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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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When I resumed work with Patrick, I focused not on how he felt, but on how he wanted to feel, how he wanted to think, what he wanted to do. This shift in focus moved him from trying to understand, explain, and justify feelings (which amplified and reinforced them) to changing them into what he wanted them to be; it amplified the desired emotional states, rather than the undesired ones. Patrick wanted to feel closer to Mattie, be more loving, and create a safe and happy household. This desire, reflecting his core values, ran deeper than the ego-defense that made him lash out when he felt disrespected. It’d become the new reference point of our therapeutic work, replacing ghosts of the past.

2. Neural connections forged by repeated focus grow physically larger and stronger, making them prone to automatic activation. This principle was first elucidated in Hebb’s famous law: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, anything we do repeatedly, we’ll eventually do on autopilot. I hadn’t accounted for this principle in my practice of  Christmas Caroltherapy. I’d asked my clients to keep journals to sort through their feelings, but although this sometimes gave them momentary relief, it reinforced their tendency to focus on pain, mistreatment, and diagnosis. In Patrick’s case, reviewing his feelings about his childhood abuse and relating them to present feelings had actually given him a sense of entitlement: because he’d endured so much, his wife owed him special consideration. She offended his sense of entitlement merely by having her own rights and desires. This unconscious cycle was the product of habituated associations of vulnerable states with expectations of special consideration. On the rare occasions when it became a thought process  (she knows what I’ve been through, yet she . . .) Patrick could easily catch himself, but on the rapid processing level of habit activation, he had no verbal understanding and little chance for consciously overriding his hostility.

After Patrick’s stint in jail, I changed his journaling and feelings logs to go beyond mere validation, placing heavy emphasis on healing, repair, and growth. He couldn’t just describe what he felt: he had to practice binocular vision, the ability to see Mattie’s perspective alongside his. If Patrick wrote, “I felt rejected when she went on talking to her girlfriend on the phone when I came home,” he had to include her perspective: “She’d have felt rejected if I hadn’t understood that the conversation with her girlfriend was important to her.” In addition, he had to write a solution, such as “Next time I’ll blow her a kiss while she’s on the phone and hug her when she hangs up.” The formula is simple: validate the initial feeling, empower the growth in perspective that changes the feeling (without confusing the former with the latter), and practice behaviors that will build prosocial habits.


3. The brain can’t  not do something—thinking about what you don’t want to do usually reinforces the impulse to do it. As the old behavioral adage states, “Where attention goes, behavior follows.” Besides the examples of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and the failure of thousands of diets that focus on what you can’t eat, I have a favorite example that reflects this concept. It’s trivial, but it’s my favorite because it happened to me so often in Catholic school: the nuns would make me write a hundred or more times “I must not talk in class,” making it likelier that I would talk in class. After all, that form of punishment required two contrary prefrontal cortex operations: talking in class and not talking in class. Given the impulse to show off in front of peers—and the reinforcing attention of peers when I did so—you can probably guess which step was likely to drop out of my mental processing.

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