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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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Patrick’s domestic-violence class had drilled into his head the behaviors he shouldn’t exhibit—hit, push, yell, threaten, verbally demean, attempt to control—while I’d failed to practice with him what he should exhibit instead. Now I focus almost exclusively on helping clients develop habits that are incompatible with what they don’t want. In other words, we can’t train clients not to be abusive, but we can train them to be compassionate, take the perspectives of their partners, sympathize with the distress of their loved ones, and invoke their deeper valuing and protective instincts. Once those actions become habits, the people holding them can’t be abusive.

How Prosocial Learning Gets Subverted

Most parents, including Patrick’s, want their children to grow up to be good, kind, law-abiding, nonviolent people. In fact, most people want to be that way themselves. But from time to time, all of us become triggered by events or circumstances that at least temporarily disrupt our better qualities, and we 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 and well-meaning attempts to behave well?


Let’s say you’re living your life, minding your own business, so to speak, when something unpleasant or scary happens because of either an external cue from the environment or an internal cue from a random thought, image, or feeling. Then your partner snaps at you for not cleaning the lint filter in the dryer, or the driver in the next lane cuts in front of you, or any of a thousand different triggers happens. At this point, your brain immediately reacts with three distinct operations.

1. The primitive, limbic area of the brain generates an alarm:  something bad is about to happen.

2. The prefrontal cortex interprets the alarm and assesses how bad the situation is, what it means, how it happened, how much damage has occurred, how much threat it represents.

3. A more advanced level of the prefrontal cortex begins acting to improve the situation: to neutralize the threat without doing further damage and repair any damage already done.

Patrick, like a lot of people stuck in a pattern of dysfunctional emotional habits, could never get beyond the first two operations to begin working on the third. He was caught in a self-reinforcing emotional loop between feeling bad as a result of some emotional trigger and negatively interpreting the trigger to justify his bad behavior—which then reinforced and amplified his bad feelings. His pattern went like this: alarm  (I feel fear, anger, distress), assessment (I have every right to feel that way, given all the bad things that have happened to me), enhanced alarm  (more anger, distress, fear).

In our initial work together, I thought that validating the intensity of Patrick’s states of vulnerability and relating them to the ghosts of his past would nullify the alarm that was blocking his brain’s move to the improve mode. Now I try to help clients merely acknowledge the alarm, without confusing it with reality.  The alarm is not the fire! Then I help them assess the damage, and finally, we focus on improving. Clients rehearse the sequence repeatedly until it becomes a habit.

In Patrick’s case, he rehearsed: alarm  (I feel ashamed and then resentful when my wife complains),assessment (I’ve lost no self-value from my wife’s complaint, and the shame I feel is a motivation to pay more attention to her, not a punishment for failure), and improvement  (I’ll pay attention to her complaint and try to help or support her if I can).

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