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Emotional Habits

Updated: Apr 8

I’m about to give you a great truth. When you read it, you’ll be disappointed and say, “So? I know this already.”

Well, no, you don’t.

A mass of emotional habits drives everyone. These habits direct how you react to everything that happens around you. How happy, tense, enthusiastic, depressed, remorseful, dreadful, or relaxed you feel every moment of every day is nearly entirely determined by emotional habits. Do you overeat or oversleep? Do you have chronic anxiety or need anger management? Do you swear often? Are you impatient with people? Do you punish yourself?

All of these behaviors are emotional habits. I caution you against the pompous notion that you don’t have any. Sorry. You’re not yet pure.

They fire off automatically. Your “self” is mostly on auto-pilot, bullied along as a leaf in a windstorm. You are a seashell tumbled across the sand at high tide.

Sounds awful. The good news is many of these are easy to fix.

True story

Years ago, on one of those weekends when I had to work overtime, I was sitting at my desk doing something important when I wadded up a piece of paper and tossed it into the trash can. I missed. I became seething, spitting angry at the piece of paper, the trash can, and everything else around me. Luckily for me, no co-workers were around to witness my fit.

I became concerned with my reaction, which prompted me to remember similar reactions I had experienced during the previous weeks.

Sometime later, I was speaking with a psychologist when I asked, “What of this?” I expected a profound elucidation about childhood and of traumatic experiences beyond the reach of conscious memory.

Instead, he said, “You’re in the habit of getting angry.”

“Um, what?”

“It’s a habit you’ve gotten yourself into. Stop the habit.”

I sat there, squinting.

He said the next time something happens that starts to upset me, I tell myself, “That’s unfortunate,” or “How about that?” or some other similar calm response. He said it wouldn’t take me long to quit the habit.

I was disappointed.

But I tried it over the next few days, and it worked! It turns out I had simply grown accustomed to angrily reacting to things.

I have since learned that most of our reactions to events around us are habits.

How to kick the habit

Habits can be undone by simply not doing them anymore.

I don’t mean to be flippant. Some emotional habits are easier to fix than others. There are a fair number of reactions to life’s events I have not yet licked.

We may never overcome some of our emotional habits.

If you don’t believe me, I’ll prove it to you. Think of someone who makes you feel irritated, frustrated, antagonized, belittled, or criticized. This is the person you avoid in the hallway. He or she can be a co-worker, a parent, or a neighbor.

Now recall how others in your life who are new to this person react to him or her. They often don’t feel irritated, frustrated, antagonized, belittled, or criticized. But over time, the new people eventually allow the destructive person to affect them the same way he or she affects you. These people develop new habits of frustration, anger, and so on associated with this person.

“Now, hold on,” you say. “This guy is a real jerk!”

I did not say it would always be easy. Just because our surroundings are difficult to handle does not mean our feelings aren’t up to us.

Destructive people are difficult to deal with. This is why you should avoid such people whenever you can.

Start with the most simple

Here is my advice about negative emotional habits: Work on the easy ones first. You’ll conquer a handful without much heavy lifting, which will boost your confidence in this principle and in yourself.

After you tackle the easy ones, concentrate on your next harder negative emotional habit. Each time you conquer one, congratulate yourself. If you’ve been confiding with anyone on your progress, share a hug and go get an ice cream together.

Psychologists have a term for these villainous acidic habits. They call them “Automatic Negative Thoughts,” or ANTs.

Reject your negative thoughts out loud with boldness

When I am going about my business during the day, and a stinging, negative memory from my past makes me wince, I immediately speak the words aloud,

“That was long ago and is irrelevant. It's stupid to remember it. It is useless information that no longer applies.”

You must react this way immediately. When your subconscious bubbles up junk, you will have easy access to the deeper parts of you for only a brief time—seconds! In a prompt, commanding voice, declare the thought void and of no importance.

Say it out loud because, at that moment, your subconscious is vulnerable to suggestions from an authoritative source. It's as if your inner self seeks confirmation for its weakness. Don't give it any!

When I do this, the destructive thought generally does not return. Ever. What a wonderful blessing! Even if one does at some later time, I repeat the process. That almost always kills it forever.

Eventually, I will be free of the crazy parts of my young past that no one else knows about anymore, and neither should I. When I say past, I mean back as far as I can remember. Thousands of incidents in my teenage years have haunted me my entire life. I squash them when they pop up.

If you're at work or in church or engaged in a social activity, you're out of luck. By the time you ditch the witnesses around you, the moment will have passed. This is okay. You'll get other chances when those moments show their ugly faces again.

The mind commands the body, and it obeys instantly;
the mind commands itself and is resisted.
--St. Augustine


When you experience stress, anxiety, or anger, your body produces cortisol. Cortisol is meant to help you in a “fight or flight” situation. The problem is we also produce cortisol when we experience stress or anxiety when no “fight or flight” is necessary. Cortisol does not help us when we worry or fret.

