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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

December 1999, No. 2, Sect. 2

Main Article: Part II

Double-Edged Habit:
From Self-defeating to Self-Defining Performance

Now let's go from overcoming a negative -- self-defeating procrastination -- to cultivating positive habit transformation. The topic of procrastination is an apt platform for exploring the changing of a negative habit. Not only is procrastination a barrier to taking action but parallels abound between repetitive, non-conscious habitual processing and avoidance or putting things off as a defensive maneuver. Procrastination is a method for shutting down awareness of anxious or aggressive thoughts or of scared and shameful feelings. It often quickly morphs into a ritual of escape and a vicious cycle of self-numbing, self-doubting or, even, self-loathing.

Yet, habit and procrastination are also double-edged. Habit allows for automatic, spontaneous and unselfconscious responding often essential for efficiently completing complex routines. Productive procrastination entails taking an "incubation vacation" for gaining a new perspective. Both are vital for achieving new learning curves along with peak or creative performance. So transform a ritual of escape into a rite of passage. Read and right on!

How do you break a self-defeating habit and build a self-affirming and strengthening one? Notice I didn't start in the plural, that is, focusing on all your bad habits. If you're like me, there aren't enough life times to change all our nasty and naughty ways. And besides, not just variety, but a little deviancy, adds spice to a life. Still there are some habits which enslave us, especially those consuming demons - like smoking, uncontrolled eating, drinking and gambling, or mindless and endless latenight emailing, surfing or boob tubing, for example, watching reruns of Gilligan's Island or WWI footage for the twenty-third time. For such fixations, liberation needs to be the objective.

Perceiving the Problem

Often when exploring a subject, I like to begin with my old Roget's Thesaurus. Looking up "habit," one discovers such synonyms as "addiction," "custom," "mannerism," and "nature." There was one choice that momentarily threw me - "clothing." But when I realized how many people are addicted to shopping, it made perfect sense. (Just a little nunsense. ;-)

The spectrum of synonyms is instructive. Some habits or rituals are quite useful. They establish a tradition or routine, thereby providing a measure of order, efficiency and meaning to a life. Alas, some habits can also lock you into inflexible mind-body patterns and inhibit your openness to change. For example, for years I resisted using computers; I knew I was meant to write with pen and paper. Actually, this close-minded resistance had more to do with my own technophobia. (Interestingly, I still compose original material by hand and right brain, though now I love transferring a written draft onto a computer screen for tight left-brained rewriting.) Such personal resistance or rigidity often reflects or may defensively regress into phobias, obsessions, compulsions and/or dysfunctional cravings.

Out of One's Mind

I suppose the mindless nature of habit makes it a true double-edged sword. When a person isn't self-conscious, and has the routine down, he or she cuts through extraneous steps, preserves energy, and becomes highly efficient. Peak performance requires well-rehearsed, automatic responding; it also demands we bring a multi-faceted self - experience, skills, emotions, focus, spontaneity, risk-taking, etc. - into the arena. Top performers in any sport or art practice endlessly to achieve this integration of fullness and economy or elegant simplicity. And when this synthesis becomes automatic and unconscious, high performance athletes say they are "in the zone."

The zone is a mind-body mix of automatic responding, full presence and relaxed attention - that optimal edge - along with total immersion in a task. But not just any task. The task must be a hard and desired stretch; neither an overly severe strain nor an underwhelming or lightweight challenge. The synergistic result is "flow" -- an unselfconscious experience, as well as an altered state of consciousness, where time and effort fade away to graceful intensity and self-absorption. A flexibly structured habit infused with flow allows you to deviate from an established baseline. It's easier to improvise and innovate knowing there's a familiar, experience-based internal safety net.

But before you run out to your corner personal trainer or shrink to buy a habit, remember, habit does not just culminate in lightness of being and creating; it also has a truly dark side that can destructively turn against oneself. This habitual state of unconsciousness and mindless routine seeks to numb and dull emotions and self-awareness; it prefers inertia or frenetic and distracting, even addictive, activity, and tunes out or ignores situational demands. Denial, avoidance, putting things off and taking flight take precedence over engagement and flow. And there may even be some genetic predisposition.

