Harnessing the power of habits to change your self-perception.
Anyone who’s ever tried to give up eating meat, quit smoking, or start running every morning knows how powerful habits can be. They are more than just simple behaviors, and they form an essential part of who we are.
I’ve often heard that we are the sum of all of our actions, and if this is true, then the ones we repeat the most become our identity. That’s how you go from alcohol-drinker to alcoholic, or from young Padawan to Jedi.
Habits are patterns of behaviour that become worn into our brains. Someone who wakes up, takes a cold shower, pours a cup of coffee, and reads the morning news in that order every single morning ingrains that pattern into their brain in the form of neural pathways.
Everything we do is governed by impulses firing across synapses, or spaces between certain cells that guide communication in the brain. When any behavior or pattern is repeated enough, the synaptic pathways associated with that pattern become more accessible. As a result, particular behaviors become almost instinctive.
In other words, to the brain, wake-shower-coffee, in that order, is practically instinctive. One action triggers the next, and thus, a habit is formed.
Mental States Are Also Habits
The thing that most people forget though, is that your state of mind is a habit just like any other. Being a negative or a positive person is the result of habituated behaviours, just like following your cold shower with a hot cup of coffee.
And just like your caffeine addiction, negative thought patterns can be triggered by a specific action you repeat at a certain time of the day.
For some people, it may be right before waking up and dreading the day ahead. For others, it may happen as you’re brushing your teeth and scrutinizing your face in the mirror, or it may even manifest itself as a 3 am bout of insomnia when you start questioning your life’s purpose.
A year ago following a life-altering trip to India, for example, I realized I was actually a negative person despite being all sunny on the outside. I realized that the first thing I would do in the morning before getting up was to go through all the reasons why I didn’t want to wake up that morning. I would think of all the work I had to do, and all the other stuff I needed to check off my list. When I finally managed to dig myself up from under the covers, I would head to the bathroom and look in the mirror. I would scrutinize the face looking back at me, nitpicking everything that was wrong with it. I would go over all of my flaws again and again, and that’s how my day would start. Every single morning.
Negativity is not so much about how other people perceive you, it’s about how you perceive yourself. You can be a very positive person outwardly, but incredibly cruel to yourself on the inside. Your inner monologue matters more than you think.
Reframing Our Approach to Habits
Our current assumptions about how habits work are typically misguided. We might, for instance, see habits as being the sum of physical behaviours acquired by repetition, and assume that they only affect our material circumstances and body.
We can reframe this approach, however, to better reflect the reality of our habits. Habits are, indeed, a sum of physical or mental behaviours acquired by repetition. They not only affect our body, though, but also our self-perception and state of mind — just as much as our material experience.
We often make the huge mistake of assuming that our state of mind is an unchangeable part of who we are. We will often describe ourselves within a spectrum ranging from introverted to extroverted, or pessimistic to optimistic.
“I’m a pretty shy and cynical person,” we might claim.
But in reality, negativity is a habit just like any other. And the good news about this is that habits can change.
The Joy of Living (2007), by Mingyur Rimpoche wittily combines scientific knowledge with Buddhist insights to explain how the mind functions. According to the book, it’s perfectly possible to redirect synaptic pathways to change how our brain cells communicate. In plain English, negative behavioral patterns can be changed by bringing awareness to them. Psychologists refer to this kind of transformation as ‘cognitive restructuring’. Through applying attention as well as intention to an experience, we are able to shift the meaning of that experience from negative to positive. In other words, we are literally able to change how our brain cells communicate by observing our behaviors and intending to change them.
“Over time, cognitive restructuring establishes new neuronal pathways in the brain, particularly in the limbic region, where most sensations of pain and pleasure are recognized.” (Mingyur Rimpoche, 2007)
Old assumption: I’m doomed to be a negative person because that’s just who I am.
Reframe: A negative self-perception can be changed through cognitive restructuring. Shifting your experience from negative to positive by becoming aware of a mental habit and being committed to change it.
So that’s the theory. But where do we begin on our habit-changing journey?
