Habitual patterns keep us stuck, how do we break free into a fuller version of ourselves?
I have often wondered why it’s so hard to change habits. Even when we know what’s best for us, or how we want to show up in the world, it seems like some habitual patterns are entrenched in our way of being and changing them means changing who we fundamentally are. It can feel like a small death. A lot of times these habitual ways of being are much deeper than our unhealthy behaviors and are actually deeply engrained with how we operate on a cellular level.
I became a mom six years ago. I found myself reacting to my son’s behaviors from a habitual place of impatience and stress. It was like my nervous system was on high alert and even small things like getting my son out the door on time would send me into a state of hyperarousal and it would take me sometimes hours to calm down. I was fully aware this was happening and could even observe myself in these states at a distance, but I felt powerless and hijacked by an almost subterranean force of habitual response.
I had to investigate and become curious about what was really going on. With the help of a counselor I was able to see that my over reactive and stressful behaviors were rooted in how I was parented and a deeply held belief that life is stressful. An entrenched belief system that I had to control my surroundings and the people in it or else things would spin out of control. A lot of this stemmed from my childhood but some of it is just common human experience in a world that is stressful and puts a lot of pressure on individuals. Whether it’s personal or systemic doesn’t matter to the nervous system-it just simply reacts and goes into fight or flight mode irregardless of the perceived threat. The problem for me was that my nervous system had memorized this hyperarousal state to the point that it had become habitual to go from 0-10.
I had to learn to calm my habitual response to life’s challenges. When faced with even minor upsets, I’d feel my heart rate increase and a rising tension in my body, my muscles would clench and I’d feel the world closing in. Once I noticed this, I could turn the mirror on myself and my own experience rather than focus on what was going on in the outside world. I could take at least 3 deep breaths and calm my body and mind and take some space if needed. Then I could choose my response.
I have many other examples from my own life of how I am almost hijacked by a habitual response-whether it be addiction, saying something I regret, or just unhealthy habitual patterns and routines that keep me stuck in a way of being that does not support my vision and aspirations. We all have these. The study of epigenetics shows us that our cells actually memorize these ways of being and keep us stuck as a way to ‘keep safe’ and predictable and to keep our identity in check. The ego actually believes that if we change, we die. So habitual patterns keep us in a sort of cocoon of ‘who we are’.
Relying on habitual patterns actually comes from a lack of gentleness toward ourselves and our world. We use our habitual patterns to seal ourselves up and build ourselves up in order to protect ourselves in an otherwise unpredictable and scary world. So there’s nothing wrong with these habitual ways of being. The first step is to take the shame out of it and just acknowledge how we are and what we do, without judgement. I had to do this with my yelling and overreacting to my son’s behavior. I felt so shameful and guilty whenever I’d overreact to him but I had to first forgive myself and approach my state with total gentleness-not judgement or shame. The reason habitual patterns stick is that we don’t relate to our vulnerability, our shame, and all those other difficult feelings. So in order to crack the veneer-we have to actually stop and feel with gentleness what is actually going on.
Then we have to do something different. We have to unmemorize these habitual ways of being by changing the course. In my example, it was taking 3 deep breaths or pausing and finding some space. Take a shower. Take a walk. Dance. Do anything but what’s familiar. Of course it’s never that simple and it takes continual practice and support. But the main thing is to start feeling how we feel and the rawness of what it’s like to be without our habitual patterns. That’s simple, but it’s not easy. It takes courage and practice but the pay off is that we can actually begin to grow out of our cocoons and into a fuller, more alive version of ourselves.