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There Are No Bad Habits, Only Stress Responses

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Many things can get labeled as a ‘bad habit,’ anything from what we do first thing in the morning to what time we go to bed. But if we look deeper, it becomes clear that ‘bad habits’ are, in fact, symptoms of stress, stress that results from unresolved issues, and stress associated with needing further development. Leveraging this perspective, we can begin to gain insight into the underlying issues holding us back. The shift from judging our behavior as a ‘bad habit’ to understanding that we have an unmet need that requires our attention is the key that enables us to break free of unproductive patterns. Let’s take a recent example that should resonate with many.

During the pandemic lockdown, my husband and I got into the ‘bad habit’ of watching television and having chips and salsa before bed. Nothing too bad. But one episode would turn into two, and a few calories to hold us over turned into consuming more than helpful, particularly late at night. And then, of course, staying up late would result in being tired the next day. And the cycle would repeat. While not terribly damaging, this behavior kept us from having the time, energy, and bandwidth we needed to better manage in the pandemic.

If we engaged in traditional ‘bad habit’ remedies, we might beat ourselves up for not having more willpower and feeling ashamed that we weren’t more productive. These tactics would have just set us further back. Not only would we still have the work we needed to do, but we would also have to manage the negative emotions that result from using these tactics, regain confidence in our abilities, and reestablish our self-worth.

When we try to manage symptoms rather than address the root cause,

we often create a downward spiral that makes our recovery even more problematic and complex.

The root causes for each of us included not dedicating enough time to stress-relieving activities and not caring for our basic sleep needs. So, we committed to a time to go to bed and to taking time for recovery. Accepting and embracing these needs were all we needed. As a result, we found ourselves on a more productive trajectory and improved our feelings of self-worth along the way.

While the ‘quarantine 15’ is a catchy and funny way to say we have almost all gained some additional weight in the pandemic, most people have not been significantly impacted by these few extra pounds. From all that I have seen and experienced, ‘bad habits' of the mind are much more concerning and far-reaching. Let’s brave one of these examples now.

People, particularly during the pandemic, have at least at times struggled with holding an adversarial attitude toward the world. This could be from adverse conditions people have experienced when interacting with or consuming media from the outside world. There certainly has been a series of unprecedented events and resulting stressors to account for these feelings. But it is far more likely, particularly as the pandemic dials back up, that the root of an adversarial attitude is the painful lack of connection and ability to care for others we have endured and knowing we will acutely experience this again soon. Our need to connect with and care for others is the most foundational of our human cognitive needs. When these are absent, forward progress seems impossible, and pain and languishing are ever-present. To protect ourselves, we often adopt an adversarial attitude to justify the separation, pain, and hopelessness we are experiencing. The longer we try to safeguard ourselves, the higher we build the walls around us, making finding the way back to our authentic selves seemingly more and more impossible.

While it is important to understand the ramifications of our mental ‘bad habits’, it is concurrently essential to note that all goals, regardless of how big or small they are, are accomplished one step at a time. By creating even momentary connection or offering the slightest support to someone else, we can start making our way back to our true selves.

To help create awareness around what enables us to thrive, here is a list of the most common needs that, when go unmet, account for a significant amount of the unproductive behaviors that cause our struggle. As you explore this list, ask yourself if you are getting each of these needs met sufficiently. If not, what ‘bad habits,’ whether physical or mental, are likely resulting.

  1. The need to connect with others, share our authentic selves, and give our unique gifts to the world, to feel we are seen, contributing, and valued.

  2. The need to help others to feel a sense of purpose and find relief for our own mental burdens, the courage and humility to ask for and receive help when the going gets tough.

  3. The need to explore, understand, and accept our emotions. To gain the understanding, learn the lessons, and develop our values for moving forward more productively. To release emotions, so we have the bandwidth to do so.

  4. The need to embrace our past, practice radical forgiveness toward ourselves and others, to incorporate the lessons learned and develop our values to become better versions of ourselves.

  5. The need to be fully present to and accept our current reality so we can take the concrete steps necessary to bring a new vision through to fruition.

  6. The need to develop a level of peace and comfort with the unknown, what we have not yet experienced and what is currently not certain or knowable to be able to continuously perform in the moment and rise to life’s new challenges.

  7. The need to continuously challenge our comfort zone and what we feel we are capable of, to develop authentic self-worth, confidence, and capability.

  8. The need to gather the courage to put our thoughts into the world and then carefully consider the results and feedback to further the sophistication of our thinking.

  9. The need to bravely explore and experiment in the world, take on new challenges, develop new knowledge and skill to feel a continual sense of external competence, comfort, and capability.

  10. The need to engage our physical bodies in the outside world to stimulate our senses, generate energy, and clear our minds.

  11. The need to cultivate a practice of gratitude to enable a more accurate view of our world and the many blessings in it.

  12. The need to welcome a sense of awe for how much still lies outside of the knowledge we have worked so hard to gain and how much mystery life still holds to ensure minds stay flexible, agile, and open.

When you find yourself caught in something unproductive, whether physical or mental, I urge you to take some time to identify the root cause. Use radical acceptance to understand your experience, your needs, and process your emotions to free up the bandwidth to move forward. Leverage learnings to develop your values and the vision you have for who you want to become. Reach out to ask for or offer help to move bravely forward.

And never give up.

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