Step 1: Recognizing the Bad Habit
The first step towards making the quantum leap from negativity to positivity is to identify what triggers your negative thought patterns in the first place. In Mingyur’s words, this means applying attention to a certain experience and the mental reactions that are associated with it.
Pay attention to the key moments during your day when your inner critic switches on the most. For some people it can be in the shower, when you are going over everything you have to do during the day. For others it can be just before you go to bed, when you are going over everything you should have said or done, but didn’t.
Whatever it is, the simple act of paying attention to the key moments when your negative feedback switches on the loudest will kickstart the process of cognitive restructuring — transforming your negativity from an identity to a condition that can be changed.
Step 2: Making Amends
Negativity is an addiction just like alcoholism is — and it’s a very tricky one at that because it feeds our identity. We all have skeletons in our closet, but we like to keep them there because it’s part of our ‘creation myth’ — my suffering made me who I am today. That’s why we need to hold on to sadness in order to preserve our sense of identity.
Quite literally, we are addicted to our negativity because it has become a part of us. But just like any other addiction, repetitive negativity can cause a lot of damage.
The standard AA recovery plan lists 12 critical steps a person needs to take in order to recover from alcoholism. I won’t go through all of these, but one thing stands out from the rest. After you acknowledge that it is within your power to recover, one of the key items on the list is making amends with the people you have harmed.
But what the AA recovery plan doesn’t acknowledge is that your biggest victim is often yourself. Once you’ve recognized that you have a problem with negativity, it’s important to open an honest space for dialogue between you and yourself.
Guilt is probably the biggest reason why people tend to give up on themselves on the long run. We convince ourselves that we don’t deserve to be happy, healthy, or successful because we’re weak, incompetent, and we’ve harmed others.
Making amends with yourself means letting go of that guilt. Forgiving yourself for being human, and acknowledging that you deserve happiness just like anyone else does. You can begin to forgive yourself for the pain that you’ve caused in your own life, and replace the inner critic with positive reinforcement. So strive to become your own best friend.
“The more deeply we believe something to be true, the more likely it will become true in our own experience. If we believe we’re weak, stupid or incompetent, then no matter what our real qualities are or how our friends see us, we’ll experience ourselves as weak, stupid and incompetent.” (Mingyur Rinpoche)
Step 3. Creating the Gratitude Habit
What happens when you begin to recognize your experience as your own mental projections? From one point of view — absolutely nothing. From another point of view —absolutely everything changes. (Mingyur Rinpoche, 2007)
Once you’ve realized that your self-perception is the product of repeated mental habits, you realize that it is within your own power to create new and better perceptions. You will still wake up every morning, take a cold shower and have a warm cup of coffee, but your experience of the same exact sequence will be completely different.
My own gratitude habit, for instance, consists of waking up early in the morning and taking a few deep breaths before getting up. As I breathe, I recognize that every single breath is a gift. It means that I am alive and I get to decide what kind of day I want to have. Then I walk over to the bathroom and look into the mirror, and I’ll focus on the big picture instead of picking at all my imperfections. I know that I am whole, I am enough, and I deserve happiness. I’ll then do an hour of yoga followed by a short meditation where I visualize having a perfect day. Then I get up and have one.
This might not be your cup of tea. What works for one person may sound extremely tacky to you, or maybe even pointless. But for them, it may have changed absolutely everything. Find what works for you and double down on that. That’s the key.
Life is never an objective experience. You are never objectively miserable or objectively happy. Your thoughts can change the world around you because everything you live is just a reflection of your own state of mind.
If the first thing you see when you look in the mirror is impotence and weakness, the world will make sure to prove you right, since that’s the mood that you’ll be projecting. Giving out negativity is a surefire way to bring it straight back.
If, on the other hand, you start seeing abundance and beauty, then the world will confirm this too. You will attract events and relationships that confirm your beliefs. To finish on a final reframing of old assumptions,
Old assumption: My environment causes my state of mind.
Reframe: Changing my state of mind from negative to positive can change the way I experience life and my environment.
Recognizing this is the key to liberating you from your troublesome mind. Because after all, as Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet,
‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’