We can spend years bumbling along with old habits. Perhaps you have always wanted to behave differently. Perhaps you get bored of yourself constantly coming up with the same patterns of behaviour. Maybe you watch your life, and see the same kinds of event repeating themselves.
Maybe the same things overwhelm you time and time again. In relationships, perhaps you run through a cycle where the same thing always seems to happen in the end. In your working life, perhaps, despite your best intentions, you fail to plan your life healthily, and end up a crumpled, tired mess. In your private life, maybe the same projects remain undone.
OUR UNCONSCIOUS MIND
We are not consciously aware of everything we do. We can’t always explain, either to ourselves or others, why we find certain things easy and certain things difficult.
That mass of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that lie under our surface, hidden to ourselves – we tend to call that the unconscious mind. There are several reasons why some parts of us are hidden to ourselves:
SELF-CARE – Sometimes our mind decides that it would hurt us too much to see the truth; at these times it may bend the truth, just enough to obscure it from our consciousness. In a way, this is an act of self-care. We are acting like a parent towards ourselves, spoon-feeding ourselves the truth in ways we can cope with. Of course this is a kind of lying, but we mustn’t be too harsh. It’s just delusion born of fear.
EFFICIENCY – Sometimes our mind decides that too much awareness would break our brains. Imagine, for instance, if you had to consciously manage your breathing and all of your body’s functions… if you had to decide consciously exactly when your bones grew, and in which direction… if you had to be consciously aware of the millions of battles your immune system fights every moment of the day. The body makes a choice. It generally offers to your consciousness only the stuff that needs to be thought about now, and hides the rest unless you specifically ask for it. A significant amount of our activity is therefore unconsciously automated, and continues unless challenged by ourselves or others.
CARE OF OTHERS – Sometimes, even, our mind decides that the truth would hurt others too much. So we collaborate with others to distort the truth, make it more palatable. In a way, this is an act of group care. We are acting like family, protecting each other from too much truth. A kindly delusion.
For similar reasons, our habit-forming selves operate along similar lines. Just as our unconscious self develops automatic responses to life, so our habit-forming self uses automatic responses.
This creates three corresponding disruptions when we change our habits:
A SENSE OF DANGER – If our old habits relied on convenient delusions, then breaking those habits can mean letting go of those delusions. For instance, if we want to stop comfort eating, we may have to face the pain we are running away from. It could be loneliness. It could be self-hate. To try to change the habit, can open up a difficult mental can of worms.
A SENSE OF CLUMSINESS – There’s one advantage of our known habits – we’re good at them. After all, we’ve repeated them enough! When you change to a new routine, you will temporarily lose all your efficiency. You are in unfamiliar territory. You will feel awful sometimes, out of your depth and deeply uncomfortable. Actions will seem to take ages to do.
A FEAR OF OFFENDING OTHERS – If you have been protecting family and friends, then any change in your habits will make you fear the loss of those same relationships. You may worry if they can cope with you behaving differently, trying out something new. Perhaps you may have to leave some people behind, if your journey is not for them. Others may come with you. You can’t know for sure.
If the above three things are likely consequences of changing our habits, then no wonder we find it hard to do. We may have to face painful truths about ourselves, go back to school and be clumsy newbies, and risk losing friends.
To help reduce the negative effects, the following may help:
SAFE PLACES – Find a caring, protective environment in which to make your changes. This could be a support group, or perhaps individual counselling if you feel you would like to face some uncomfortable personal truths in a secure, safe place.
EASY SURROUNDINGS – One reason why people go on retreats to learn new mental habits, is because retreats provide an efficient, protective place in which to function. For a while, your usual responsibilities are to one side, and you can focus on making the change. If you can’t do a retreat, then maybe at least clear your diary of some business, to allow some leeway.
UNDERSTANDING FRIENDS – While you are changing, perhaps keep the company of friends who understand the change you are trying to make. You will know who is likely to be supportive.
We often have bad habits which prevent us from living our lives to the full.
These habits can be reinforced by our unconscious mind. In theory, our unconscious mind may be trying to help us. It may be trying to protect us from facing difficult truths, protect us from overwhelm, and protect us from hurting those close to us.
In practice, however, we may still want to change and grow for the better.
We can help this process by giving ourselves safe places, easy surroundings, and understanding friends.