Why unlearning bad habits is so difficult

Why do we get stuck in the same patterns and why is it so hard to unlearn these bad habits? For this we need to take a look inside ourselves, inside our brains.

We as humans actually have 3 brains for the price of 1.

1. The reptilian brain

This contains our primal urges: to survive, to reproduce and to conquer territory. The reactions are reflexive, immediate and not subject to choice or emotion. When threatened, we fight, flight or freeze.

2. The mammalian brain (limbic system)

This brain developed much later and contains our emotions. Emotions indicate whether we are acting in the right way. We derive the criteria for this emotional feedback from norms, values and goals associated with social group behavior and parenting.

3. The human brain (neocortex)

This is the third part of our brain and was developed fairly recently. It directs our intelligent behavior. It houses our consciousness and self-awareness. This rational brain allows us to think, think ahead and abstract concrete incidental events.

Our three brains function in concert, ultimately causing all our behavior. But what we do is largely determined by the dominant part. Since the neocortex (the human brain) comprises the largest part of our brain, you would think that this part would be the most active. Yet you make most decisions based on emotions (from the limbic brain) and your primitive instincts (from the reptilian brain).

How our reptilian brain keeps us in our bad habits

Everyone has developed a certain way of living that fits within his or her comfort zone and without realizing it, your behavior keeps sliding back into this autopilot. The reptilian brain is driven by basic evolutionary needs and therefore wants to reward itself as much as possible, ward off danger and stay in its own comfort zone. Once these basic needs are put under pressure, the reptilian brain can cause feelings of fear, anxiety and stress. This makes it difficult, for example, not to snack, you don't dare to undertake new things or you tend to stay stuck in a fixed mindset.

It reacts instinctively in matters such as reproduction and nutrition and has only one ultimate task, survival. It's like the autopilot that protects you from danger and uncomfortable situations by always flying the same safe route. Our survival instinct tells us that we survived the previous day. So if we do the same thing today as we did yesterday, we survive another day. It tries to make today a copy of yesterday, because that feels comfortable and safe. Do you do something to break this pattern? Then you can expect resistance. You don't go outside your comfort zone and that little voice starts whispering all kinds of excuses to you. The reptilian brain labels it unsafe on all sides, so you end up falling back into your old behavior patterns. Your mammalian brain and your reptilian brain together hijack your human brain, as it were, and take control.

You are not aware of this, getting you back into your old patterns happens in a very subtle way. Do you decide to stop smoking? Then the reptilian brain will not tell you that you absolutely must never do this. It will rather say "Good that you quit smoking, but you better wait until after New Year" or "You can also become an occasional smoker, that's already better than full-time smoking". It is constantly compromising and manipulating your common sense.

But this lizard is not invincible. With attention, knowledge and awareness, you can change those ingrained patterns in the reptilian brain. Just like learning to drive a car, it's not always easy at first, but over time it gets better and better. At some point you replace old habits with new ones and you have changed the programming that controls you.

How can I reprogram my reptilian brain?

First of all, you need to become aware of that little voice in your head and its effect on your behavior. Once you are aware of its effect, you can better address it. Do you want to change your behavior? Try answering these questions:

  • When does your bad habit occur?

  • How often do you do it each day?

  • Where are you?

  • Who are you with?

  • What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?

Make hard decisions and stick to them, even if you feel resistance. Don't let your reptilian brain change your course, don't even argue with it. Keep reminding yourself why you have chosen to change course. Don't say "I want to quit smoking because it's not healthy. Avoid the word "not," this just triggers the reptilian brain. Say instead "I want to stop smoking because I am a healthy person and want to live a long time." "I am resolutely pushing the brakes now.". Next, choose a substitute for your bad habit.

Make sure you have a plan in advance about how you will react when faced with the stress or boredom that your bad habit provokes. What will you do if you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.) Eliminate as many triggers as possible.

Try to join forces with someone and quit together. You can hold each other accountable and celebrate your victories together. Next, visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away the cigarettes or buying healthy food. Whatever the bad habit you want to break, visualize yourself smashing it, smiling, and enjoying your success.

Finally, use the word "but" to overcome negative self-talk. It's easy to condemn yourself for not doing better. It's easy to tell yourself how bad you are when you make a mistake. When that happens, finish the sentence with "but". "I'm out of shape, but I can be in shape in a few months."

If you push your new behavior through hard enough, the reptilian brain will eventually bend and will see your new behavior as safe and create new habits.

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