He too had wondered what the sound was and had opened the door to find nothing.


Finally, on the fourth day of knocking, my husband quietly walked out the side door and worked his way to the front of the house.  There, at the front door, was a Robin banging his head against the door’s brass kick plate, over and over again.


According to an expert on bird behaviors, this is about the time when they start feeling territorial.  They do their very best to keep other adult birds of the same sex outside of their territorial boundaries.  When a Robin notices its reflection in a window or mirror, it becomes agitated and raises its feathers and assumes dominant position.  Normally, that behavior is enough to make other robins leave their territory.


However, the “reflection” obviously also gets agitated and becomes equally dominant.  If the robin sees his reflection repeatedly, it becomes more and more agitated and aggressive.  The bird gets determined to drive the “other bird” away.


Apparently, my robin friend was quite aggravated with the nerve of the “brass plate” bird.  No matter how much he threw his weight (and head) at the bird, the “brass plate” bird continued to fight back.  Therefore, that bird felt obligated to come back to my front door over and over again to show the other bird who was boss.


But we know the truth.  The “brass plate” bird was only a reflection and didn’t truly exist.  However, for my friend the Robin, it was very, very real and threatening.  The bird’s response to the threat was the same ritualistic behavior every time, which, as we know, was not bringing him the outcome that he wanted.


What do you fear in life? It’s possible that you have fears that are keeping you from moving forward.  Like our friend the Robin, your usual way of dealing with these threats are based on past behavior.  Do you have a coping pattern of pulling the covers over your head or do you persevere and face whatever’s in front of you?  Chances are, you repeat this ritualistic behavior over and over.  It’s very possible that your fear is about as real as that birds reflection in the brass kick plate.


Your success on moving forward in life is dependent upon your ability to see the fear for what it truly is— only a reflection of your past negative experiences.  Your success on moving forward is dependent upon your ability to change your patterns and find a new way to approach the fear.


Only then will you stop banging your head against the brass kick plate.

Learning (and Unlearning) Experiences

My pug Miles and I were thoroughly enjoying our walk when we ran into a neighbor and her puppy.  The puppy was twice the size of Miles, but that never bothered Miles before. In his head, Miles thinks he’s the size of a Great Dane.  The two dogs had never met before, so we let them sniff each other and become acquainted.


It wasn’t long before the two of them started playing and running circles around each other.  It also wasn’t long before our two leashes were wrapped around the dogs and us.  As they became out of control and totally tied up, the other playful dog had Miles in a position where he couldn’t move. There was no slack on the leash and the puppy, totally in control, had him down on the ground. That’s when Miles, the always even-tempered, happy-go-lucky Pug became the devil dog.


Miles definitely made the first move and attacked. While he had been playing a minute ago, now he was growling and ferociously trying to bite.  The puppy reciprocated with the same behavior as we tried to control the situation.  I apologized profusely as I pulled my growling pug off the dog.  At that moment I felt like a mom that was apologizing for my son’s bad behavior.


As I left the scene of the crime and continued walking, I thought about the incident. I hadn’t ever witnessed that behavior before and I was perplexed. Miles was the most unaggressive animal on the planet. Everyone knows that Pugs, by nature, are not aggressive dogs.  And then it occurred to me.  Less than a year ago, we were taking a walk when a dog sitting in his own yard suddenly lunged at Miles.  He hardly saw it coming, and neither did I. It was terrifying to both of us. A couple hours later, I realized that he had a rather large wound and he ended up in surgery.


Even though Pugs have absolutely wonderful temperaments, Miles had learned a valuable lesson from the incident.  He now knew that he needed to be on his guard with every dog because they couldn’t be trusted.  His brain was now imprinted to approach each dog interaction with wariness and high alert; chances are, they will attack. Therefore, he now knew that at the first inclination of aggressiveness, he needed to attack to survive.  Biology ruled this interaction.


Why am I sharing this with you?  Human brains process fearful situations in a similar way.  If you have experienced a situation from the past where you felt seriously threatened, that information has been stored away for future use. Your brain has imprinted this experience so you can protect yourself in the future.


So now I want you to think about your own life.  Have you ever been in a bad relationship that ended in a hurtful manner?  If you have, you probably had difficulty trusting and believing in a new relationship because of those old feelings popping up. Maybe it was the pain and trauma of being fired from a job that left your emotions raw. Because of it, you no longer can view your new employer in the same trusting manner. The truth is that you will never go back to that original person that you trusted so blindly.  You’ve had an experience that has changed you forever.  Instinctively, you now scan for clues to make sure that your situation is safe.


But here’s the good news.  Unlike Miles, you are not tied to your instinctual behavior.  You can recognize your behavior and learn to question your actions.  You can make sense of your reactions and remind yourself that you don’t have to respond in such an intense, aggressive manner.


The bottom line is that you’re lucky. Unlike Miles, you can choose how you want to view the world and react to your surroundings. You can move forward in life and change the way you think. Do it!