At New Year’s time, we often decide to break old physical habits that don’t serve us anymore. We may resolve to eat more healthfully, exercise more, or stop smoking. With the holidays coming up soon, perhaps now is a good time to think about addressing your negative emotional habits — those chronic, habitual, almost reflex-like ways of thinking and feeling that cause suffering for you. When you visit with family and friends, emotional habits are sure to become activated. Why not prepare in advance?
The truth is, emotional habits are even harder to break than physical ones. They have likely been with us since childhood. As a result, we don’t even notice them anymore. Typical examples include tendencies to react to social interactions with feelings of hurt, resentment, guilt, anger, abandonment, anxiety, or irritation. Usually we think these habitual reactions are warranted, and we certainly justify them to ourselves that way. But as Byron Katie suggests we ask ourselves, “Is that true? Is that really true?”
Even if our beliefs about a social situation are true, do we really need to react in the same old habitual way? After all, our negative emotional habits have toxic effects on our own bodies and also serve to perpetuate tired old social patterns of interaction from the past.
For example, suppose that you have a feeling of jealousy whenever you are around a sibling. As a result, whenever you hear that something good has happened to them or you hear a parent praise them, you react with a feeling of jealousy, abandonment, and self-loathing. In reaction, you slink away into the next room and grit your teeth.
What if, instead, you first said to yourself, “There I go again!” or as Henry Grayson recommends in his book Your Power to Heal, quietly say to yourself, “There is one of those enemy thoughts that is just here to make me suffer!” What if you then said to yourself, “I love myself just the way I am” or “All is well” — and you really tried to believe it? Finally, what if you forced yourself to stay in the room, put a smile on your face, and say with genuine feeling, “That’s really great! I’m happy for you!” You never know how people might react.
The bottom line is, habitual emotional reactions are just that — habits. That means they can be broken. The first step is to notice them. That alone goes a very long way. I myself have always had a tendency to be a worrier. I now can laugh at myself (with kindness and compassion) when a “worry” thought pops into my head, and I also say to myself, “There I go again!” This goes a long way towards dissipating my worry.
The next step is to introduce a new thought or feeling to replace the chronic one. Warning: this won’t feel comfortable or natural! A part of you will argue and try to keep you from doing it. Emotional habits hate to be broken and will fight you tooth and nail. It may feel awkward at first, but just do it. It helps to say the new positive thought or feeling out loud, even if it feels artificial at first. Nevertheless, you’ll likely feel a difference within.
Finally, it’s helpful to perform a physical action to reinforce your new replacement feeling. Say something positive out loud. Do something that reinforces or derives from the new intended feeling.
In summary: notice, replace, reinforce. And repeat! With some effort and enough repetition, you can break your negative emotional habits. As I discuss in my book Active Consciousness and will stress even more in the book I am currently writing, your thoughts and emotions help to create your reality. As a result, you may find that your new emotional habits change your life for the better!