This Is How To Quit Bad Habits Without Willpower: 3 Secrets From Neuroscience
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
Got any serious bad habits? The extra-strength ones with the FDA warning. The kind you really beat yourself up about — but still engage in all the time?
Procrastination that screws up the quality of your work? Epic tidal waves of laziness? Or cardiac-threatening levels of overwork? Snapping at the ones you love? Or not speaking up even when you know you should?
We’re going to turn everything you know about bad habits on its head. For starters, here’s the good news: you’re not lazy, you’re not a screw up, and you’re not a bad person. In fact, you don’t actually have “bad habits” at all. Those tempting or nagging voices in your head aren’t evil. Actually, they’re trying to help you.
Yeah, I know: I have a lot of ‘splaining to do. But before it all makes sense, we’ll need to wade into a bit more crazy. Pixar films, neuroscience, multiple personalities, mindfulness, “Fight Club”, and boatloads of you talking to yourself like you’re nuts…
Yes, weird, but totally legit. In fact, there’s a whole system of psychology based around this: Internal Family Systems (IFS.) It’s been shown to help people with everything under the sun from depression, to anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, and even some of the most serious stuff like PTSD.
In the IFS Complex Trauma Study, only one subject out of 13 still qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD after finishing 16 weeks of IFS therapy.
This is a system that can help you overcome almost any bad behavior, deal with deep-seated issues and even help you love yourself a bit more.
We’re going deep here. Warning: we’re entering “the therapy zone.” It’s gonna get touchy-feely and a little awkward. I’m often skeptical of this kinda stuff myself. But when something works, it works.
Alright, hold my inner child’s hand and we’ll do this together. Let’s get to it…
You’re Not Lazy, Weak, Or Awful
I posted recently about “the modular mind.” Basically, this is the theory that there is no singular “you.” There are many different selves inside you that take turns running the ship and that’s why human behavior (including yours and mine) can be so random and frustrating. When you say, “I wasn’t myself” that’s far more accurate than you ever thought.
(I’m not going to rehash the entire theory because regular readers would rise up and slay me for repeating myself. If you want the full scoop, click here.)
There are many different yous in your head. William James was saying it back in the 19th century, and now every major division of psychology is on board with this idea, including neuroscience.
From The Body Keeps the Score:
Michael Gazzaniga, who conducted pioneering split-brain research, concluded that the mind is composed of semiautonomous functioning modules, each of which has a special role. In his book The Social Brain (1985) he writes, “But what of the idea that the self is not a unified being, and there may exist within us several realms of consciousness? . . . From our [split-brain] studies the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves, and they do not necessarily ‘converse’ with each other internally.” MIT scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, declared: “The legend of the single Self can only divert us from the target of that inquiry. . . . [I]t can make sense to think there exists, inside your brain, a society of different minds. Like members of a family, the different minds can work together to help each other, each still having its own mental experiences that the others never know about.”
I know what some of you are thinking:
And, yes, Inside Out *is* based on this research. (In fact, Dr. Frank Anderson acted as a consultant to Pixar during the making of the film and wrote one of the books I read to prepare for this post.)
So how does this relate to bad habits? You don’t have “bad habits” — you have different selves with different goals in your head, all trying to do what they think is best for the greater “you.”
The problem is they’re not always right about what’s best and the goals of Self 1 may conflict with the goals of Self 2. (Paging Tyler Durden. Tyler Durden please come to the front desk.)
IFS therapists refer to the different “yous” as “parts.”
Parts are entities of their own, with their own feelings, beliefs, motivations, and memories. It is especially important to understand that parts have motivations for everything they do. Nothing is just done out of habit. Nothing is just a pattern of thinking or behavior you learned. Everything (except for purely physiological reactions) is done by a part for a reason, even though that reason may be unconscious.
Through this lens, I see bad habits as an “autoimmune disorder of the mind.” And with that, crazy as it may sound, things actually start to make a lot more sense.
How can you procrastinate and feel guilty about it at the same time? Two different “yous” disagreeing. Part of you is afraid of being a loser and wants to accomplish things — but another part of you is afraid of being all stressed out and wants to watch Netflix and eat popcorn. Neither is “lazy.”
(It might also explain how a blogger’s ex can have both fear of abandonment and fear of intimacy, but that’s a story for another day, Bubba.)
You need to understand what other-you is trying to accomplish and find a better way to address the underlying need so you can both get on the same page.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So who are these other selves? When it comes to problematic behaviors, there are three flavors we need to be concerned with…
Exiles, Managers and Firefighters
We all have fears. And we try to cope with those fears. And by “we” I mean the “we” in your head. Allow me to introduce the cast of characters that are causing the “problems”:
This is the annoyingly dramatic name that therapists give to the seat of your deep, dark fears and long-held negative beliefs. “I’m stupid.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m unlovable.” “I can’t trust anyone.”
