Have you felt stuck in self-sabotaging patterns? Like you’re constantly trying to break out of old habits, but for some reason, you can’t quite make new choices stick?
If that’s you, I have good news: your biology may be more to blame than your willpower.
When the concepts of habit change and self-sabotage arise, people normally point directly to willpower and discipline; those are the magic keys that you simply need in order to stop smoking, eat more vegetables, or get your 10,000 steps in each day.
Though willpower and discipline are parts of habit change, the fixation on them overlooks a key need for your body and brain: safety.
Your body and brain evolved to seek out relationships and environments which feel familiar to relationships and environments you’ve experienced in the past. These provide a sense of “predictability” – if you’re around people and in places where you can feel like you “know” what will come next, life feels more predictable.
With a perceived sense of predictability, your brain and body get what they’re really after: safety. Because if you can “predict” what comes next, you can more adequately prepare for it, and you find a perceived sense of safety and control.
This makes sense when we think about evolution; with more predictable environments and relationships, it was easier to survive and create the next generation. In today’s world, however, the brain and body’s grasping need for predictability can be more limiting than helpful.
Let’s take an example: Kayla is looking for a healthy, peaceful relationship. She’s eager for something that’s mature, loving and reciprocal. Growing up, however, Kayla always witnessed chaos and drama in her parents’ relationship, and in adulthood, she found herself in similar, toxic partnerships. And then Kayla meets Craig. He’s sweet, respectful, and sends her flowers after their second date. At first, it feels heavenly: Kayla is so excited to finally be in a healthy, respectful relationship. After a few weeks, however, Kayla begins to feel… bored. Almost apathetic towards Craig. It doesn’t quite make sense to her, though, because when she’s actually with Craig, they have great conversations, she’s laughing out loud, and she’s anything but bored. She gets a feeling that she’s sabotaging this relationship, but she can’t understand why or what she can do about it.
When we think about the brain and the body’s skewed sense of safety, here’s what is often happening in situations like this:
Kayla feels safe in relationships that harbor chaos and drama because that’s what’s “predictable” for her. Those relationships feel familiar, which creates a sense of safety for her brain and body (even if emotionally she feels miserable; the misery is “safe” for her brain).
When she enters the new, healthy relationship with Craig, her brain and body go on high alert because it’s not “predictable.” It’s cued as unsafe, and through a convoluted process called emotional addiction, her brain and body work together to sabotage the new relationship with feelings of boredom.
The sudden disinterest in a long-term goal is just one way that the brain and body can sabotage something new. Other common methods include procrastination, replaying old painful memories, avoidance, seeking out people or habits that are familiar to old patterns, and plain old giving up.
This brain-body-fueled self-sabotage can happen in the macros of our life – our relationships, jobs, and friendships – as well as the micros – our daily schedules, the foods we eat, and more. Your brain’s overarching goal is to keep you safe, and it feels it can most successfully do that by creating a predictable life full of the same patterns, regardless of how those patterns make you feel emotionally.
What can Kayla then do to overcome this sudden disinterest in her goal of being in a healthy relationship?
The first step, naturally, is by creating an awareness of her body and brain’s need for safety. She can begin noticing how the pattern of chaotic relationships has arisen throughout her life, and how it’s showing up with Craig now. With this awareness, she can actively choose new patterns and recognize the old, helping her move over the hump of self-sabotage and into a place where healthy relationships feel safe for her body and brain.
The second possibility comes from a book called Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza. In it, Dispenza outlines the body and brain’s need for predictability as we’ve recounted here, and he posits that we can provide our bodies and brains with the safety they need through a process called “mental rehearsal.”
Mental rehearsal has been used by musicians, professional athletes, and public speakers to improve their performance and reach their goals. It’s the simple process of visualizing yourself practicing a new skill in your mind. Research has shown that mental rehearsal can improve performance in a music performance, healthcare delivery, and sports.
Dispenza takes this a step further and outlines how mental rehearsal can help people create a sense of safety for their bodies and brains in new habits, relationships, and environments. When you visualize yourself in healthy relationships, successfully reaching your goals, and taking on new habits, you begin to give your brain a sense of “predictability” for what that experience will feel like, thereby making it “safe” (Evolve Your Brain, Ch 11).
What’s especially important here is tuning into the emotions of those visualizations – when you imagine yourself reaching your goals, how do you feel? When Kayla uses her imagination to visualize herself in a healthy, reciprocal relationship, what emotions does that bring up? Pride, gratitude, joy, contentment are common answers.
As these emotions become more familiar, the new habits, relationships, and environments triggering these emotions become more predictable and safe; as a result, the brain and body have less of a need to self-sabotage the newness.
If your goals for a healthy lifestyle for disease prevention keep going off track, take the time to create awareness of the old habits and the rationale behind them. This analysis will help you ‘safely’ form new habits. And each day, imagine yourself reaching your goals and how that makes you feel. Whether it is weight loss, better nutrition, positive mental outlook or disease management, these mental rehearsals will teach your brain that these habits are ‘predictable’ and ‘safe’.
In my next blog, we’ll dive even deeper into how the body and brain work together to enact self-sabotage.