…only to find yourself caught in the very thing that you were trying to change?
We often catch ourselves just after doing what we swore we’d change.
Shifting our ingrained habits takes mercy, compassion, effort, patience, and a good dose of humor. It may feel uncomfortable as we grow out of old ways of being. It may feel frustrating as we try and move from intention/desire – I want to change – to actually doing it in the moment. And yet, habit change is possible, doable, and worth practicing.
In this post, I’ll share a compassionate process for changing in the moment. (Like when your mind is screaming for a cookie….or when your toddler is screaming at you and your brain responds by screaming for a cookie….)
First, it helps to understand why we can wake up in the morning with every intention to change, only to get caught in our brownie habit at 3 p.m.
When we’re feeling threatened, endangered, upset, or provoked, our nervous system moves into fight or flight. We move into the lower regions of the brain, the reptilian brain, where we’re constantly scanning our environment for threats – whether they’re real or imagined. When we’re in this fight or flight state, we’re on high alert.
For example, we can see this play out when we get in an argument with a loved one. Our emotions get heated, we feel threatened, and we respond from this place of threat. We may lash out at them and say something hurtful – or lash out at ourselves and binge – even as we feel remorseful and sad about it later.
When we’re feeling triggered, it’s easy for us to recognize that – “Oh, I feel stressed, I want to eat to feel better.” We understand where the impulse for the cookie or ice cream is coming from.
But we’re often walking around with low levels of subterranean anxiety or unease throughout our day without feeling provoked by any one thing. This underbelly of anxiety is often a discomfort with our emotions which simmers below our conscious awareness.
But all we see is what’s up on the surface – an impulse in the mid afternoon that says, “I need chocolate. And I need it now!” So we respond to this danger – the discomfort of uncomfortable feelings – with a desire to protect. An impulsive thought appears – “I want some ice cream” – even though we may not be conscious that we’re wanting the ice cream to make uncomfortable feelings like loneliness, sadness or anxiety go away.
We eat the ice cream or the chocolate and self soothe. We feel better for, oh, 60 seconds, and then feel worse.
Fortunately, there’s a gentle way to shift these patterns so that we’re not caught in painful, impulsive behaviors. I learned this approach from one of my mentors, developmental and clinical psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld. He calls this maturation process integrative functioning – the ability to mix contradictory thoughts and feelings (thoughts like, “I want to eat the cookie” and “I don’t want to eat the cookie.”)
In my experience, this process is not a matter of will power, but a practice of slowing down – giving ourselves time for the impulse to pass and to find the 2nd thought. Here’s a map for how to use this tool in your life:
Soothing impulsive thoughts:
- Pause. Before you do anything, take a deep breath and pause. Slow it down, dear one. Breathe. Breathe again. And again.
- Ground down. Next, practice what pediatrician and parenting coach Dr. Chris White calls “grounding down.” He describes it as moving your energy low into your belly, like a sumo wrestler. I sometimes even stand like a sumo wrestler to make it as somatic as possible. Feel as if you’re rooted to the earth, as if the strength of the entire earth rests in your belly, there for you to draw upon.
- Use compassionate self talk. Remind yourself, “I can handle this,” because you can, dear one. You’re strong enough to endure the discomfort of whatever is going on – whether it’s a screaming child, an argument with a partner, a craving, or an uncomfortable emotion.
- Let the impulse blow on by. When impulsive thoughts and your inner dialogue starts saying things like:
- “I have to eat it now”
- “I can’t handle this”
- “I can’t stand this person” (or “I want to hurt this person”) name them. Tell yourself, “These are just my impulses.” Imagine these impulses blowing by like clouds over a sky. Don’t attach to them. Don’t hook onto them. Don’t believe them. Don’t do what they say. Just let them go…..they’re not you. They’re just your impulsive brain trying to protect you from this imagined danger.
5. Wait for the 2nd thought. Give yourself time and space for the 2nd thought to arise – the deeper place of love and care that you have for yourself, for this person, and for how you want to be in the world. Tap into your core values so you can respond rather than react. If you want to send that heated email now, stop, and give it a few hours. If the cutting reply is at the tip of your lips, take a walk. If you’re standing in front of the fridge, step outside until you feel calm. In time, the 2nd thought – the wise action/response – will come. The intensity of the impulse will subside.
Lao Tzu put it this way:
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?
I feel so incredibly proud of myself when I’m able to pause, unhook from my impulsive thoughts, and stay grounded. I feel empowered and capable – “Yes, I can handle this!” And I feel happy when I have an impulsive thought to do something really, really unkind – like pass on ugly gossip, say something hurtful, or lash out at my loved ones when I’m feeling angry – and I sit with this impulse without acting on it.
It feels good because I’m living out my deeper values rather than letting my stress, fear, or anxiety get the best of me – like, holy cow, I’m growing up! I’m not perfect – there’s the millions of opportunities to practice again – but every time I remember, I feel lightened and strengthened to do it again.
Dear one, we’re all in this human gig together. It’s not our fault we have impulsive thoughts (as someone with a very active, often distracted brain, I have so, so many of them!) And we can gently let them go. I invite you to give this practice a try.