The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
December 1999, No. 2, Sect. 2
Main Article: Part II
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 CityWashington, "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 --
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
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
I'll close this section with the hopeful insight of the pioneering scientist,
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
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
(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 email@example.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