How Bad Habits Reveal The Real You

What your smartphone addiction tells you about identity

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Everyone knows the rule. Limit screen time before bed or the blue light will interrupt your sleep and mess with your brain. But like all bad habits, late-night scrolling is so enticing. It feels like all the fun stuff happens after dark — deep text chats, falling down internet wormholes, amplified creativity. And it makes me wonder — if I turn off my phone earlier, am I turning off a part of my personality too?

If you change your habits, are you still you?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about habits, and identity, and the way that our everyday tendencies affect how we see ourselves. And I’m not talking about the conscious practices that make your life better — exercise, meditation, healthy habits. Let’s think about the ‘bad’ habits, and overriding them. What effect does it have on your personality?

If you become an expert at regulating your thoughts and emotions, and no longer act on your impulses, are you still you? It’s like when you take a puppy to puppy school and it goes from being really zany to really obedient. Is it the same dog?

Habits form in the emotional center of the brain — the basal ganglia. It’s the logical, executive part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that implores us to stop engaging in the behavior if it’s unhealthy. And it’s a tug of war between the two. We know the bad habits are holding us back, but they feel so good. Logic versus emotions. The more I look into it, the more I see that there’s a really tangled web in our brains of how and why habits form in the first place.

Full disclosure; on top of being permanently attached to my smartphone, I follow a lot of far from perfect patterns. But it’s these imperfect parts of me that sometimes feel the most real — my short attention span, the manic way my brain jumps from thing to thing, even overthinking. I guess they feel the most ‘me’ because it seems like they came from a more primal, hidden part of my brain that I have no control over.

Habit or addiction?

So why do I cling to these parts of myself that aren’t ideal? Surely it wouldn’t kill me to turn off my phone and meditate regularly instead. Addiction might hold the answer.

Dr. Gabor Maté describes addiction as; “something you crave, find relief from and can’t give up, despite knowing the negative consequences”. Meaning there’s a greater psychological driver behind it than just a mindless tendency, something in yourself that you’re missing, or part of your reality that you’re trying to escape.

Then we can say, not only do our habits affect how we see ourselves but the inverse is also true. How we see ourselves, and our reality, informs what habits we pick up, and why we can’t shake them.

We can work backward from the habits and learn so much about what we’re actually craving. My smartphone addiction might not stem from a lack of willpower, but a sense of craving connection and feeling something missing in my life. Fix the connection gap, and the iPhone doesn’t hold the same power.

Similarly, my short attention span isn’t just my monkey mind going rampant, but a preference for instant gratification over long term goals, because I don’t believe deep down that I could ever complete anything grand. Develop that self-belief, and I can shift the focus from smaller tasks to bigger projects. I am by no means an expert, I’m not a psychologist after all, but this is how it felt in my brain when I finally untangled it.

When I used to picture a more defined routine, and trying to force my brain to operate within certain parameters, it felt limiting. I like allowing my mind space to breathe — for daydreaming and synthesizing ideas, and creating. On the flip side, I know how much better life could be if I ditched some of that mental chaos in favor of focus, discipline, and goals.

The process of becoming

Actually, the chaos will always be there, humming away in the background. And we are constantly in the process of becoming, adding, and subtracting elements as we move along a continuum because there is no final product to a human. The past revisions are never lost — they inform your future self. A mix of intrinsic parts of our personality that are embedded, and parts we have the choice to add and optimize.

So bad habits don’t have to rule us, they can teach us. Take the time to learn your brain. Think deeply about why you do things. Is there a habit you’re struggling to break? Maybe it’s because it actually means something deeper to your brain, and your identity than you’ve realized.

With self-awareness, we might be able to fill the holes that those habits are plugging with better choices, and it doesn’t involve losing that messy, endearing part of ourselves in the process. Our biggest weaknesses can often be turned into our greatest strengths. The daily routine can optimize the creative, open, crazy sides of you, rather than dull them.

Find me on Instagram @21xseven

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