A few days ago I was walking on the bike path near our house. I had my headphones on. I may have occasionally busted a sweet dance move or two when no one was looking. It has been an insane sixth months and I'm doing everything I can these days to clear out my bad habits. Walking, tunes, ninja dance moves in public: all excellent ways to get your brain healthy.
I slowly gained on a middle-aged woman and her husband. They were dressed in preppy work out clothes. She was wearing make-up. They were holding hands. But as I got close to them, with her other hand she took her gum out of her mouth and catapulted it into the lake next to the path.
"What?" I thought. "Why?" What's so hard about waiting to spit out your gum? What if she killed a fish? Or a cute little turtle? I would have bet a Ben Franklin that she had a tissue in her vest.
Then I remembered a few weeks before driving with my wife. We were on the highway. I chucked my gum out the window. My wife had tissues in her purse. "What?" She said. "Why?" I said it had gotten tough and it would build up the road. "That's absurd," she said.
In both cases, the nice lady and I were uncomfortable. Our simple discomfort with the worn out gum caused us to put our own needs above others and above logic. Our brains, caught in the irritation, couldn't do the right thing. It got me thinking: What other bad habits are really at the root of so much of our mediocre behavior.
1. Immediate gratification. The gum is a minor example. The way it normally shows up in our lives is that we know something isn't good for us -- food, booze, a shortcut at work -- and we do it anyway. Our consumer mentality has made us believe we can have anything our way. You can, most of the time, but going after what makes you happy all the time actually makes you sadder. You want what you want all the time and that expectation simply can't be met.
Instead, define your bigger goals. M. Scott Peck's classic The Road Less Traveled emphasis on delayed gratification can be taken to a new level when you know why waiting for something matters. I wouldn't have thrown my gum if I paused for a moment to think about the environment. You won't eat fourth meal if running a marathon is your goal this year. Most importantly, if you have goals about treating the people around you with kindness and generosity, we can't help but pause before we take actions that will hurt them.
2. Personalization. I went into the grocery store. The checkout woman was really kind. The person bagging the groceries glared at me. I said, "Thank you." She said nothing. What did I do? Nothing.
Ever see someone really angry on the street and think you were the cause? Been part of a presentation to win some business and when you lose the deal, you think it's your fault even though you didn't speak at the meeting? Thinking you are the cause of something that has gone wrong, even though you were not responsible, creates a cycle of unhappiness known as personalization. Your brain starts thinking every grumpy person or negative event is because you were born.
Its antidote is to assume it's not about you. We have to trust that adults will tell us when they are angry with us. We cannot take on the world's problems in a day and age when we can see all of them in living color on our smart phones. Instead, when the person at the grocery store doesn't return your greeting, assume they didn't hear you or are distracted by something in their own life. The result for your brain is you shrug off what could have bothered you all day or when it's family, for years.
3. Perseveration. It's like obsessing. It's when your head gets stuck. You think about the same thing over and over. For instance, you are in the car. You can't find your phone. You know you had it at the last rest stop. It has to be in the car, and so you don't stop looking for it even though your spouse assures you it is in the car. Or you can't stop worrying about whether another person likes you. They didn't invite you to their birthday party. Why didn't they invite me? They invited me last year. Then you see them at the grocery store a week later. You say, "Hi, why didn't you invite me to your party?" They totally apologize. It was a mistake. But unsatisfied, you press, "But why?" guaranteeing you won't be invited next year.
The solution is to create a sense of closure. If something is missing, give yourself a time limit for the search. Most of the time when we pause, our brains remember where something is. We can't remember because our alarm in our brain is causing stress to keep us looking. Ironically, that stress blocks our memory and make the situation worse.
In the case of the party invitation that never came, when your head won't stop thinking about an idea, find a safe person to talk about it with for a limited period of time. In many situations, we can't get the answers we need to the small and significant pains we experience. You may never find the phone or know why the person didn't invite you, but if you want to stop perseverating, you have to put a limit on the amount of time you stay stuck.
4. Projection. Classic Carl Jung. You have a shadow side. You are most likely unconscious of the things you don't like about yourself. Me too. The problem is we see those shadows in others. For instance, you go to a holiday dinner with your family. Your sibling says something insanely judgmental. You think, "Oh my God, she is so judgmental." See what you did there? Or at work you complain about someone who simply doesn't make the extra effort. You leave early that day.
The other option is compassion. There is a lot of ambiguous stuff out there these days. Uncertainty is normal. That means that our feelings are constantly forming and we can't keep track of all of them. We face too much pressure and change. And if we can be compassionate to ourselves and kind to the people around us, you shine light on your shadow. It's hard to be judgmental when you want to understand the other person.
5. Catastrophizing. You wake up late. You never wake up late. You are always on time. You run into the shower and brush your teeth at the same time. You grab an apple on the way out the door and hope there is still coffee when you get to the office. As you get stuck in traffic, knowing you will be late, you think, "I'm going to be fired and no one will ever hire me again." When we make normal things -- a broken glass, a drop in the stock market, helpful criticism -- into the end of the world, we catastrophize.
The answer to catastrophizing is doing a little CSI on your own thoughts. Are you really going to get fired for being late once? Will a stock market drop leave you destitute? If your spouse says something about your clothes do they really never think you are attractive? We all make things bigger than they are sometimes, and all of us have the capacity to challenge our own thoughts to decide if what's happening is really a disaster or we simply need to go get lunch.
In each case, these brain habits have an alternative. And our problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors usually do. As we evolve as human beings, we don't have to keep making the same mistakes personally and in our relationships. When we know we have options, that's when we can develop patterns of living that are good for us and the people in our lives.