emotional habits & cbt

Posted on: April 15, 2012 by Chris Kingman

It is commonly said that human beings are creatures of habit.

Usually, this characterization is used in reference to our behavior—though we’ve realized in recent years that how we think is also habitual. Since we all know that how we think has much to do with how we feel, a valuable question to ask ourselves is, What are my emotional habits?

What are emotional habits?

There are two dimensions to emotional habits:

  1. How we generally feel, day to day, as we go about the business of living our lives.
  2. How we emotionally react (over and over again) to specific situations/events that occur in our lives.

Thoughts and emotions cannot be separated; they are happening in tandem during virtually every moment of life. In other words, to be human is to be in a state of continuous thinking and feeling—and the subtle dynamics of that ongoing subjective experience are, in part, habitual.

the habits of anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, helplessness, sadness, jealousy, fear, worry, etc.

If we find ourselves repeatedly feeling worried and obsessive about what others think of us, or fearful about what our future holds, or depressed and jealous about how our lives compare to others’—it can be said that we’ve habituated ourselves into these repeating patterns.

This is not to ‘blame’ ourselves or to minimize the impact of real events and situations in our lives. My point is to put us in the driver’s seat and say that if we’ve habituated ourselves into these patterns, it follows that we can re-habituate ourselves out of them and into other/healthier patterns.

Clients I see for therapy in Manhattan, NYC often ask for CBT focused help around these issues, which I am happy to provide.

beware of oversimplifying CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)

CBT is of enormous benefit to individuals all over the world, and to the mental health field in general. However, the oversimplified statement (as it is appears in media sound-bites) that you can change your thinking and change your life can distort the true substance and value of CBT and the related methods of psychotherapy it has inspired.

Why?

Because it implies that changing your thinking is a simple and easy thing (like changing your shampoo or something). Also, it can lead one to the false belief that once you ‘change your thinking,’ the job is done. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Becoming change agents with respect to our own habits of thinking and feeling is akin to learning and mastering a musical instrument, which I’ll speak to a minute.

First, one more point about the potential to oversimplify CBT. Let’s look at this often heard idea:

What matters most is not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us.

I couldn’t agree more. However, it is important that we take it a step further and clarify that our INITIAL response/reaction to ‘things’ is not nearly as important as how we respond over time—over the course of the hour, day, week, month and year.

In the moment we might blow up, shut down, freak out, minimize, not care, fall apart, have a panic attack, etc. Ok, fine, but THEN what do we do? And THEN…what do we do after that? And so on.

My point is that what matters most are not the discrete moments but the ongoing (and always imperfect) process of endeavoring to live well. In pursuit of this, it is helpful if we ask ourselves:

Is my basic orientation towards life centered around continuously seeking to learn and grow from life’s challenges and complexities?

-or-

Am I living a more reactive life that involves blaming others, avoiding responsibility and regularly complaining that things are not as I would like them to be?

changing habits of thought & emotion is like learning to play the guitar

Becoming someone who can play the guitar (which I do) is lifelong learning, and I think most would agree that it is ideally pursued as a labor of love. To my mind, the same is true for learning to change our thinking and our emotional habits.

Yes, there are ‘techniques’ we employ in our efforts to learn any musical instrument. However, the most important aspect of learning to master an instrument is NOT the techniques or tricks, nor is it the method of instruction, nor even the quality of the teacher. What matters most is the level of passion and interest the student brings to the endeavor, coupled with the amount of creative practice and performance that he/she puts in over time.

an ethic of continuous learning and growth

We’ve all been raised in a culture saturated with social cues that encourage immediate gratification and a quick-fix mentality. Thus, it is no wonder that we have developed an over-reliance on tricks, tips and the “newest cutting edge techniques.”

In truth, they don’t deliver the goods; what actually works in learning anything worthwhile is practicing the basics over and over and over, while creatively building off of the incremental increases in knowledge and skill.

The ethic of “pulling all-nighters” and “cramming” for tests does not serve us well in the school of life; what truly counts in this domain is serious and sustained commitment to values and practices that serve us and others well.

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