How debilitating is your habit?

snowflake18Watching the snow falling softly, silently – a few flakes at first, growing in numbers until it was snowing heavily, blotting out the sky in a hushed, swirling, mesmerising dance.  Visibility was reduced to a few feet in front of my nose.  As flakes came to settle on my gloved hands I marvelled at each perfect crystal, knowing that each one was unique in structure. Softly innocent, silently innocuous.  Each flake was so tiny and yet, in combination with others, held such immense power to bring our lives to a standstill.

So miniscule and yet so cumulatively powerful as to transform our lives.

Remembering that spell before Christmas, in England, when it snowed persistently and relentlessly until airports weresnowdrift_car closed, flights cancelled and roads across Britain brought to a standstill.  It caused unprecedented chaos to travellers and would-be-travellers – people camping at airports until flights resumed, others incaserated in their vehicles on blocked motorways for days.

It was not all negative of course – it depended on your viewpoint.  The thick snow was a delight for children and the young at heart who spent happy hours tobogganing and skiing down any slope or hill they could find.

So miniscule and yet so cumulatively powerful as to transform our lives – for good or ill.

This power of small things to potentially immobilise us, set me thinking….

Clients often come to me saying that they feel stuck in their lives and held back by something – although they often don’t know just what it might be.  Sometimes, however, they know exactly what the imprisoning “snowdrift” is – a negative emotion, a lack of confidence, a persistent way of doing something which is detrimental to them in some way – but they feel powerless to be able to change and move forward.

The challenge is that we are all creatures of habit.  We are programmed to remember and repeat what we have learnt.  Human behaviour is almost completely made up of small habits or patterns of behaviour (snowflakes with the power to accumulate into impassable snow drifts).  A habit, after all, is only a small action that we repeat, sometimes in combination with other small actions, until it becomes our default way of acting in certain situations.  What starts as a conscious action becomes, with repetition, an unconscious part of who we are and how we act.  What was once gently fluid is now rigidly set and potentially hard to shift.  On the positive side, habits allow us to do things without having to think about them.  They free us up to make repetitive actions easily and without conscious thought so that we have time to focus on more interesting things – new things.  The draw back is when we become aware that they are not serving us any more, in fact they are holding us back, and we want to change them.  Then we discover that they have grown cumulatively very powerful and we are potentially imprisoned in their grip.  Dr Johnson (1790 – 1784) summed it up perfectly, to my mind, when he said:
The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken”.
Held back by chains
First we form habits, and then our habits form us.  Before we know it, we see the world only from our own perspective.  When that happens we begin to stagnate” – Anon

One of my clients had not been able to have holidays abroad with her family because of her phobia of flying.  Even the mere thought of checking in at the airport would render her breathless with a severe panic attack.  Another client kept thinking he must be stupid which consolidated over time into an emotional block to learning anything new and having panic attacks before exams to the point that he was refusing to sit any.  Yet another, a senior partner in a law firm, was rendered literally speechless when thinking about standing up and giving the end of year presentation to the firm.  At some level there was once a reason for the habit to have formed in the first place and had since been perpetuated, at a subconscious level, gaining in strength with each repetition.  None of these habits of thought serve these individuals any more – they are very real, immobilising snowdrifts.

All is not lost – we are not condemned to be at the mercy of our self-destructive habits indefinitely.  The snow plough can come to the rescue (find a good therapeutic coach!); the airport reopens, the cars once more drive down the motorway.  We can perform Houdini-esque escapes from the chains.  The first step is to wake up and be aware that we are imprisoned and then we can do something about it.  The key to changing any unwanted behaviour or habit is not found in our muscles but in our innermost thoughts.

We can choose to replace these old habits of thought that no longer serve us and choose to think differently.  As with an individual snowflake which is unique in its structure – each habit is unique and we can learn to identify its triggers and its many strands in order to understand it, melt it, dissolve it, and replace it with a fresh new habit that is supportive to our goals and aims in the current chapter of our lives.

My client with the phobia of flying now happily flies to new exciting destinations, with her family and friends, for holidays.  The student who was incapacitated by blocks to learning is now proudly getting “A” grades.  The lawyer who was frozen to ineffectiveness in public speaking went on to get a standing ovation.

Life changes when we change how we choose to think about things – one step or one habit at a time.  Change the little habits in our lives and the big things magically and effortlessly transform.
So miniscule and yet so cumulatively powerful as to transform our lives.