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The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits

All of us occasionally become the angry, unpleasant, depressed, reactive people we don’t want to be. So what happens in the brain that scatters all our good intentions?

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What I hadn’t realized in my first round of therapy with Patrick was that while his states of failure and powerlessness may have had their origin in the ghosts of his past, they’d been evoked by thousands of less intense internal and environmental triggers over the years, each one strengthening the connection between the powerless states and the adrenalin-hunger for empowerment through anger and aggression. As long as Patrick maintained the habit of seeking the temporary empowerment of adrenalin when he felt shame, sadness, or any vulnerable feeling for any reason, he wouldn’t be a safe husband. The habit would continue to run on autopilot, independent of the original cause. To produce lasting change, his states of failure and powerlessness had to be associated with a prosocial habit of empowerment.

Patrick, Round II

In our second round of therapy, following Patrick’s release from jail, my treatment with him was organized by different principles. Patrick and I practiced associating states of vulnerability—feeling wronged, hurt, devalued, and powerless—with compassion for his wife when she too felt wronged, hurt, devalued, and powerless. The goal was to develop a habit of binocular vision: the ability to see both perspectives of an interaction simultaneously. At first, he objected to acknowledging that when Mattie was angry, she could be hurt and vulnerable. This called for a little psychoeducation about anger.

The primary condition for the activation of anger in mammals is a state of vulnerability with a perception of external threat. The more vulnerable we feel, the more threat we’ll perceive and the greater our anger—which is why wounded animals are so ferocious. Anger is the fire; hurt or vulnerability is the fuel. We had to practice conditioning, or associating, Patrick’s feeling wronged and hurt with compassion for Mattie’s feeling wronged and hurt. It was no longer Mattie “doing it to me.” Instead, it was “It’s happening to both of us, and I can help her.” Once conditioned, feeling wronged by Mattie would automatically stimulate compassion for her and inhibit abusive behavior. This would allow them to negotiate in safety about whatever had triggered their shared hurt and vulnerability. But to develop this habit, Patrick needed sustained practice, not just an occasional insight.
I concluded that to help Patrick change his rigid habit patterns, I needed to apply the following three fundamental neurological principles that guide learning.

1. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies whatever we’re thinking about, making it more important to us. As psychologist Silvan Tomkins put it, “With affect, the fuel of mental focus, anything is important; without affect, nothing is.” My initial efforts to help Patrick heal the pain of his childhood memories made those memories more important, rather than less influential, in the course of his life. Instead of outgrowing them, he was prone, in the stress of real-life interactions, to reactivate the habit of feeling victimized when Mattie would say or do something he didn’t like. I’d concentrated on the childhood roots of feeling powerless and inadequate, as if nothing else had or would ever make him feel like a powerless, inadequate victim. But as social psychologist Leonard Berkowitz first pointed out, negative emotional states themselves become conditioned to stimulate protective states of anger and aggression, regardless of what triggers them. Feeling sad because of gloomy weather made Patrick, like many of my clients, more prone to aggression, although he attributed his anger to something Mattie had done, not to his sadness, and certainly not to the weather. Over the years, his habit of responding aggressively to vulnerable states had garnered numerous reinforcements by different triggers in different contexts. The feelings simply had too many convoluted associations and triggers to make exploring them gainful. Whichever one we focused on during my initial work with him became more important  because of the focus.

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