How to Curb Self-Defeating Habits

Explore these five mindfulness practices to help you uncover and untangle from the feedback loop of negative thought patterns.

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“I am not a strong enough leader to manage my team…”
“I wilt under pressure, I’ll never be able to meet this deadline…”

These are just some of the self-defeating narratives that can play on repeat in our minds when we’re stressed out. In challenging times, when we feel overwhelmed and under resourced with the problems we face, we tend to fall back on negative behaviors that can feel comfortable but prevent us from focusing on solutions with a clear and stable mind.

Try this quick mindful minute practice and honestly ask yourself the following questions. You can write them down on paper if this helps.

A Practice for Discovering Your Recurrent Thought Patterns

  • What behaviors do I tend fall back on when faced with adversity, pressure or uncomfortable situations?
  • Do I bury my head in the sand to avoid facing the head wind?
  • Do I blame, criticize, or judge the actions (or inactions) of others instead of taking personal responsibility for outcomes?
  • Am I short tempered, disengaged, easily depressed or lethargic?

Mindfulness practices provide an opportunity to recognize those pesky thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that creep up during personal and professional trials and help to mediate the effects. Recent research published in April 2016 examined the efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in a study of 1258 patients with recurrent depressive symptoms. Results found that MBCT treatment is highly effective in preventing recurrent depression and curbing ongoing depressive symptoms. This is relevant news for everyone.

Five mindfulness-based tips and practices you can use if you find yourself trapped by self-defeating thoughts and behaviors:

1) Inquire and identify repetitive thoughts and behaviors.

Use the lamp of awareness. Pay keen attention to the present moment to recognize and acknowledge any negative self-narratives, defeating attitudes or repetitive behavioral patterns. Challenge your negative self-talk. Don’t identify with it or become it. Thoughts are not facts, they can always be changed. The same holds true for attitudes and behaviors. You are not defined by your behaviors. You have the power to change your actions at any time. Choose to empower yourself with clear decisions and commitment.

Thoughts are not facts, they can always be changed. The same holds true for attitudes and behaviors.

Many of us are held back by our lack of wherewithal and clear stance when it comes to habit change. While trying to change exacerbates will power and undermines motivation because of divided efforts to maintain both the current status quo and reach for a new one, committing to change sets free new resources and activates non-linear transformational processes because we have fully released our past modus operandi and are embracing a new way of being altogether. If you want to take the island, burn the boats.

  • Try This Practice for Committing to Change:
    Try it for yourself, write down one habit change you want to make and are willing to fully commit to. Then call up and meet with three people you love and respect and tell them that you are unconditionally and fully committing to the change you are declaring. Repeat your commitment out loud at least three times while looking into your friends’ eyes and shaking their hand with confidence. Observe how your nervous system responds to the experience and commitment you are making. Let the commitment be total with no back door. Examine the effect on your life.

2) Get out of “I – am – ness” thinking.

Most suffering stems from problems that are associated with a limited perception of self, a perception that holds the self as separate from the rest of the world and that generally is occupied with its survival or reification. When we break through self-centered thinking and take a fresh look at problems or situations as a whole, without personal attachment to a single viewpoint or limiting self-associations, we can begin to see solutions more clearly, without the emotional prejudice that can distort or fixate a problem.

  • Try this simple practice to get out of “I – am – ness” thinking:
    Imagine for a moment your friend is the one going through the crisis, not yourself. Imagine listening to your friend explain the problem, and then imagine yourself giving feedback and offering helpful solutions. You are now problem solving from a caring, altruistic and unbiased perspective, and more likely to provide helpful insights and answers to the dilemma. What would your advice be to your friend in a similar situation, what perspectives or solutions would you offer or propose?

3) Maintain focus on your goals and frame them for mastery.

Focusing on your goals will help give perspective on the situation at hand and aid in altering whatever negative self-talk presents itself. A study examining over 2,000 participants stressed that achievement goals strongly influence positive versus negative self-talk. Goals keep us focused and can emphasize ongoing improvement over perfection. Termed mastery goals, such improvement-focused goals release performance angst and stimulate motivation for personal growth. Remind yourself frequently of your mastery goals to reinforce positive traits that will mature toward your ideal outcomes.

4) Invite new thought narratives into your life.

You can be right or you can be happy. Choose happy. Do the work and begin to replace the negative self-talk, attitudes and behavior patterns with empowering, positive and learning-focused narratives instead. While new thought narratives might feel inauthentic to the more limited and conditioned self-concept at first, they eventually form the ground of effective behavior change and emotional maturity. As you begin the process of taking responsibility for your own mental and emotional conditioning, you are becoming the person you want to be, not the one you are constantly struggling with.

  • Try this simple reflection exercise to take charge of your internal narratives:
    Take a comfortable seat and close your eyes. Consider your current repetitive negative thoughts. Compare them to small children sitting on a school bus. Acknowledge their disempowering and sabotaging comments, attitudes and dispositions. Welcome them onto the bus ride, but be sure to not let them behind the wheel, ever. Kids don’t drive school busses well. Be kind, be compassionate but be firm.Take a deep breath in while connecting to a positive skill or disposition you possess. You could also focus on a learning outcome you desire. Keep breathing while you let that skill or disposition emerge. Ask yourself, “if I let this more positive skill or disposition guide my life, what will it have me do?” Repeat the process until clarity about your next steps arises.

5) Bring greater feeling into the new thought narratives.

Learn how to enjoy and celebrate a newly cultivated behavior or thought to make it stick through positive reinforcement of pleasurable emotions. Research from a study published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science asserts that employees who cultivate a positive attitude tend to engage in positive behavioral change with greater ease than employees who have a more negative psychological mindset. This is not to say that a bright smile is always appropriate, but a kind and joyful internal disposition can go a long way even during trying times.

The next time you feel yourself getting bogged down by your negative thought-narratives or self-defeating habits, follow these simple tips to navigate yourself out of routine every time. And remember: you don’t have to be your thoughts, attitudes or habits. You are not your behavior. You always possess the capacity to change your mindset to navigate yourself clearly out of adversity. This inherent freedom comes at no cost. Mindfulness can provide you with the tools you need to re-program your conditioning, it takes some work, but the rewards are priceless.