Liberation from Habituation

A long and uncertain hunt for treasure always begins with a first step. So let's return to our opening question: How do you break one self-defeating habit and replace it with a pattern of cognition and behavior that strengthens your skill level, performance output and self-concept?

The previous meditation on "Procrastination," provides a conceptual starting block: when a pattern of procrastination is a variety of self-defeating habits then, clearly, numbing routine and rigid ritual are dysfunctional complements of fearful avoidance, escapism and denial. Each of these defensive maneuvers deadens the spirit along with the potential for awareness and change. With a greater understanding of procrastination and negative habituation, you have the tools to mine your personal raw material, such as anxiety and aggression. And with some coaching and practice, over time, you can transform self-defeating, mind-body patterns into new learning, emotional growth, skill development and some well-earned pride (maybe even experience a little creative flow). All this can be the outcome of a polished new habit.

The Stress Doc's "Top Ten" Habit Transformers

So here are "The Stress Doc's "Top Ten" Skills, Strategies and Commandments for Emancipation Procrastination and Habit Transformation":

1. Choose a Habit. Target a habit that not only is objectively dysfunctional but also is a source of palpable psychic pain. Select a self-defeating pattern for which you can potentially focus "constructive discontent."

Here's a personal example, one that I will draw upon throughout to illustrate the ten-step method of habit transformation. Ten years ago, I undertook a major diet change after unexpectedly learning that my blood cholesterol levels were moderately high. Not being overweight, being basically fit, the scores were startling, anxiety producing and a blow to my ego. In light of a family predisposition to serious heart disease, a number of my eating patterns were definitely self-defeating.

A habit to which I had been fairly oblivious was now practically shouting for attention. As Pablo Picasso, the century's greatest artist observed: "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." At the beginning of my fourth decade, a state of ignorance and denial had definitely been exploded.

2. Partialize and Assess the Problem. After choosing a target habit, select realistic problem parameters. Break a big problem into manageable bite size pieces. For example, if you want to lose weight, I don't recommend a cessation of eating. Nor do I favor having your stomach stapled, joining one of those all liquid crash diet programs or popping the latest diet pill fad. Instead, try gaining control by studying ways to reduce the intake of simple sugars and saturated fats (to 25% of your caloric intake, for example). If chronic depression underlies compulsive eating then, instead of diet pills, I'd suggest some psychotherapy, exercise and, even, an evaluation for mood medication by a psychiatrist. (For consulting with an expert, see 5.)

3. Establish a Challenging and Achievable Goal and Time Frame. One key to letting go of an undesirable habit is having somewhere new or something new to go to. Speaking metaphorically, if you are finally motivated to leave an island for which you have tired or outgrown, or are ready to break out from that which keeps you boxed in, you likely need some sense that there is a desired land mass to which you can migrate. Of course, believing you possibly have the resources and skills to cross the ocean is also useful.

In other words, establish some challenging yet obtainable goals; if you properly and gradually stretch your horizons and mind-body actions you should reach your desired objectives. Drawing on weight loss, again, here are two illustrative strategies: a) reframe your goal from just losing a specific amount of weight to exploring a new nutritional life style; reduce some of the performance pressure from idolizing the all mighty, magical number, and b) don't simply state an intention to lose thirty pounds. How about ten pounds in thirty days? Manageable steps in a manageable time table are not only more achievable, but also are healthier for your psychophysiological system. I'm not an advocate of shock therapy as the treatment of choice for habit change. Being startled, confronted and jolted out of denial is another matter.

