Gentle reminders

Most of us humans, at one time or another, have struggled with a bad habit. When we think of bad habits, we usually think of behaviors like smoking cigarettes or chewing our fingernails or putting off paying our bills, and so on. But not all bad habits are observable behaviors. Some of the most problematic habits take place in our heads, and they might be difficult or impossible for others to detect. These are mental habits, and like all bad habits, they are very difficult to break. In fact, breaking a mental habit is probably more difficult than, say, quitting smoking cigarettes. Here’s why: if I’m trying to quit smoking, but I’m craving a cigarette, then it’s going to take me at least a few moments between the time the craving hits, and the actual behavior. I have to pull out my cigarettes, put one in my mouth, strike a match or a lighter, and light up, all of which takes several seconds, at least. And during that time, I have the opportunity to catch myself and say, “No, wait, I’m trying to quit.” But mental habits are practically instantaneous. We can encounter a “trigger” and then engage in the habit in less time than it takes to blink our eyes.

What kind of habits are we talking about? Here are a few examples of problematic mental behaviors:

• harshly berating oneself for making a mistake

• creating imaginary conflict

• invalidating one’s own accomplishments, emotions, or self-worth

• assuming others think the same way we do

• automatically taking the blame for events that aren’t our fault

• worrying about imaginary events in the future

• making assumptions about what other people think of us


Do any of these sound familiar? Or maybe you’ve got one or two that aren’t on the list. The fact is, none of us are perfect, so if we really dug around in our psyche, we could probably come up with a few mental habits that we aren’t so proud of. Of those listed above, the two most common that I encounter in my practice are the first one and the last one.

True story: I had a client, whom I will call Mike, who realized over the course of therapy that he was very harsh toward himself whenever he made a mistake or did what he considered a bad behavior. When this happened, he would mentally berate himself by calling himself “stupid” or some other insult. After becoming aware of this habit, Mike vowed to put a stop to it. The next week, I asked him how he was doing in his effort to free himself from this habit; he responded that he hadn’t done very well at all, and concluded by stating, “I’m such an idiot!” After a moment, we both started laughing, because he had just done it again – he berated himself for failing to stop berating himself.

Laughing at such a behavior is not a bad idea, because it doesn’t have to be taken deathly seriously. The process of change is not easy, and ideally, we undertake it with a great deal of patience and kindness toward ourselves. In fact, being kind to oneself is an excellent habit to acquire, and it is practiced by most people who can honestly state that they are reasonably happy. The reverse is also true. Engaging in the habit of being unkind to oneself makes it very difficult to be a reasonably happy person. As I have said before, most of my clients are very good at being kind to everyone but themselves.

It is important to note that none of us are born with these mental habits. We acquire them over time, usually starting in childhood, and usually as a response to our environment. These habits are not to be confused with who you are, because they are not. They’re just habits. Annoying and tenacious, perhaps, but habits just the same.

A lot of what I do in my practice is to help people free themselves from bad habits. To that end, I encourage the use of gentle reminders. Imagine you had a young child who wasn’t very good at taking care of his teeth. He would go to bed after forgetting to brush on most nights. If you wanted to instill in him the habit of brushing his teeth every night, you have a couple of different ways to go about this. One is to pounce on him whenever he failed to brush his teeth, and tell him how stupid he is, and punish him excessively. I don’t recommend this particular method. Another way of going about this task is to gently remind your child to brush his teeth on a regular basis, until he eventually acquires the habit. This might mean you have to be firm, but not abusive. Once the habit is acquired, then you can say, “Mission accomplished,” and your child will not fear or resent you for it. This is the method I would recommend. Now, if you agree that this would be the better method for this imaginary child, then consider the likelihood that it would be a better method for you, too.

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