Oh, Behave!

A couple of weeks ago, I shared about a limiting belief I’ve been working on deconstructing for years. And the way I’ve been actively deconstructing it is through the way I behave. Pushing back on this belief through the things I do has helped me shrink the big, nasty belief and grow the new, healthier belief, which continues to be reinforced each time I behave in accordance with it. As I often say, we are not what we do once in a while…we are what we do consistently, over time.

The thing with our beliefs is that they lead us to our behaviours and, hence, our habits. The way we behave, habitually, is rooted in the beliefs we hold about ourselves. Take for example, brushing our teeth. We believe that it’s a healthy practice to brush our teeth and we have made a habit out of brushing. When we were little, our parents or caretakers had to teach us how to hold the brush, apply the toothpaste and properly brush our teeth. As we continued to behave this way, brushing in the morning and at night, day in and day out, year after year, our behaviour became habitual and if we looked inside our brains we would see a “shortcut” tamped down. That’s a neural pathway, and it’s how our habits show up–as a physical change in our brains–created by our daily habits.

Habits make life so much easier! Imagine having to think about how to brush your teeth every morning and night before you went to do it! Unscrewing the cap, squeezing the tube using the right amount of pressure, dotting the paste onto your toothbrush and having to think about each stroke before spitting and rinsing. You can see how all this thinking–and for just this ONE task–requires far too much energy and takes up waaaay too much space in your brain, so in this way, your habits support you. They say, “It’s cool. I’ve got you! We’ve done this a million times. Go think about other, more important stuff and let me do this for you.” It’s also how we can get all the way to our office or home without even really knowing how we got there! “Muscle memory” kicks in and does the heavy lifting for us. That is the power of our habits; they occur subconsciously.

The thing with habits–those neural pathways we lay down in our brains–is that they can be formed around anything we do, as long as we practice it with consistent effort, over time. 

But what happens when we want to break a habit? How do we do it? Let’s take smoking for example. I smoked for YEARS. And when I was a smoker, I had a belief that smoking was fiiiiine. That is wasn’t that bad. That I “was going to die somehow, so why not from smoking?” I cringe typing this as it’s so far away from what I believe to be true now, and it is polar opposite from the way I behave in my life today.

Before I made the decision to quit smoking, I had finally started to question my beliefs around it. I’d cover the gross images of lung cancer or people with black teeth on my cigarette packs, I’d feel anxiety rising every time I’d cough or feel a heaviness in my chest, and I’d constantly try to rid myself and my home of the smell of smoke with gum, perfume, incense and room spray. It was becoming harder and harder to accept my belief that “smoking was fiiine”. I experienced cognitive dissonance as I was getting healthier and more in tune with my body, and I could feel my belief being shaken. My lifestyle had changed so much after I quit drinking that I couldn’t keep pretending that smoking was ok for me; I knew it wasn’t. It went against everything I had started to believe about myself (that I was healthy, strong, sober, capable), and I could almost feel myself readying for this big decision. After I was a year sober, I tackled the cigarettes, and, as with everything we ever do in life, it started with a DECISION to stop doing what I was doing and START doing something different. I had learned enough about behaviour modification that I knew I couldn’t just quit the habit; I needed to replace the behaviour. And I knew that my belief about smoking (that it was bad for my health) wasn’t yet big enough to do the job; I needed to call for reinforcements.

I also knew I’d need to keep making the decision, over and over again, until it became a habit. I couldn’t just grab a cigarette every time a craving hit, or else I’d be starting at square one every day. I knew I needed momentum if I was ever going to get anywhere, and I knew that making the decision would require me to DO something, or in the case of smoking, NOT do something, while choosing to swap that behaviour for something that DID align better with my new belief: SMOKING IS UNHEALTHY.

Replacing the behaviour meant seeking out ways to satisfy my need for oral and manual stimulation (doing something with my hands and mouth) and I didn’t want that to become eating sugar. Too often, people who quit smoking gain weight because the hand-to-mouth habit of the cigarette is swapped out for chips or cookies or candy. I was not interested in trading one unhealthy habit for another, so when a craving hit, I had some strategies in my back pocket.

