Have you ever stood at the top of a tall building and heard a voice in your head whisper at you to jump?
I don’t mean that you genuinely considered committing suicide, nothing that dramatic, I mean that sometimes it’s as if there’s a part of you that believes you’d be fine if you jumped, and dares you to try.
This same part of us is behind more realistic temptations like smoking and drinking. Again, it tells us that we’ll be fine even though we know we won’t. It’s just that consequences won’t be so immediate, or messy.
Indulging in a habit that we know is bad for us can be fun, but it’s fun in the same way that falling through the air is fun. It’s exhilarating, and life-affirming and even occasionally liberating, but we know that somewhere below us there will be consequences. The ground is waiting.
So we have three options:
- Hitting the ground.
- Don’t jump.
- Figure out how to use a parachute.
But instead of thinking of these as discrete choices, it might be more helpful to think of them as steps along a path. Well, consider them in this order though, that way we still end up with a parachute at the end.
Hitting the ground
In one way or another, all of us are doing this. There is some habit which we know hurts us, which we know is bad for us and we do it over and over again anyway. Why? Because even though it’s bad for us in the future, it feels great in the present.
You see, what messes things up for us humans is that we can’t see or feel the consequences of our actions before we take them. It feels difficult to ignore something that feels good in the short-term because all of those future consequences are just theoretical.
Do you eat too much? Maybe you’ll get fat, but maybe you’ll be hit by a sudden burst of motivation and start going to the gym. Drink too much? Maybe you won’t become an alcoholic or embarrass yourself horribly. Inject too much heroin? Maybe…no ok, that’s going to end badly for you.
Resisting the urge to jump off the top of a building is easy because we all know what will happen, but our certainty about the future starts to drop as soon as we’re talking about ourselves rather than the laws of physics. Why? Because we don’t know ourselves.
Thankfully, hitting the ground enough times is good motivation to learn. What triggers your habit? How reliably does this feeling or thought or event trigger it? How do you feel before, during and after engaging in the habitual behaviour? The answers to these questions won’t always be the same. But patterns will become visible if you get into the habit of asking them and paying close attention to the answers.
After a while of doing this, and beginning to understand your patterns, you’ll notice that now and then you’re able to feel a trigger and not immediately respond to it.
This doesn’t mean that you know what to do next, and you’ll often still fall into the old pattern after a while, but whether you do or don’t, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this breakthrough.
Change cannot happen if the old behaviour is automatic, and the first sign that it’s becoming less automatic is that there is a space between the trigger and the reaction.
Therefore the aim here isn’t to change the original behaviour but to use this newfound awareness to observe it. What purpose does this habit serve for you? Why do you want to stop it? How would you feel if you went ahead and consciously did whatever it is? Guilty? Relieved? Annoyed with yourself? Does the urge change if you notice the trigger without indulging it?
Take your time on this phase. Ask these questions earnestly and answer them carefully. It’s easy to miss important insights in the rush to “fix” the problem, without fully appreciating that understanding the problem is how it gets fixed.
Figure out how to use a parachute.
The worst thing about undesirable habits is that they never go away. You never reach a place in your life where certain behaviours are no longer an option because you never reach a place in your life where any behaviour isn’t an option. The full gamut of human behaviour is available to us from birth until death.
The “parachute” is simply a behaviour which serves both your short and long term goals better than the previous one did. It should be easy to use, reliable, and most importantly, should serve a similar purpose to the old behaviour.
If the old behaviour made you feel happy, the new one should too. If you used the old behaviour to prevent you from feeling bad about yourself, the new behaviour should, in order of preference:
Address the reasons that you feel bad about yourself.
Help you to understand the reasons that you feel bad about yourself.
Make you feel good about yourself.
(“Make you feel good about yourself” is the least preferable option because feeling bad about yourself is fixed by changing the things you feel bad about, not hiding them behind things you feel good about.)
Using your parachute relies, counterintuitively enough, on your ability not to jump, which is why I encourage you not to rush over that step.
If you can avoid immediately jumping into the old pattern, you can use the window of opportunity that not jumping creates (and the lessons learned therein) to consciously insert the new behaviour and monitor how well it serves its purpose.
Evaluating the new behaviour in the same way you did the old less desirable one puts the two on a similar footing in your mind. Your brain learns to see this new behaviour as a real, well-considered option instead of as mere substitutes for the old habit.
Of course, careful evaluation has the added benefit of allowing you to tweak anything which isn’t working, and teaching you that behaviour isn’t a binary, “this or that” kind of proposition, but a flexible, negotiable process which you have the power to direct.
And what better example is there of this power of human nature than a parachute? This simple device gives us the ability to take a situation where we’d ordinarily be completely powerless, one which could only possibly end horribly for us, and turn it into a challenge that we can not only manage but even come to enjoy.
Sometimes the voices in our heads give us terrible advice, but with some attention and the right tools, we can invent ways to survive the falls they tempt us to make.