How to Hack Your Emotional Habits

That triggering moment! You know how it goes. Something happens — you may I.D. it, you may not, but before you know it, you are hooked. Pulled into an auto-pilot repertoire of thinking and doing, which inevitably leads to less than ideal outcomes. These traps are extraordinarily difficult for us to catch in flight precisely because they are so quick and automatic.

We’re all prone to this automaticity because the mind-body system is hardwired for habit formation. Your thinking and doing habits get formed over time in two ways:

1.The thinking or doing is rewarding, by either increasing pleasure or decreasing discomfort.
 2. The thinking or doing is practiced repeatedly.

Emotional Habits are Subtle Addictions

Of course, some habits are more obvious and toxic. Substance use is the obvious example of behavior that is rewarding and so can get practiced repeatedly. But just about any thinking or doing pattern can become a habit (like a subtle addiction) if it meets the two criteria above.

Your more subtle habits can sneak up on you as insidious efforts to reduce discomfort, and derail you from your goals and values. But whether your habits are obvious, or less so, the first step in mastering them is hacking the system in which they reside!

Gaining Access to the Data.

The modern definition of ‘hack’ is to “use a computer to gain unauthorized access to data in a system.” Hacking our habits means using your mind to access the unconscious reactions in your mind-body vehicle. Its basically learning to be mindful! In other words; intentionally bring attention and awareness to the components of your experience, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

You know how sometimes you can loose your cool, or do something you later regret, and then wonder, “Why the heck did I do that?” Why did I have that extra drink?.. Sleep with that guy?.. Not prepare for that test?.. Stay up so late?.. Eat so much? Well, it’s because you’re human, and somehow that action led to pleasure or reduced discomfort in that moment.

Courtesy of Unsplash

How to Hack Those Habits!

In other blogs you’ve seen how our mind-body vehicles get programmed with Passengers from past experience, which can seriously mess with our driving (thinking and doing) habits. Well, the fist step in gaining control over your vehicle, and not letting Passengers from the past push you around, is to learn how to read your Dashboard.

The Dashboard Form

The key to hacking your habits is to slow down that dizzying flash of impulsivity and learn why you are doing that thing you want to stop doing! In the table above you can see a sample form, similar to the web-form I use with my clients. This form guides you to break down the individual components of your experience in a given moment.

After several forms are collected, you begin to see what situational triggers elicit certain internal experiences (thoughts and feelings), which bring on the impulse to think or act (your habits) in a certain way to reduce uncomfortable experiences.

The Dashboard form is like a guided informal mindfulness practice (i.e. no meditation required). It helps you to take a step back from your experience and more objectively look at a situation and your reactions. By completing this form soon after you have been hijacked by a habit, you are essentially hacking into your autopilot.

Practiced regularly, this formate of mindfulness practice can help you develop the much-needed insight into what triggers you, and how your habits function as a way of coping with Passengers. In this video clip I describe how to practice in the moment.

When to Practice ‘Dashboard-ing’.

Practice Dashboard-ing in two types of situations:

  1. Whenever you are experiencing distress of some kind, and/or
  2. You’ve been triggered and done that thing you want to stop doing.

Our habits usually serve to help us avoid some emotional discomfort. But our emotions have a purpose. They signal that something is going on, which needs your mindful attention. If it does not become immediately obvious to you when you should complete the form, try actively bringing to mind a goal you have yet to pursue or accomplish. Put this “brought to mind my goal of ….” in the situation box. Then complete the remainder of the form as directed below.

How to Dashboard Effectively

In each box, choose a few words to label the following:

Situation: just the facts (the what, where and who) as anyone observing would agree.

Thoughts: the interpretations of the facts that went through your mind when you noticed the distress or avoidance.

Emotions: the emotional experience, using only single emotion words such as, angry, sad, anxious, lonely, ashamed, etc. Learn more about emotion labels and their functions here.

Bodily Sensations: the physical sensations in your body. Make sure that sensations are described in terms of a body part (e.g. pounding in my chest, sweaty palms, tightness in my shoulders), and not an idea or interpretation of a bodily sensation (e.g. I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest).

Impulses: the action or thought you are tempted to take to reduce your distress. Look for actions or thoughts that make you feel good, distract you, or somehow minimize awareness of the preceding boxes. This box is very important as it gives us clues to how we can get off track in our goals.

Building Self-Awareness.

You can make a simple table like this in a word document to use on your own, or practice experientially as a way of checking in with yourself. But practicing the written form will be helpful at the beginning until you get the swing of things. Complete this form as often as you can. Once you have about 10–12 of them, you should begin to see some patterns emerge. Look for the most common type of situation or experience to find your trigger(s) and vulnerable spots.

Mindful self-awareness is the first essential step to breaking the emotion driven auto-pilot habits that derail us from our goals and life purpose. It is not always rewarding initially, and often painful to reflect on our humanness. Like solving the great mystery of you; collecting evidence, and looking for clues. It takes patience and courage. But the awareness you build, will keep you moving towards those delicious long-term rewards: the confidence that you are living true to yourself and your unique life purpose.

If you would like to learn more about auto-pilot habits and how to identify and change them, sign up for the Mindful-Mastery Skill Weekly here. Or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!


Originally published at doctorfielding.com.