A lesson for self-acceptance from an unlikely place
Yesterday at work I walked by a co-worker who was having some difficulty with a new printing system that had recently been installed. She sighed and explained to me that I was lucky since I was new and didn’t know the old system at all. She was used to doing things the old way and, therefore, had to break old habits at the same time as learn the new ones. I, on the other hand, merely need to add a new habit.
I thought to myself, “How profound this idea would be, if applied to daily life.” How can we cease to struggle with habits? Is there a way to change our mindset to live in the freshness of each moment and thereby become excited for change?
Do we need habits? Any advantages?
Habit is an essential part of human existence. Our muscles and minds are habit-forming machines. In fact, if you didn’t have an “autopilot” for most daily tasks, you’d be overwhelmed within hours. You’d likely spend so much thought on mundane tasks that you wouldn’t have the mental energy to excel at anything else. Movement through life is like the performance of a trained dancer. The dancer relies on muscle memory that is developed over years of practice, rather than on conscious thought. Think about the way you walk, wave, and talk on the phone. Your activities have become effortless and thoughtless performances.
The body and mind on autopilot together
The body and mind work together, each forming habits that reciprocally effect the other; the physical prompts and assists a mental act, which in turn prompts and assists a physical act. My co-worker at the Xerox machine has a complicated situation in which her body and mind have “commandeered the ship”. To fight this team, she needs to work twice as hard – first, to stop the autopilot, and second, to perform the new set of tasks which stimulates the growth of new neural pathways.
Thoughts are habits, too
Even thoughts can become habitual. Sometimes unintentionally, we practise thinking certain thoughts over and over until they begin to arise automatically. Ever heard of a Rorschach test, a.k.a. the inkblot test? It’s a psychological stimulus-response test that supposedly reveals emotional states and underlying thought patterns. A subject is shown an inkblot and his interpretation is recorded: what he sees, feels, what words come to mind, etc. In reality, the inkblots are not depicting any objects; the latent object perceived by the subject is due to the automatic interpretation by his brain. The subject’s response reveals his brain’s habits and “infrastructure”.
Emotions can become habitual
We can practise an emotional response until it becomes a natural part of our identity. Emotional reflexes are surreptitious because they have the power to shape our identities in ways we don’t expect. For example, road rage – getting angry, flipping the bird, yelling expletives – when practised alone is not itself harmful, for the anger often dissipates as quickly as it appears. However, the habit of being primed for anger is like having your finger resting on a trigger. You’re putting yourself (and others) in danger. I’ll admit that road rage used to be my guilty pleasure and, like many people, I thought it was harmless. Upon reflection I’ve toned it down to, “Do you even have a license?” or “Really? Really?!”
Your reasoning capabilities were hijacked.
A long time ago, you learned some basic mental tools (including, but not limited to, the law of non-contradiction, the law of identity, and the law of the excluded middle). They were sufficient for your needs, so unless you study logic and philosophy, you probably didn’t bother to learn other valid but obscure mental tools.
We reason using the same old patterns, look for the same kinds of evidence, and follow a line of reasoning over and over until we can’t see that the conclusion could possibly be anything other than what we’ve concluded it to be. A person who experiences sexism might then start to see sexism everywhere, regardless of alternative valid interpretations of an event or the presentation of contrary evidence. Our cognitive activities of discerning what good evidence is, and of categorizing and eliminating data, are habits. It’s why two bona fide experts with access to the same resources will still disagree.
Imagine a song you heard and really liked, but now you’re laying the track over every possible music genre you encounter. Before you know it, you’re listening to a Reggae mix of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and liking it.
Habits = Limits?
Given the previous discussion, it’s clear that habits are necessary. We cannot meet every day as helpless as a newborn fawn struggling to stand one minute after birth! But, as my co-worker’s story reveals, habits prevent ease of change. If we are to be happy we must embrace change as a fact of life. Do you recognize the following quotes about habit in regards to change?
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
“Old habits die hard.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
And, of course, William James (whom I wrote about in a past blog, here) says:
“We are stereotyped creatures, imitators and copiers of our past selves.”
These quotes highlight the limiting effect of habits on our free will. Not good, right? But since we need habits, we certainly can’t aim to get rid of our habits. The alternative is to find a way to keep the habits but eliminate their limiting effect. How could this be possible?
Back to my Xerox story…
Wouldn’t it be great if my co-worker could just instantly erase the body and mind’s old habits and walk up to the Xerox, open minded and curious to learn? Any new behavior pattern would come more easily if we could create a learner’s mind whenever we need to.
Desperate for change?
Everywhere you look on social media there’s evidence of desperation to give up bad habits. The zeitgeist is dissatisfaction and a feeling of inadequacy. We want growth, self-improvement, achievement, objective excellence, and transformation. We punish ourselves for “bad” habits, try to beat the inadequacy out of ourselves, in hopes that we can transform into a someone worthy or at least “better” than we are now.
Thinking back to my story, my frustrated co-worker didn’t say I was lucky to be smarter, or better, or a faster learner, or have more willpower or discipline. She said basically that I was lucky that I don’t have to unlearn the old program. In an abstract sense, my mind is simply in a state that is unattached to a prior way of doing things, and therefore I can readily integrate new experiences. I take this to indicate that the limitations of habit, then, come from a state of mind of attachment rather than the habit itself.
Self-acceptance is the key to habits without limits
How we can induce this habit free state of mind as we take on personal goals for change? Surprisingly, I think the path to self-improvement is acceptance of your present state exactly as it is, to stop picturing yourself either as your past You or a future ideal You. If you are struggling against a conception of yourself as “someone who has habit X”, then even as you try to eliminate habit X from your life you’re doing so as someone who has habit X. You’re attempting to defy the definition you actively apply to yourself.
In contrast, when you accept your present state exactly as it is, you release the identification with – and attachment from – previous “selves”. William James in the preceding quote warns about becoming a copy, an imposter, or a stereotype. In releasing the pre-conceived notions of a particular identity, you can greet the world each day with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Any habit you want to change becomes neutralized, just another activity that you did in the past. In acceptance of yourself in the present moment can realize your freedom to choose not to do it, just as easily as you could choose to do it. Even if you copy your past self, you won’t be defined as a copy of your past self.
What acceptance of your present state is, is releasing a self-conception that is defined by your previous habits.
To live with habits but not limitations is to
- view yourself as a “fresh” person in every moment
- to accept yourself without adding a moral valence (judgement as good or bad)
- to look with curiosity and an open mind on each opportunity of change
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Do you remember switching from Mac to PC, or visa versa? What about learning different versions of computer software? What challenges did you face in terms of speed, emotions, etc?
- Do you have behaviors or thoughts that are habitual? Which are helpful and which are harmful?
- If you want to stop a habit, why? Do you really want to stop?
- Can you still accept and love yourself if you don’t change?
- Many people think that if you accept yourself you won’t be motivated to change. Do you agree that people don’t change unless they are uncomfortable?