We all like to feel that we’re in control of what happens to us and how we behave. But very often there are things we seem to do over and over. Even though we know they’re not helpful, we can’t seem to stop. Once you realise where these unhelpful habits really come from, you can learn how to resolve them.
We all have unhelpful habits. Maybe you procrastinate, saying you’ll do something and then never get round to it. Why is it that sorting out all that paperwork, or speaking to that person on the phone constantly slips down your ToDo list?
Maybe you overwork, always having to stay busy, and find it very difficult to switch off. Or you find it impossible to sit in a quiet room without the TV on or headphones in.
Or it could be you often get angry or lose your temper with your partner or children.
For you it might be that you’re constantly scrolling your phone, whenever you’re bored or feel at a loss. Maybe you drink too much, or you over-eat. You find yourself raiding the fridge at night, and can’t seem to stop.
Have you ever asked yourself why you do those things?
The truth is what you’re really doing is avoiding negative emotions.
These are emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, shame, disappointment.
You might not realise it, but your “unhelpful habits” do a fantastic job of stopping you feeling those things. Whenever you sense them coming on, you distract yourself with one of your habits. It’s a very effective system to push those feelings away!
You can also get physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems, back and neck pain. That’s your body saying “I’m stressed, something’s not right”.
Where do those negative emotions come from?
When you’re raiding the fridge at night, or opening that second bottle of wine, there may be nothing emotionally charged going on. When you’re sitting on the sofa binge-watching Netflix, there’s nothing stressful happening right there and then.
So where are those emotions coming from?
What’s happening is that you have a monster under your bed, and it’s messing with you. That monster represents your past, and the things that happened to you that you may not even remember. (we’ll talk more about that in a minute).
Avoiding those negative emotions has a huge cost.
You might not realise it, but avoiding those emotions has a real impact on our lives. You might think, “Well I’m OK, I’ll just carry on as I am”. But there’s a cost involved, and you may not realise the high price you’re paying.
The price might be that you’re not comfortable in your body, and you’re making yourself ill by over-eating. The price might be that you’re sabotaging your marriage, or your relationship with your children. Or you’re sabotaging your career opportunities.
These are all things that we humans need, not just to survive, but to thrive and feel good about ourselves.
What stops us looking into this?
Well to start with, it’s not your fault that you have these emotions. And it’s not your fault that you haven’t looked into this yet. We were never taught how to understand or to regulate our emotions!
We live in a world that tells us we have to ‘stay in control’ of our mind (as if that’s even possible). We grow up believing that it’s not ok to show negative emotions. In fact society encourages us to do the opposite. We’re encouraged to keep pushing it away, to not talk about it.
We even get shamed for over-eating, or drinking too much, or procrastinating.
“Stop being so greedy/lazy”,
“You just need more self-control”
“Get a grip”
“Just work harder and get over it”
There’s also a pervasive thing called ‘toxic positivity’. It tells us we should “look on the bright side”, “stay positive”, no matter what’s happening in our lives.
Mental health and your unhelpful habits
When we feel bad mentally, we don’t tend to go to the doctor or therapist. We pretend everything’s fine, we carry on as usual and just try to push through. The idea that we could get help for feeling this way never crosses our minds.
The term ‘mental health’ has become a buzzword in recent years, with lots of campaigns and initiatives aimed at increasing awareness of how vital this is to our wellbeing. But it’s important to remember how recent this is. We were never taught anything about mental health when we were young. Schools couldn’t teach it, and our parents couldn’t help either. We had no instruction on how to regulate our emotions; we just had to muddle through however we could.
At best, our education and awareness of mental health issues lags way behind what it should be.
So how do we fix this?
The answer to this problem starts with taking a look at these negative emotions. Not to look at them and shame ourselves for having them, but to look with curiosity and compassion. We have to be brave and drag that monster out from under the bed, and take a close look at it.
That monster represents your past. It’s all the unresolved things that your unconscious mind is trying to protect you from. Very often these are things that happened when you were very young, before you can even remember. I’ve written more about these things here.
It can be things like:
Inter-relational stuff in your family; anything from sibling rivalry to parental neglect.
Things that you witnessed.
Things that you learned.
Things that you were taught, often completely without bad intentions. (If your family didn’t allow you to have big emotions, then you would naturally shut them all down so you can belong)
Avoiding negative emotions had a useful purpose at one time in your life, but it’s not serving you now. When you’re ready to face it, you can learn how to resolve this.
Self-awareness and your unhelpful habits.
Resolving your unhelpful habits involves becoming more self-aware. Self-awareness is another new buzzword, but do you know what it actually means?
Self-awareness is getting in touch with your conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviours. This includes the stories you tell yourself about how the world works, and your place in it.
There are many different techniques for developing self-awareness, including:
- Looking at any current behaviours that are causing a problem
- Labelling your thoughts and feelings, and learning new ways of describing your experience
- Looking into your past and what could have affected you
- Learning different tools for somatic safety and emotional regulation.