Have you ever done something you weren't really proud of? Picked on someone? Procrastinated on a big assignment? Weren't there for a loved one? When things get too complicated, we have a tendency to lose sight of the real problem — this is a byproduct of deeply ingrained evolutionary circuits that narrow our focus to help us solve very short-term threats. Think hunter-gatherer ancestors being chased by a lion when out looking for food. These fight-or-flight instincts helped us back then, but don't help us in a world where all that we need is — well, everywhere. The problem with being unaware of the actual problem — and being preoccupied with what you think is the problem — is that you'll never have the chance to really solve the root cause. The truth is, the behavior is often only a symptom of the problem and changing the behavior alone won't solve anything long-term. So, then, how do we understand that real problem?
The Habit Cycle
Let's get a better understanding of our how our behaviors and habits work. Every behavior consists of 4 basic parts:
1. An external trigger. This is something that happens to you outside of your control.
2. An internal response to that trigger. This is how you feel about the external event.
3. The behavior itself.
4. The reward (or consequence) of that behavior.
Each of these elements are connected to one another — they act in unison. So, the behavior only shows up in response to the feeling you get after you get triggered. The behaviors you want to reduce — the ones you're not so proud of — are often only compensation for these feelings. Picking on someone is just a way to make you feel big because you really feel small. Stress eating is a way to feel in-control because, maybe, you don't feel in control very often. Whether these behaviors become habits (that is, repeat behaviors) depends primarily on the reward/consequence part of the cycle — these can come from yourself or from those around you, but we'll get to this in a later article. In the meantime, think about the behaviors you know you'd like to get rid of. What are they? What feeling makes them come to life?
Related: Hack Your Thinking to a Better You
There are plenty of tactics for getting to the root of a problem, but the core will always come from understanding the emotional response that caused the problem. Why did that trigger make you feel the way it did? And why are you running from it? Maybe you shouldn't? Maybe it's not so bad? Maybe you have nothing to be ashamed of? Face it. Try to understand it.
Truly understanding something — why it happens and how it works — not running from it, does one important thing that'll change your life: it helps you be at peace with what's happening. The thing you're running from will no longer be a mystery and won't have the power to scare you. Once that happens, the bad habits may just start slipping away.