4. Anticipate Grieving. Both before you start and/or during your habit changing program don't be surprised if you experience a poignant, if not profound, sense of loss. When I stopped having my nightly pie or pastry, gave up my creamy beef stroganoff soup and decided tuna fish with mayonnaise was not the eleventh commandment, I had a lump (and it wasn't crab meat) in my throat. I was saying goodbye to old, all too familiar, friends. And, if loss, loneliness, emptiness and depression or separation and performance anxiety are long-standing issues above and beyond your targeted habit, letting go will be especially troublesome. At minimum, a state of psychological withdrawal is a distinct possibility.

Another loss may involve the nature of your relationships with those people directly or subtly encouraging or enabling your old, self-defeating pattern. Now I'm not saying automatically drop these friends or associates. However, if your goal is to reduce alcohol consumption, then hanging in the barroom with drinking buddies is not the supportive environment you need. And remember, a non-toxic support system is often essential for life-enhancing change.

Learn to set boundaries and accept that some conflict is inevitable when you both shake up and take more control of your world. For example, it's important to refuse gracefully and convincingly your mother-in-law's second helping at Sunday dinner when you are feeling full. Take to heart the Stress Doc's "Basic Law of Safe Stress": Do know your limits and don't limit your "no"s!

Finally, take solace and hope from the words of wisdom of French author and philosopher, Albert Camus:

Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved habit] obstructed a whole corner of the possible pure now as a sky washed by rain.

5. Consult with a Coach or Counselor. If you can set in motion the previous four strategies, you may be ready to implement effectively your habit and behavior modification program. However, if these steps seem confusing or daunting or, even if they don't, consider seeking the experience and wisdom of a coach or counselor in this startup phase. A habit breaking coach will help you identify the strengths and vulnerabilities that you bring to the change effort. He or she will: a) assess grandiose, timid or rigid goal-setting expectations, b) provide tips and support for managing the uncomfortable emotions that are likely to surface and c) help establish a gradual stretch learning framework which anticipates forward and backward movement.

The smartest move I made to overcome computer phobia was hiring a computer consultant. She gave me about half a dozen private lessons, walked me through the startup minefield (mindfield may also be apt) and soothed my impatient and anxious brow. The money spent on hiring this consultant was easily balanced by the sums (and psychic energy) saved in not having to go back into psychotherapy over this raw beginner trauma.

With my eating transformation, a no-nonsense nutritionist friend read me the "diet act." She quickly interpreted the meaning of the cholesterol scores. She also explained why change was essential and what specific modifications needed to be made in my routine.

6. Take the Plunge. The objective of planning for negative habit breaking and healthy remaking is not to have everything perfectly figured out before taking the plunge. This is only a formula for endless preparation and procrastination. Aware-ily jump in. As long as you can tread water and you know whether there are dangerous currents or where the alligators are lurking, you are ready for a baptism. You'll quickly get feedback regarding what you can and can't handle, along with available resources. You'll definitely glean insight regarding vital survival knowledge, skills and critical supports.

7. Seek Ongoing Support. Pairing up with a habit breaking buddy can make the "sturm und drang," the highs and lows, the ebbs and flows of habit breaking and change less overwhelming and more tolerable. Check in on a regular basis; even an email buddy is good. Share the progress and the setbacks: when you successfully resisted temptation and when, alas, you succumbed to those self-defeating tendencies. (Such as when I couldn't resist that cherry pie instead of the bagel at the coffee house.)

Of course, deviating from your plan is not a terminal offense. A slip up is often a disguised opportunity for understanding the vulnerable link in your habit-change goals, actions and resources. Which leads me to...joining a support group. I do believe in the "higher power" of group synergy. When people come together to confront their self-defeating patterns and distorted self-image, to embrace their pains and strengths while learning from each other new ways of being and doing, then the process of life affirming change is set in motion. And online/chat support groups that target specific problem areas are definitely cutting edge in the behavior modification-transformation arena. (For those on AOL, check out my Digital City—Washington, "Shrink Rap and Group Chat," Tuesdays, 9-10:45pm, EST.)