  • I drank a tall glass of water.
  • I went for a brisk walk.
  • I did 25 jumping jacks as fast as I could.
  • I did some deep breathing.
  • I used cinnamon sticks or pencils to hold and “puff” like a cigarette.
  • And I kept reminding myself that I was a non-smoker.

Knowing the belief and growing the belief are two different things. We can know something (“smoking is bad for my health”) and still get stuck in the habit of doing it, because of those deeply lodged neural pathways (plus, in the case of smoking, we’re also dealing with the addiction to the drug of nicotine). It’s how we can *know* that going for a walk is a healthier choice than sitting on the couch, but without the habit of going for a walk–habitually doing the ACTION of walking–we keep channel surfing while our running shoes collect dust.

That’s because we don’t grow our beliefs through osmosis. We grow them through positive reinforcement. And how do we create positive reinforcement? By taking ACTION that yields a result that reinforces the belief, which strengthens the habit, and around and around we go.

In the example of smoking, every time I pushed through a craving without smoking, my brain got a “charge”; that feeling of “Yay me! Way to go! I DID it!” and the more I did this–kept pushing through, taking actions that aligned with the belief I held–the bigger my belief became and the more deeply entrenched the neural pathway. I was changing my brain to become a non-smoker.

But how do we get the momentum we need to actually create a habit that sticks?

If you want a way to “force” this wheel–before you will actually BELIEVE whatever belief you are trying to grow (“smoking is unhealthy”; “going for a walk after dinner is part of my routine”; “eating whole foods is important for my health”, etc.), then I encourage you to choose something you want to change and ask yourself: “What is the least amount of effort I can exert that will still get me a positive result?”

In the case of smoking, perhaps it’s telling a loved one that you have decided to quit and you would like them to not buy you any, offer you any or smoke around you. This will create an emotional response in you (once you tell people, you can’t “un-tell them”, which may act as a positive reinforcement to stay quit). Or, perhaps it’s drinking a tall glass of water during a craving, helping you get through even just one of them cigarette-free. Again, it’s about getting that result you want, creating that charge of positive reinforcement, which helps create momentum. In the case of exercise, perhaps it’s setting your running shoes beside the couch so that you will have a visual reminder that you want to go for a walk after dinner rather than channel-surf. This seemingly small effort will produce surprisingly big results when it comes to positively reinforcing the behaviour you want to modify.

So, what do you think? Do you have a belief that is holding you back in your life? Are there things you do, habitually, that you wish you didn’t do? Are there healthier habits you’d like to adopt? You can change your beliefs if you want to. And you do it consistently, over time, through the choices, decisions, and actions you take.

I hope you might want to. Because challenging my limiting and unhealthy beliefs has completely changed my life. I am a very different person than I was 17 years ago, and although my life is far from “perfect” (because, for starters, there is no such thing), my life feels like my own. Not a version of a movie directed by someone else and starring a poor substitute for the real deal. ME.

The way to becoming a whole new you, with beliefs that truly represent who you are and what you value, is through doing the work. I wish there were a pill or a potion or a magic spell that could do it all for you. But what fun would there be in that?! 😉

Remember….we are always, always allowed to change. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent. We can decide. We can always change our minds later. But, please, please make sure you are living a life that represents who and what you value; the beliefs YOU hold (and that haven’t simply been passed down by others or picked up along the way but that don’t serve your greatest good), because there’s nothing worse, I can’t imagine, than getting to the end of our lives and realizing we weren’t even living our own life; we were just running on autopilot, drifting through assuming at some point things would just “work out”.

Because I want you to love your life one bite at a time.

P.S. If you’d like to learn a little about my beliefs around food and sugar and body image, I did a live training recently  called:The Truth About Sugar and How To Live A Life Of Freedom Around Food.” I hope it serves you. xoS


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