Break Habits: with Insight Not Will Power

Although an unavoidable human experience, unwanted mind control, aka bad habits  — sticky, sabotaging and proponents of emotional isolation — run the gamut in shape and intensity. On their lighter side, they are double edged frustrations:   Netflix hypnotism, red wine indulgences or so-often-it’s-a-reputation lateness; on the deeper side they are life eclipsing forces and unquantifiable, confusing addiction. 

But this universally applicable challenge has solutions. And Author and Psychologist Amy Johnson, PhD takes an illuminating approach to solving bad habits.  In her book, “The Little Book of Big Change:  The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit, ” Johnson unveils a habit mind shift strategy – a powerful tool, where once realized, your mind simply lets go of the habit.   

Insight is an individual practice.  But a central theme in new viewpoint achievement is examining overthinking, because zooming in on habits, even struggling for their resolution, tightens their grip — strengthening the compelling force.  Instead, gaining confidence in your innate wisdom and life’s lessons to steer you in the right direction, reaching enlightenment in not-trying-so-hard, will loosen the repetitive loop, boosting ease of bad habit ignoring.

Johnson, who devotes a large aspect of her practice to helping patients break bad habits, experientially arrived at understanding through her own unhealthy eating habits – an eight year battle ending in expansive insight.  Below she talks:  how to break bad habits, why you have uncomfortable feelings, how your mind is designed to calm down on its own and how to use bad habits to your benefit.

Here is her interview: 

Q:  Why is a habit you trying to help yourself?

A: It’s definitely very counterintuitive because we are so use to being mad about habits and hating them – I have this thing and it is so bad and I know better. And we get really caught up in that, understandably.  But bad habits didn’t start to punish us, and it isn’t this horrible thing, as crazy as it sounds, in some way it helps us feel better, at least initially.  Like when I was binge eating, it’s not like I was feeling great and I thought, I’m just going to stuff a bunch of food inside my body then I’ll feel even better –  I had been dieting, I had been obsessing about food because I wasn’t letting myself eat food.  This whole thing started to build and then in one moment it occurs to you, hey you could just eat the whole thing, and just that thought and then actually doing it – all of that thinking settles down.  Your brain still thinks this is horrible and it doesn’t really feel good, but in some weird way it does feel good.  That’s how it is I think with any habit, reaching for the phone for the thousandth time, going online, watching Netflix – anything that people do, at some point felt like a release to do, and then our brain remembers and it takes root from there.

Q:  How do we stop bad habits?

A:  If we knew that our mind would just settle down on our own, not that we would be perfect, and would never reach for things that aren’t helpful, we still would, but it would be so much easier.  Things wouldn’t take root and become, oh I need that drink or I need this to feel better, you’d start to see through that.  Everybody feels bad at times, your mind gets all crazy busy and that’s uncomfortable, but then it settles down, all of the stuff we reach for outside of ourselves is taken out of the equation.

So the whole crux of the issue is that the feeling the habit has control over us.  And when we feel stuff, even just thoughts about our habit, innocently we get really caught up in it, and we pay attention to it, and then we feel it even more.  How we see that, getting that feel for how it really works, it’s so simple but its also really, really huge.  Every single one of us is taught, explicitly or implicitly, that it doesn’t work that way. No one ever told us you’ll feel lots of discomfort at various points in your life, but if you don’t work on it, it will turn out great for you. No, we’re told if you don’t feel good make yourself feel better, think about it, work on it, come up with a plan set a resolution.

We just need to see the truth, I see it everyday people see the truth and then they become just a little bit more free, and when they are not afraid of the urges anymore your habit is going to go away pretty quickly. 

Q: This idea of not focusing too hard on our habit leads to the question of willpower; why should you not use will power as a tool to solve bad habits?

A: Using willpower to try to talk yourself out of doing something you don’t want to do is essentially adding more thought on top of existing thought. So, “I really want a drink” gets showered with “No, no drinks! Don’t do it!”  It’s based on the misunderstanding that we can talk ourselves out of our thoughts. If we think of something we don’t like, for example we have a thought or urge about our habit, than we try to “beat” that thought with willpower, by adding stronger thoughts on top of it.  Except it really, really does not work that way. Thoughts come and go on their own. The less we care about them, the faster and more easily they flow through us and new thoughts show up to take their place.

So, our attempts at willpower do a few things.  Shed a ton of light and shower with attention thoughts we’d rather not be thinking.  Also, make those initial thoughts, urges feel even more powerful.  Also, willpower takes effort and energy which further depletes our resources. When willpower doesn’t work, which is most of the time, we’re left feeling hopeless and worse about ourselves which makes our habits worse.