8. Do It By the Numbers. Two numerical principles will help sustain hope and the change effort:

a) The 21-Day Principle. Not only is behavior modification an evolutionary process, it often comes in three distinct phases: "Unfreezing-Change-Refreezing." The first third involves acknowledging the self-defeating patterns and starting to let go. The middle third tries to incorporate new skills, tools, resources and pro-social activities. If the first third is depressing, the middle stage can be anxiety provoking as you awkwardly apply new insights and methods.

The final "refreezing" occurs when trial and error, along with practice, leads to those learning clicks and "ahas!" The change starts feeling more natural. Using an example of learning to ride a bike, now you are no longer wobbling and weaving perilously, nor regularly falling off your two-wheeler. You are building up a head of steam and confidence; you're beginning to see the pass in the impasse. No more is the light at the end of the tunnel the proverbial oncoming train. (Okay, I'll sign up for an AA group -- Aphorisms Anonymous.)

Depending on how complex the habit transformation being attempted, you may need more than one 21-day change process. For example, it took about two months for me to shift from dieting (or concern about weight loss) to developing a new and natural way of eating while reducing my cholesterol scores to the low-normal range.

Finally, in the second and third stages, you may want to add a related behavior that both helps in the letting go and provides a motivational boost for making and sustaining change. For me, a powerful addition for changing my way of eating was the ritual of daily exercise. (Of course, an aerobic exercise regimen may necessitate another habit transformation process.)

b) The 80:20 Principle. Eighty percent of your results are usually produced by twenty percent of your activities. Clearly, this has implications for setting priorities and selectively investing time and energy. And most important, you can drop four-fifths of those nagging distractions without feeling so guilty.

9. Establish a Beachhead. One of the seductive traps about behavior modification is that sometimes there is early rapid learning. And then you hit a plateau. With no new gains (or weight losses) the inevitable frustration, discouragement and self-disparagement quickly ensues. Don't give up. While simple learning may occur quickly, the complex integration of a variety of tender mind-body patterns proceeds more slowly. Consider these habit breaking war cries: "Establishing a beachhead doesn't mean you've conquered the island." Don't get sky-high over quick victories or too deflated with some setbacks. It's (human) nature's way to ebb and flow...and to get knocked down. Remember, "many battles are fought and lost before a major undertaking is won."

I'll close this section with the hopeful insight of the pioneering scientist, Jonas Salk:

Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than we are fearful; being trusting one more time than we are anxious.

10. Pursue the Path. Many people become so goal and outcome focused that they overlook the importance of process and the quality of the journey. Learning is neither finite nor absolute, especially if the transformation attempted touches your mind-body-spirit. As sports psychologist, George Leonard, observed: It's the path of mastery, not the path to mastery. (See below for my poetic "The 8 'P" Path of Mastery.") Breaking, making and mastering a deep-seated, intricate behavior-learning chain is a lifetime process. And often the early steps are awkward ones, full of swaying, stumbling and falling. Remember "FALLING" is not "FAILING"…There's an "L" of a difference!)

When it comes to habit change, one implication of this "path as much as destination" philosophy is to reward your small but significant gains. Don't wait to achieve your ultimate goal to pat yourself on the back or to share your efforts with others. Reward those procrastination-busting steps. And finally, consider embracing my process-pathway mind set: "I don't know where I'm going...I just think I know how to get there!"

And the best way to create this performance paradigm shift…is with words of wisdom. Most of us seek them. And perhaps none more frequently quoted than "The Serenity Prayer": "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can...and the wisdom to know where to hide the bodies." No...Just kidding. ;-) "And the wisdom to know the difference." And the older I become, the more profound these discriminating words. Yet, a fundamental question remains: how the heck do you get the wisdom? Okay, folks. Here it is...The Secret of Wisdom:

