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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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The Power of Practice

Compared to the drama of  Christmas Carol therapy, developing habits is repetitious and sometimes tedious. Thus, because of its assembly-line-like quality, I call it blue-collar therapy. The blue-collar therapy mantra is “To get big change, think small.” It has an equivalent in physical therapy and in the muscle memory that athletes strive to develop. Professional basketball players shoot hundreds of foul shots in practice sessions. Three-point shooters take so many practice shots per day that they never have to look for the three-point line in a game—they know in their bodies where it is. Essentially, daily practice of particular and discrete skills for incremental change will eventually lead to larger changes.

Blue-collar therapy requires high motivation on the part of the client to make the effort necessary to develop new habits. Of course, insight about the past can provide useful motivation to be a better partner and parent, but because I work exclusively with clients trapped in destructive habits, I prefer the shorter route of using their core values to motivate practice that will bring about long-term change. This is a necessary approach with most of my clients, whose anger and behavior problems stem from their habit of substituting power for value—perhaps the easiest and most destructive habit we can acquire.

Human beings are prone to learn early in life to associate vulnerability with powerlessness and to associate the adrenalin rush of anger with personal power. The problem is that states of vulnerability are more often triggered by the diminishment of self-value rather than by the loss of power. When people feel devalued, they try to feel superior by exerting power over others overtly through aggression or by mentally devaluing them. Naturally, this tendency backfires: most of the emotional distress that clients suffer—indeed, much of the psychological dysfunction in the world in general—comes from substituting power for value. Temporarily feeling more powerful by driving aggressively or shouting at your spouse is unlikely to make you feel more valuable. In fact, it usually does the opposite. It subverts the motivational function of devalued states, which is to get us to enhance the value of our experience. Substituting power for value is like eating when your body tells you to urinate, sleeping when it tells you to eat, or taking an amphetamine when it tells you to sleep.


Intimate partners motivated to feel valuable tend to show compassion and kindness. Those moved to feel powerful invoke shame or fear to get their way, or use force or coercion to dominate. In our first course of therapy, I hadn’t trained Patrick to do something that, when he felt devalued, would make him feel more valuable. By default, this left intact his habit of exerting power to escape the abyss of vulnerability he felt. The manual override—insight about how and why he felt vulnerable—was an unreliable regulator of this dangerous and entirely automatic habit.

Conditioning Core Value

The goal of blue-collar therapy is to develop the habit of moving beyond the feedback loop of alarm-
assessment-enhanced alarm to the more empowered improve mode of mental processing. The optimal conditioned response is an association of states of vulnerability-threat-injury with motivation to improve-repair-heal, so that occurrence of the former stimulates the latter. Rather than immediately moving from feeling threatened-exposed-weak to feeling angry-defensive-aggressive, the goal is to move from the former to a desire to soften, connect, and feel better.

Step one of blue-collar therapy invokes the high degree of motivation required to practice the behaviors that, with repetition, we want to become habits. Therefore, I first worked with Patrick to heighten his sense of commitment to becoming the person, partner, and parent he most wanted to be. We started the process by using the following questionnaire.

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