Yup, this is the “inner child.” (It might be the first time you’ve heard the term in a non-mocking context. I mean, I’m going to mock it plenty because it’s a corny term, but this is its more proper usage.)
Bad stuff happens to us and we take away painful lessons that we don’t let go. And these fears often unconsciously guide our actions in frustrating ways.
So how do you still manage to function with those fears? Well, the inner child has an overprotective parent. These are “Managers.” That nagging voice in your head. It says you’re not working hard enough. That you’re weak. That you need to do more. That the world is going to end if you don’t make everyone happy and live up to expectations.
It thinks if you gave in to the fears of the inner child you’d be paralyzed, so it harasses you endlessly and occasionally steers “you” to behave in ways that aren’t aligned with your goals.
We call proactive parts “managers” because they try to manage our lives in ways that keep emotional pain out of consciousness. They often focus on motivating us to improve, work hard, be productive and be socially acceptable. At the extreme, however, these aims can devolve into tactics like perfectionism, intellectualizing, one-sided caretaking, obsessing about appearance, conflict avoidance at great personal cost and trying to control or please others.
At times, this is useful. You do need to go to work when you don’t feel like it, or you’ll lose your job and be miserable. Then again, Managers may also nag you to keep working until you pass out — also making you miserable.
Managers still see you as an irresponsible child and feel you wouldn’t wear clean underwear if they didn’t remind you 50 times a day.
Sometimes the Manager doesn’t do its job well. Or you just don’t listen. And the Exile’s fears get all wound up. Maybe the Exile is terrified of losing its independence — always being told what to do and feeling disrespected.
To prevent the Exile from totally freaking out, the “independence” Firefighter goes extreme to immediately solve the problem. “DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” And you procrastinate by eating ice cream and playing video games. (The independence Firefighter is, unsurprisingly, perpetually 15 years old.)
(Firefighters) share the same goal as managers; they want to exile vulnerable parts and extinguish emotional pain. However, (firefighters) are emergency response workers. They get activated after the fact, when the memories and emotions of exiles break through despite the repressive efforts of managers. (Firefighters) tend to be fierce and use extreme measures that managers abhor, like alcohol and drug abuse, binge eating, excessive shopping, promiscuity, cutting, suicide and even homicide.
You’ve got fears, whether they’re remaining independent, or not being liked, or not feeling like a failure. The Managers try to solve them in one way. And when things really go south, the Firefighters try to solve them in the most immediate, extreme way possible. They’re all trying their best — but they’re not always effective.
So this dysfunctional family is fighting in your head and your behavior looks like a chaotic mess because you’re not even conscious of the conflicting goals everyone has.
You can’t “banish” any of these three so we gotta get them on the same page. That means keeping the Firefighters calm, getting the Managers to trust you, and figuring out what the Exile really needs to feel secure.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, Dr. Jekyll, get everyone in the car. We’re going to therapy…
1) Get Calm
Sit down somewhere quiet. Take a few deep breaths. Relax. You want to be chill, centered and accepting.
Why? Because you want to make sure you’re you. Getting emotional is what signals the Manager to start nagging or — even worse– the Firefighters to start whacking at the front door with axes.
Now think about the primary “bad habit” or issue you’re dealing with. Picture the “Manager” behind it:
- Is it an overprotective parent that pushes you to work too hard?
- Or a slacker that’s always tempting you to procrastinate?
- A nagging perfectionist voice that says you’re never smart enough or beautiful enough?
- Or a critical voice that tells you not to trust people?
(To learn the 3 secrets from neuroscience that will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Take a second and imagine that voice as a real, full-blown person. Because you’re about to have a conversation with them.
Look, I told you this was going to get weird…
2) Talk To Them… Um, I Mean, You
Yes, you’re going to talk to yourself like you have multiple personalities. Because, well, you do. It’s not quite as odd as you think, really.
Research shows talking to yourself can make you smarter, improve your memory, help you focus and even increase athletic performance. And talking to yourself in the second person (saying “you” instead of “I”) makes a difference:
Altogether, the current research showed that second-person self-talk strengthens both actual behavior performance and prospective behavioral intentions more than first-person self-talk.
Beyond that, we’re talking about “bad” behavior here. You need to get your ego out of the way. It’s a lot easier to honestly answer questions about bad habits you aren’t proud of when you can ask “someone else” why “they” do that instead of why “I” do that.
So play along. Stay relaxed. Don’t try and get this voice that’s been bothering you to go away. We want to hear what they have to say. Be curious and compassionate, not all judgy. Remember: they’re just trying to help (in their annoying, ineffective way.)
Ask them questions. A few good ones are:
- What’s your role in my life?
- What are you trying to protect me from?
And the big money question:
- What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do this job anymore?