Q:  Speaking of letting thoughts come and go, in your book, you tell us how we can use habits as a signal that we are doing the opposite —  getting stuck in our thoughts, you refer to as an alarm clock, can you explain this?

A:  I love thinking of any bit of discomfort, or urge, in life as not as in there is something wrong, but showing us we are caught up in our heads, we are using our thinking against us, we are not seeing quite clearly. That’s not a problem at all, it’s part of being human —  every single person on earth has an uncomfortable feeling probably every single day at least once if not many times.  It’s not that this is a problem, if you just understand how it works.

When people start to see oh I’m feeling really stressed or I’m clenching my jaw or I’m having an urge or whatever, they should realize, oh my mind is really busy I’m up in my head and I didn’t realize it.  Then take time to settle down, it’s really so simple it can be an alarm clock in such an awesome guiding way. We don’t have to jump into action and do a bunch of stuff to feel better we can work at it being a little wake up call to see we are in our heads, and then let our minds settle down.

Q: You talked about the snow globe concept, in your book, which explains this concept of settling your mind down, how does this work?

A:  It’s a really vivid metaphor for how the mind really works, it’s not mine I heard if from one my mentors.  But I think its one of the best things —  its that our mind basically works like a snow globe. If you shake the snow globe the snow is going to fly all over.  That that’s just design —  and if you want the snow globe to settle down, you just don’t touch it.  You just stop shaking it up because the design of the snow globe is such that if you just set it on the table all of that snow is going to settle at the bottom and you are going to have a perfectly clear snow globe. But we don’t do that, we get our mind all shaken up and we try to shake it in the other direction to calm it down, or we try to add more bands aids more fixes, I’ll make this settle down even faster, I’ll meditate.  Again I’m not against some of those things if they help people, but I think if they helped on the big scale we’d be a lot better off  then we are. Its nice to know there is a design in there that our mind will settle down on its own if we step back and stop shaking it up.

Q: Can you talk about a habit in terms of neuroplasticity?

A: I’m hesitant to talk about it, that when we act on it the stronger it gets in our brains,  because the truth of the matter is our brain can change at any point and we can feel something very, very strong like a heroine urge, a major physical addiction, we are capable of feeling that and not acting on it.  I don’t want to give the message ever that oh don’t act on it because it gets stronger and then you are really screwed.  I have clients that say I gave into my urge last night, and they are afraid that they made it worse.  No, its fine its just one thing, its done.  The more we act on it the more it may come around, but then on the flip side is the more positive story, is when we stop acting on urges, they start going away pretty quickly

Q:  Sometimes we have false ideas or beliefs, like, as you mentioned in your book —  believing that to lose weight you need to eat perfectly and work out an hour a day, that turned out to be untrue —  but those beliefs affect our habits, how do we let those go to see a bigger truth? 

A:  We are all kind of thinking stuff, we just thought this is what I need to do, or this is the kind of person I should be, we all have tons of those floating around in our heads. We don’t have to go digging for answers either,  Life will show you, like life showed me, that what I thought I had to do to maintain a normal weight started to get really unreasonable – it was painful, I was getting injured, it didn’t fit in my life, it took up way too much time.  All of that started to create that discomfort, there has got to be something I’m not quite seeing.  And so for any of us, we go out, or we go on Facebook and suddenly we notice we feel like crap about ourselves.  We are not aware of every thought that goes through your head, but probably we are on there comparing ourselves to other people, or whatever it might be, but the feeling shows us, anywhere in life, we are just feeling bad. Whatever it is, the feeling is showing us, oh we have some thinking that we’re grabbing onto that’s probably invisible to us, it just looks like the way it is, but it’s not the way it is. If it is we wouldn’t feel bad.  The bad feeling shows us we are kind of making that up.  When we see that we can be a little looser.  And I work with a lot of my clients on this opening up to a place where you say I don’t know, I don’t know anything, what do I know for sure?  There are a few things.  And you kind of let that wisdom and common sense show you what you.  I know I love my kids, there is never a question.  Do I know that I don’t need to eat carbs.  No, that didn’t feel the same.  If we are more open and we say I don’t know, but I’m going to let life show me, we start seeing things and it’s really cool. 

Amy Johnson PhD is a Psychologist and Author.   “The Little Book of Big Change – A No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit” is her most recent book.  Learn more on habit breaking at her site: www.TheLittleSchoolofBigChange.com or visit her website at www.DrAmyJohnson.com.