Updated: May 20
Has this ever happened to you: An old unwanted thought or fear pops into your mind and manipulates your thinking and mood? The bothersome thought completely grabs your focus. You ruminate on how this problem has always been a problem and continues to be a problem. The more you go down this rabbit hole, the more fear you experience. Now, you are worried that you won’t be able to shake free of these thoughts and the worry and discomfort they cause. You look for ways to avoid your emotional discomfort. Maybe you shop, indulge in food, sex, or drugs, or micro-manage your partner or kids – any behavior that allows you to focus on things outside of your internal discomfort will do. Yet, as soon as there is quiet, your negative thoughts, worry, and fear resume their relentless bullying. You become angry with yourself for your inability to control your thinking. Now, on top of your worry and emotional discomfort, you judge yourself for being in this state. And with the painful weight of judgment added to the mix, the ruminating, worry, and fear cycle repeats.
This joyless dance is a fear loop. The more you try to free yourself from its mess, like quicksand, the deeper you sink. I talk about my personal experience with this phenomenon in Chapter Three of The Little Book of Big Lies.
Recently, I asked a struggling client if the above scenario was present in his experience. His embarrassed silence reminded me of how far we still must travel, as a society, before we human beings realize that experiencing emotional challenge is an innate feature of the human condition. A psychologist by the name of Nick Wignall, whose work I’ve recently been introduced to, says, “Emotional issues are not a sign of failure or weakness. They are confirmation of our humanness.”
Instead of automatically defaulting to your fear loop – the habit of worry and self-judgment that activate with fear – you can set the intention, from this point forward, to make more powerful and empowered choices before a fear loop is triggered.
Choosing to get curious about habituated behavior is a great way to begin to interrupt the automatic response that has driven that behavior up until now. When you contemplate old response behavior through the lens of curiosity, you are changing your relationship to your old pattern. One change can lead to many until the habit is no longer the boss of you!
Neuroscience explains that engaging internal actions such as becoming curious about a situation, deeply contemplating new options and possibilities, and thinking in terms of thriving versus surviving, supports the emotional regulation and inner calm that allows us to access the executive thinking part of the brain (the cortex). From this region of our brain, we can think more empowering thoughts and make better choices. Being in survival mode narrows our ability to see and think, leaving us running for our lives – proving, protecting, manipulating, avoiding, attacking, and, yes, judging ourselves or others as part of our triggered survival behavior.
Getting curious about discomfort also teaches us to tolerate discomfort instead of fleeing from it. Learning to tolerate discomfort allows the opportunity to observe reactions to understand them. This effort builds resilience by expanding your capacity to navigate uncomfortable feelings.
As my ability to tolerate my discomfort grew, so did my ability to see my behavior more clearly. I began to wrestle with my old issues through the new lens of being open and curious. This was not easy work. It was very uncomfortable.
One day, I had a powerful realization: My fear-loop was a habit that ran like clockwork. For the first time, I was present enough in my calm mind to observe my fear-loop in operation: The idea of auditioning would trigger a feeling of uh-oh; that uh-oh would awaken my fear-loop; soon, I would be breathing shallowly and feeling powerless; my focus would be embroiled in thoughts of failing in the audition.
In all my experience with this habit, I had never challenged this automatic fear-filled reaction because I NEVER REALIZED THAT I COULD. I just let it drive me in whatever direction it wanted to go.
When I realized that my fear and the resulting sequence of events were a finely constructed habit, my sense of feeling powerless began to lift. I told myself, I can change a habit. There are actions I can take, things I could do to CHANGE THIS HABIT. Sure, habits can be formidable. But they are not all-powerful. They are HABITS.
This realization created a tiny space, a beat, wherein I could see the habit. That beat allowed distance between me and the habit. We were NOT one. If it was a habit, and I was a person experiencing the habit, then I could be a person without that habit. I began to imagine myself in control of the habit instead of feeling like it was my fait accompli.
Getting curious about how things work is the process of discovery in science and life. It is also a powerful way to self-discover and always be aligned with life’s ultimate purpose, which is to grow and expand.
I began to ask what this painful recurring overwhelm has to teach me? The more I was willing to sit with such questions the less afraid and anxious I was when I found myself in habituated overwhelm.
The game-changer was devising a cool, calm, and collected – cortex supported – plan to get in front of my triggered pattern BEFORE it was triggered, if possible. If I was trigger too quickly to be ahead of the fear loop, I would use my plan to help me interrupt the habit as best I could and mitigate its duration and overwhelm.
My 5-Step Plan:
I will interrupt my old pattern the next time it is triggered.
When I feel the familiar fear feeling mounting in my stomach, I will calmly acknowledge that a trigger is activated.
I will remember it is just a habit and aim to see the pattern more clearly?
I will breathe through my emotional discomfort, trusting that sitting with my discomfort will not kill me. Rather, it will build tolerance and resilience.
I will envision and focus on the results I want, instead of catastrophizing and focusing on the vision of failure that I don’t want.
I defaulted to my plan over and over. This was hard work. In the beginning, in my efforts to implement my plan, I often still felt like I was failing. In those doubtful moments, I would imagine myself chopping down a big tree. (Sorry for the image of me abusing Mother Nature.) The analogy allowed me to trust my actions, and not expect immediate results. Yet, there was the feeling of magic present almost immediately. I was behaving proactively in a scenario that, for years, had left me feeling at risk and powerless.
Simply saying “this is a habit” may not bring the relief you want. When we are in pain, most of us want our pain to go away quickly and NEVER RETURN. However, breaking a habit includes navigating the setbacks and momentary breakdowns that are bound to happen. Telling yourself a simple truth like, this is just a habit, helps you access the part of your brain that can both see the habit, in all its disguises, and make the choice to not indulge it, and know that the discomfort you will experience in the process will not kill you.
We, humans, want life to be easy. It isn't. That's why tools and practice are necessary. When it comes to your most challenging habit, see it for the habit that it is. Then, wrap your mind around the idea that you don’t have to be a slave to old habits. No matter how long the habit has been a habit, it is still just a habit! Underneath the habit is your original whole Self waiting for you to get curious about your behavior and take the journey back to your Self.
Tina Lifford plays Aunt Vi on the critically acclaimed television show, Queen Sugar. The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness is her first book; released by Harper Collins, November 2019, and is full of the kind of internal “actions” that will transform your thinking and your life. You can also join her at a workout in her Inner Fitness Studio to practice strengthening your wellbeing and making it actionable in your day to day life. Don't miss the latest news from Tina Lifford and The Inner Fitness Project. Sign up our monthly newsletter here.