The following is a list of the adverse effects of cortisol in our bloodstream:

  • Increases blood sugar levels by breaking down muscle, bone, and collagen (connective tissues); promotes osteoporosis; decreases bone formation, reduces calcium absorption

  • Inhibits many important body functions not directly related to “fight or flight”

  • Inhibits immune system, the digestive system, and growth processes

  • Inhibits the immune system, extending wound healing time

  • Counteracts insulin, contributes to hyperglycemia

  • Inhibits thyroid hormone activation, thus creating a form of hypothyroidism that reduces metabolism and increases storage of unused nutrients as fat

  • Is a diuretic (makes you pee more)

  • Increases absorption of sodium by the intestines

  • Increases appetite

  • Stimulates gastric-acid secretion in the stomach

Long-term effects of sustained high levels of cortisol in your system include:

  • Modification to the body’s regulatory networks, resulting in mood disorders including depression and anxiety

  • Digestive problems

  • Weight gain

  • Headaches

  • Sleep problems

  • Addictions

  • Damaged hippocampus, resulting in impaired learning, concentration impairment, and inhibited memory retrieval

  • Heart disease, damage to blood vessels, high blood pressure, and ultimately congestive heart failure

How to combat stress

Without going into depth, there are three major approaches you can use to help combat stress and anxiety:

  • Relaxation, including meditation, self-hypnosis, etc.

  • Physical activity, including walking and running

  • Social support, including speaking with friends and mentors

Take this topic seriously. Fostering a healthy, calm demeanor will help you greatly throughout your life.

Trouble falling asleep at night?

Every time you fall asleep or wake up, you pass through a mental state called hypnagogia. In this state we are much more susceptible to suggestion than during the day. This includes susceptibility to our own suggestions. The old wisdom that says, "Never go to sleep angry" is correct. Thinking badly about ourselves or others during the day is bad enough. But as we fall asleep, those bitter thoughts become more deeply embedded into our psyche because we are more suggestible, even to ourselves.

So, let's use the hypnagogic state to our advantage! On the occasions when I'm troubled by my thoughts of the day and cannot get to sleep, I first make sure I am physically comfortable (right temperature, soft pillow, etc.) and then, in my mind, repeatedly tell myself the following, "Right now I feel perfect. Right now, all is well." Such is easy for me to believe because it is true that, at that instant, all is well. The process works almost instantly, and I fall asleep because I am highly suggestible at that moment.

Talk to your six-year-old

When you find yourself fighting off bad thoughts, imagine you're talking to a six-year-old instead. Your subconscious, which clings to out-of-date emotional junk, really is only six years old.

Let's imagine you're angry at the guy who cut in line in front of you. Instead of trying to tell yourself to ignore your feelings--which is like telling a rhinoceros to stop charging--look down at the imaginary six-year-old standing beside you and say silently to him or her, "Should that man have done that?" "No," the child responds. "Why not?" you ask. "Because it isn't right," the child says.

This directs the attention away from you. Why should the attention be on you? You didn't do anything wrong. Neither did the child. The only person guilty in this story is the jerk who took cuts. Never accept the punishment of someone else's actions.

Keep it simple

"Daddy, why is the sky blue?"

"Just because," you answer.

With children, generally, the shorter the conversation, the better. The same goes with you. When the toast falls to the floor butter-side-down, say to yourself, "Just because," instead of initiating a mental tirade over why the universe hates you.

Keep it light

Endeavor to keep your thoughts as light as possible as often as possible. Do your best to develop a sense of humor. As with any skill, it takes practice. So, work on it anytime you're around strangers. If you flub up, you'll never have to face them again.

When I go on hikes, I'll often tell strangers I meet coming in the opposite direction, "Hey, you don't look tired." Or if we're heading up the trail to the top of a mountain, I'll tell people coming down, "The top is the other way." These kinds of comments nearly always produce laughs. My goal on hikes is never to tell the same quippy joke twice, so this keeps me thinking about funny lines instead of my aching feet.

When I see someone walking considerably ahead of a group, I'll tell the group, "He's getting away from you." Or, when I see a woman walking some distance behind a man, I'll tell the woman, "Isn't he supposed to be chasing you?"

The point is, having humorous thoughts is a habit that requires practice. So practice! You want to deliver your brief funny lines quickly and with sufficient skill to provoke a positive response.

We were in a restaurant recently on a hot day. One of the available deserts was a "thick shake." We asked the waiter what a "thick shake" was. He answered, "They're thicker." Right then, I knew the guy was funny. My wife asked if she could have a regular shake, and he said, "I'm sorry. We're out of the ingredients for those today. But I can set one outside for a while if you'd like." (For you humor-newbies reading this, that was a joke.) I loved it! And I made sure to tip him 20%.

I like to come up with clever names for stuck-up people (not to their faces!). My family enjoys it when we come up with creative descriptions of the high-and-mighty types. I'll refer to people who think they're richer and better than others as "hoity-toity." "Snobby" is a more common term, so how about "snooty"? Just last week my son came up with the term, "pompy-wompy" instead of the typical "pompous." See, he gets it.

If you're going to be judgmental about others, you might as well have fun doing it.

You are what you think

The adage, "as a man thinketh, so is he," (see Proverbs 23:7) is physically true. Each of our 100 billion brain cells has thousands of connections with its surrounding cells. Any thought or emotional response we engage in physically rewires these connections to make such thoughts and emotional responses easier to generate in the future. Thinking about or reacting to something repeatedly physically alters our brain. This makes the action easier to do over time. See this post.

It takes just as long to unlearn a response as it does to learn it. Think about this the next time you decide to wallow in pity, anger, or resentment.

Isn’t it nice being around someone who is genuinely unflappable and steady in the face of life’s events? You can be one of those people. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did this instead of pointing blame and harboring bitterness.

Happiness is associated with our ability to control our lives. Some people say happiness is freedom. Maybe it is. And that includes freedom from other people and events telling us how to react and feel.

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