Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Creatures of Habit

Most of us have heard the cliché before, that humans are creatures of habit. Like most cliché’s there is a degree of truth to that statement. As creatures of habit, most (if not all of us) unfortunately pick up bad habits along with our positive routines. Did you ever consider how this can play out with our emotions? It is quite possible that a lot of our negative emotions can have a habitual component. For example, did you ever experience an emotionally rough few days and when its over say to yourself, “Wow I really let my anger/stress/depression, get the best of me and I acted like a real Ogre for the past few days” Consider a few more examples for further self-examination:

‘Habitual Depression” – The point here is not to make light of clinical depression which often goes deeper than just thinking happy thoughts to get better. Still, many individuals are not clinically depressed but we still may be prone to getting into emotional ruts and long periods of just being a “downer”. Did you ever think about the possibility that you can get caught up in the “habit” of just being overly negative and pessimistic? Have you ever caught yourself getting stuck in an extended period where everything is hopeless and crappy even when it really isn’t as bad as you may think?

“Habitual Anger” – There are so many things in this world that can get you upset as the world is full of examples of injustice, unfairness, oppression, stress, rudeness, danger, or whatever else gets you riled up. The problem can be however, that sometimes we can get in the habit of getting ticked off by every little thing. Did you ever catch yourself getting caught in a rut where you make sure to notice and react to every little thing that gets on your nerves? Have you ever noticed yourself getting into a pattern of allowing yourself to get angrier about things than is necessary, perhaps even at times overreacting?

“Habitual Resentment” – I can use my kids as an example for this one. Sometimes I can catch my kids falling into a pattern of what I call “Fighting for Sport” – This involves them getting into a series of arguments with each other over stuff that really has no real basis for contention. This happens when they get on each other’s nerves from previous disagreements then instead of letting go, finding reasons to start up new meaningless squabbles with each other just because of sour feelings from the past. Do you ever catch yourself getting into a pattern stirring up trouble with others who may have hurt, annoyed or upset you earlier?

"Habitual ______ " - (Fill in the blank; for example Fear, Anxiety, Stress, Despair, Grief, Apathy, Irritability, Impatience etc.) – The list goes on. It can be extremely helpful and valuable to be able to use our powers of insight and introspection to catch ourselves when we let negative emotions catch on like bad habits. I know from experience as I too have had those moments of clarity after finding myself in a counterproductive patch of time where I recognized I was getting caught up in the ‘bad habit” of allowing negative emotions to get the best of me. It is a lot like waking up from a bad dream and realizing you can leave the negativity behind and move forward. It can simply be a matter of saying “OK, enough is enough I am going try to stop being ________ (Negative emotion) now!

If you are one of those people who have got it together so well mentally, emotionally, and spiritually that none of this ever happens to you then I say good for you! Keep up the good work! For the rest of us who still consider ourselves to be a work in progress there is still hope. The best thing out of all of this is that if we can get caught up in emotional bad habits, then by the same token we can practice getting into a pattern of emotional good habits. If you are a creature of habit then make it your goal instead to get in the habit of working on positive emotions. Strive to be habitually: happy, patient, relaxed, peaceful, forgiving, etc. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

If Not Now, When?

It’s interesting how often there can be certain themes that can spring up in our lives from week to week. For some reason, a recurring theme that just came up in several conversations over the past several weeks was the concept of “if”. Everyone reading this should know exactly what I am talking about because we all play the “if” game from time to time. Some examples:
  • “What if I would have decided to get my MBA instead of being a social worker?”
  • If I just had started my diet in January instead of May I wouldn’t be worrying about wearing a bathing suit this summer”
  • If I only would have saved that money inherited instead of blowing it at the horse track”
  • “Man if I just had one more chance to go back in time, I would have never even tried ______” (fill in the blank with addictive substance)
  • If my parents had raised me better I wouldn’t be so neurotic and emotionally unstable right now”
Theoretically, I suppose it makes sense to surmise that if we could go back in time we could then try to fix all of those mistakes and undo the stupid decisions we may have made. If we could just redo the past, we could also try to then shield ourselves from some of the harm that we had to endure in our youth. Theoretically speaking that all sounds nice, but realistically speaking, deep down we all know that those kinds of fantasies end up just being a frustrating waste of time. The truth is that time travel is impossible and we all know it yet there be such a strong temptation to waste time fantasizing about our “if’s”

When confronted with these situations as a counselor trying to help others, I have often used an example that many people can at least try to identify with on some level. Consider a man who lost both of his legs due to some kind of tragic accident. There are different directions that man can decide to follow from there. He can be that guy with no legs who eventually learns to use alternate means to get around and then still strives to be the best person he can be in spite of having a disability. Another direction is to be that guy who spends the rest of his life lamenting about “if only’ he had his old life back, constantly reminiscing about the good old days when he could walk, perhaps while drowning his depression and sorrows in alcohol or pain medication, never moving past the memory of the accident. Until someone cracks the code for time travel, the more productive choice is to try to be the best we can be in spite of our unfortunate circumstances and consequences.  This surely is easier said than done and the point here is not trivialize anyone’s personal struggles*. It is just worth noting that often the healing all starts by deciding to leave your “ifs” behind you as you then start to take a few small steps forward into the new challenges of today.


*Perhaps there is someone in your life overcoming a challenge that is teaching you this lesson every day with their refusal to quit. (There is someone in mine right now who amazes me each day) Or perhaps you are the one inspiring others with your strength and courage. Maybe you are just pushing forward through your own determination to achieve your goals regardless of what life hands you. Either way, good for you for keeping your “if’s” from holding you back.