Once there was a young woman who heard that an old wise woman had the secret of wisdom. The young woman was determined to track the old woman down. After traveling many months, the young woman found the old woman in a cave. She entered and addressed the old woman: "Old Wise Woman, I hear you have The Secret of Wisdom. Would you share it with me? The old woman looked at the youth and said, "Yes, you seem sincere. The Secret of Wisdom is good judgment." "Good judgment, of course," said the youth, thanked her mentor, and started to leave. However, as she got to the entrance of the cave she paused, turned back and said, "Old Woman, I feel funny, but, if I may ask, how does one obtain good judgment?" "That's a good question," said the sage. "One obtains good judgment through experience." "Experience, of course," said the young seeker, and proceeded to leave. But once again she stopped in her tracks, and humbly walked back to her mentor. "Old Woman," said the young woman, "I feel foolish, but I have to ask: How does one obtain experience?" The old woman paused, nodded her head, then proceeded: "Now you have reached the right question. How does one obtain experience?. . .Through bad judgment!"

Errors of judgment rarely mean incompetence; they more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. Our so-called "failures" can be channeled as guiding streams (sometimes raging rivers) of opportunity and experience that ultimately enrich - widen and deepen - the risk-taking passage...If we can just immerse ourselves in the these unpredictably rejuvenating waters.

The Path of Mastery

By exploring and practicing this transformational "Top Ten," you will create an optimally challenging learning-behavior modification process. With this guide for habit transformation, you will: a) achieve emancipation procrastination, b) tackle a dysfunctional habit, c) get into the flow -- whether of a state of consciousness or the ebb and flow of learning and life, and d) evolve new skills and supports while strengthening a belief in your powers to initiate projects, achieve goals and sustain purposeful and healthy change. I can't think of a better gift to give yourself for the New Millenium!

And here's my final gift to you:

The 8 "P" Path of Mastery

The elusive path of mastery The one all would like to find. Eight "P"s illume the mystery Fusing spirit, body and mind.

The initial "P" is plain to see You can't close your eyes and pray But must crawl and fall through infancy To practice the night away.

Mastery, mastery The body is a sanctum Do you agree? Mastery, mastery The body is a sanctum Do you agree?

Now practice nurtures progress Unless driven to impress Upon the fate of ol' Bjorn Bored Beware shooting star success.

For the learning arc will go flat What direction do you go? The pass in the impasse...where it's at So don't jump off that plateau.

Mastery, mastery Our mind is the canvas So let it be. Mastery, mastery Our mind is the canvas So let it be.

Let the tension challenge assumption. Light a candle amidst the fog. Grapple with form and function. Find a humble pedagogue.

A mind to expand your horizons To cultivate prismatic eyes For life's web of subtle relations Partialize to synthesize.

Repetition now yields connection The big picture starts making sense. Forsake illusions of perfection Grasp the mantra of persistence.

Yet know the wisdom of letting go A time for waste ain't a waste of time. Maybe not an infinite virtue, but Patience brings forth the sublime.

Mastery, mastery The spirit is the cosmos That must be free. Mastery, mastery The spirit is the cosmos That must be free.

The serenity of mastery Reveals the depths of inner space. And with mastery of serenity The payoff is amazing grace.

So mastery stays a mystery A rising and setting sun. "The Eight 'P" Path" is an odyssey To be chosen again and again.

Mastery, mastery The body is a sanctum Do you agree? Our mind is the canvas So let it be. The spirit is the cosmos That must be free.

Mastery, mastery The more you know It's a mystery. The more you know It's a mystery.

(c) Mark Gorkin 1992 Shrink Rap Productions

And for the Millennium and beyond, of course...Practice Safe Stress!

 Mark Gorkin, LICSW, known as "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist" (TM). An experienced psychotherapist, The Doc is a nationally recognized speaker, and training and OD consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change, Team Building and HUMOR! His writings are syndicated by iSyndicate.com and appear in a wide variety of online and offline publications, including AOL's Online Psych and Business Know How, Mental Health Net, Financial Services Journal Online, Paradigm Magazine and Counseling Today. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website -- www.stressdoc.com . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 202-232-8662. Spring 2000, look for The Art of Practicing Safe Stress: The Stress Doc's Survival Guide, published by AdviceZone.com .

(c) Mark Gorkin 1999 Shrink Rap Productions