Do Old Habits Have to Die Hard?

The other day Ken sneezed and I immediately said, “Bless you.” I’ve done this thousands of times over my lifetime when someone sneezed. My Catholic parents trained me to say “God bless you” so I still do it, decades later, even though I’m no longer religious. When I don’t say it, a feeling of incompleteness hangs in the air, waiting to be filled.

But this time, I got to wondering why so many of us automatically say it—how did this habit become part of the cultural Living, Breathing Story for so many people? Where did it originate?

Turns out, there are several possible explanations. Using this phrase most likely began because of an ancient superstition that a sneeze either let the body release evil spirits or opened the body to them. “God bless you” was a way of offering protection. Since people hundreds of years ago believed evil spirits were real and did not know a sneeze was simply a physical response to an irritation in the nose, offering this blessing made sense. Still, it continues today when we know better (although it never hurts to offer kind words or blessings to someone).

You have probably heard this story, or a similar one: A woman has a holiday roast ready to bake, but before putting it in the oven, she cuts off both ends. One day her husband asks her why she does this, since to him this seems a strange, wasteful habit. She says she grew up watching her mother do this same thing. So when her mom comes for dinner, the woman asks her about it. The mother’s response: Her oven was very small, so she had to cut the roast down to fit into her only pan that would fit into the oven.

We all do this same thing all the time: unthinkingly repeating habits and beliefs handed down to us from our family, community, or culture, believing they are real or necessary or “that’s just the way it is.” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

Innumerable ancient habits and beliefs—positive and negative—remain implanted in us in the 21st century. They are part of the “water” of Story in which we live immersed, so much a part of us and our thinking we do them automatically. Like sending blessings to a sneezing person, they have become part of our traditions or cultures, even woven into our DNA and brain structures.

Whatever these beliefs or habits may be, they fill a need, answer a question, or make meaning out of something confusing or incomprehensible—or at least they once did. We humans do not like uncertainty; there is safety in familiarity, often no matter how painful or ridiculous. Furthermore, from the last trimester of pregnancy through age 7, our brains are like little sponges without defenses, simply absorbing without question whatever we learn or experience—and much of that is not positive, by any means. Our experiences during that time shape our reality, locked into our subconscious and thereafter running the show—as much as we like to believe we have conscious control of ourselves, the conscious mind is a mere 5 percent of our entire mind! (More information here.)

Fortunately, though, we can change those old, subconscious beliefs if we realize they no longer serve us well. Many methods exist for this undoing process (see the link above again). I include journaling, since it’s a proven method of self-directed change and is adaptable to every person and circumstance. Remember that you need not be a “good” writer and that journaling has no rules. When you write regularly, it’s common to see patterns and trends in your life—and to notice when some of those no longer serve you well. If you want to explore some previously unexamined areas of your life, here are some journaling prompts you can use:

1. When you have a negative behavior or thought you would like to release, or you’re simply curious about one, write a letter to it. You can begin by writing a brief description of the behavior or thought, and then continue with “Dear (behavior or thought),” and go from there. Simply write whatever comes to mind about it. Allow yourself enough time to let your mind wander over the subject as thoroughly as you can. Do this exercise as often as necessary until it feels complete.

2. As a twist on the above technique, you can also write a letter from your behavior or thought to you, in which it explains, perhaps, how it came to be, why it wants to stay or is willing to go, etc. You can let your imagination have fun with this one! It can give you an entirely new perspective on the situation.

3. You can reinforce your new habit (whether it be healthier eating or a replacing a negative belief with a more positive one) by writing often about how it feels to live with a new pattern. Write in the first person present tense: “I am doing this now…,” rather than, “I will do this…” By doing this exercise repeatedly over time, you override the neural pathways holding the old habit in place with new pathways that reinforce the new habit.

The Good and Bad of Labels

Democrat. Republican. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Environmentalist. Polluter. Pro-choice. Pro-life. Black. White. Capitalist. Communist. And on and on.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we so naturally place labels on things and people and how they affect our Living, Breathing Story. Neurologically speaking, that labeling is a good thing—it allows our brains to make sense of the world so we can more easily navigate through it. Imagine if every time you saw a maple tree or a cell phone or a stop light—or anything else, for that matter—you had to stop and decide what it did, how it would affect you, what it meant to you, and what it was called. You would spend your life in utter confusion and chaos. Thankfully, your brain is very good at naming and categorizing things.

But these names and categories don’t exist in a vacuum. They all have emotional associations connected to them. While this further helps you function more easily in the world, it also leads to many potential problems in interactions with other human beings, each of whom has his or her own associations with the labels (see how confusing this can get?) .

The words at the top of this post are simple words we invented to describe people—but each one is also loaded with a host of mental, emotional, and physical responses. We all have our own positive or negative reactions to them (remember that “negative” and “positive” are relative terms, depending totally on the perception of each individual), and so we react accordingly. And not always for the better.

What about the labels we assign to ourselves? You know, like “too old/fat/dumb,” or “not good/smart/accomplished enough.” And on and on. You’ll notice that those labels are all negative or limiting in some way. Of course, we have positive labels for ourselves, too, but because our brain has a natural negativity bias, it’s oh-so-easy to fall into its clutches and tilt towards the negative. As you well know, that kind of self-labeling doesn’t exactly leave us feeling good about ourselves or eager to explore new situations.

Our labels originate from many sources: family, teachers, religion, society, culture, history, to name only a few. In reality, most of them are false. But when we believe them, they solidify within our Living, Breathing Story to become our self-image.

In Mark Matousek’s brilliant new book, Writing to Awaken: A Journey of Truth, Transformation, & Self-Discovery, he writes eloquently about self-image, that “portrait we carry in our head, representing the person we imagine ourselves to be…It’s a distorted, subjective view made up of stories, beliefs, emotions, desires, biases, and insecurities that have little factual basis. As an inside job, self-image is entirely personal and subjective. While it may evolve over time, self-image tends to glue into place like a photograph fixed on a moving object, concealing the truth of who we are.” (My italics.)

“How does self-image become so entrenched?” asks Matousek. “Through the imposition of narrative labels. Putting names to thinks solidifies them in our minds.”

And then, when we believe a label, when we “settle upon a story,” says Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, “we must live it as if it were true. We must perform it by living it. By enacting the story, by living as if it were true, we make it so. We make it true.” (Narrative Medicine: The Use of History and Story in the Healing Process)

In other words, we invent these labels—these little stories—and then when we believe them, we live them.

But there’s good news! Since we invented them in the first place, we can re-invent them or what they mean. Or create new labels altogether. Remember that it’s not always healthy to believe everything you think.

I invite you to try some journaling to experience labeling for yourself. Please be as honest as you can. Your journal is private, so no one else will see what you write.

• Look at the words at the top of this post. It’s likely you will have some strong reactions to some of them (and it’s okay to admit that). Choose one that describes you and write about yourself in that context. Then choose one you believe is its opposite, and write about your beliefs regarding someone described by that word. Do this for several word pairs.

Now change your focus. Choose one of the “opposite” words you chose earlier and write about yourself in that context. Do this for several word pairs.

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?

• Consider the labels or names you apply to yourself. Write down five of them. Where did they come from? Do you believe them? Live them? How? For the ones that don’t serve you well, what would you like to replace them with? (Even if you don’t yet believe you can replace them with something more positive, write anyway. Give yourself permission.) How do you feel emotionally and physically when you compare the two versions of yourself?

What did you discover? Do you think your beliefs are true? If so, why?