How would that Manager respond? Really inhabit the role. It’s not that hard — you’ve probably been hearing this voice in your head for years. A “Procrastinating Manager” might reply with something like this:
My role in your life? I have to make sure you relax and don’t get all stressed out about work. I’m trying to protect you from treating every project at the office like a life or death scenario. If I didn’t do my job you’d be a basket case. So I encourage you to have some fun on the internet and play with your phone to relax. And, frankly, you treat me like some slacker when all I want is to make sure your head doesn’t explode from stress.
Accept and acknowledge what they say to you. Don’t get in an argument with yourself (although, from my perspective, that would be really funny.)
If you feel like you understand one another, next you want to ask for permission to talk to the Exile. Yeah, this is odd. Like some sort of therapy séance. But it works. That Manager’s voice has been chattering at you for years. It’s a person. If you don’t give it some respect, you’ll just get more stress.
(To learn the 4 rituals from neuroscience that will make you happy, click here.)
Did you get permission? Okay, here’s where it gets really interesting. And weird. But interesting…
3) Talk To The Exile
Meet your inner child. Aren’t they adorable? They look like you but smaller and probably scared out of their wits — which is why you’re here.
You know what the Manager is doing to achieve its goals, whether that’s making you work too hard, not work enough, or occasionally screaming at the people who love you most. So now we’re getting to the meat.
Ask the kid what they’re afraid of. Inhabit the role. What fear is so powerful that this kid actually has employees running around to protect him?
Be gentle. If the kid (and, again, that’s you) gets worked up, you may have those Firefighters smashing your windows as you go all emo and need to spend the evening on the couch eating ice cream and watching reruns of your favorite tv show. So stay calm. Be gentle. And listen:
I’m afraid of failing. Doing the work makes me think about it not turning out well. And then I’ll be a loser and no one will like me.
So you know what the kid’s afraid of. And why the Manager does what it does to protect them. And so rather than a failure of willpower, you know why — deep down — you’re engaging in those “bad habits.”
The kid’s fears might be totally extreme or unfounded. But they’re your fears. And you’re acting on them. So, in that sense, they’re real and need to be taken seriously. Don’t dismiss anything.
You want to start addressing these underlying concerns that your inner rugrat has. Fix those and the bad habits take care of themselves. Assure the kid and the Manager that you’re going to work on this. You’ll make a plan. That you’ll be accountable. Maybe even involve a friend.
Sound ridiculous? What’s ridiculous is endlessly trying different ineffective ways to stop procrastinating when you could be addressing the underlying issue. If you get rid of the fear, the Manager (let alone the Firefighters) don’t need to do their jobs anymore and they go away. (Or maybe your mental HR department reassigns them to another role like making you unable to get a song out of your head. Who knows.)
Of course, if you’re dealing with extremely serious issues you want to do all this with a therapist, not off a blog post written by some random guy on the internet. I hope that’s obvious but I have an internal Manager with a law degree who insisted I type it because my own inner child’s deep-seated fear is getting sued.
You don’t need willpower or more self-control or discipline. You need to get to know yourself a little better. So ask. And listen. And you’ll be amazed what you’ll tell yourself.
(To learn the six rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, your time in therapy is up. Let’s do a quick review and find out the best part about talking to Managers, inner children and the rest of the circus in your noggin…
Here’s how to quit bad habits without willpower:
- There are no bad habits, just different selves with conflicting goals: You can read this post for more, or you can go watch Inside Out. (One of these is a far more effective option. The other was written by me.)
- Exiles, Managers and Firefighters: The three big categories of voices in your head. Exiles have deep-seated fears, Managers make sure those don’t get triggered, and when they do get triggered, Firefighters put out the fire (and destroy your house in the process.)
- Stay calm and talk to the Manager: Find out why they do what they do by asking… well, you.
- Talk to your inner child: I’m cringing that I typed that. But, corny as it sounds, it really does help. Discover your fears. That’s what’s driving your “bad behavior.”
This won’t be quick. It won’t be easy. I have oversimplified the process because some people are already whining that this post is too long. (Whatever. They only read the “Sum Up” anyway.)
You probably have multiple Exiles, and a bunch of Managers and a squadron of Firefighters — complete with their own adorable Dalmatian. (You don’t need to have a conversation with the Dalmatian, but if you’re feeling really creative you may mentally pet him.)
Understand what’s really driving your behavior and you can really fix your life. Find out what your fears are. Get to the root of the issue and you won’t need 37 new ineffective lifehacks every week. (Did I just put myself out of a job? Crap.)
You hear a lot about “knowing yourself,” “loving yourself” and “being your own best friend.” Those sayings are warm and fuzzy. They’re also vague platitudes that you have no idea how to actually get started on. Well, we just changed that.
There are multiple yous. You can get to know them by talking to them, as awkward as the process may be. And instead of rejecting nagging or tempting voices, you can befriend them, because as misguided as their actions are sometimes, they really do want the best for you.
Loving yourself really means loving each of your parts. Befriending yourself means developing a relationship with each of your parts and having them trust you.
Get to know yourself so you can love yourself. All your selves.
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