It’s hard to believe the holidays are upon us again.
I know I say this every year, (admit it, you do too) but it always seems like a surprise. Stores starting setting up Halloween displays sometime around March (slight – but not much of an – exaggeration.) Christmas displays have been unveiled in the big box outlets for several weeks already. And, almost as quickly as it began, summer has left us for cold mornings, thick jackets, and wool caps.
Especially after being hunkered down for almost two years, it can be difficult to stay on track during the upcoming “holiday party season,” that period from when Halloween candies hit the store shelves until the last New Year’s party has faded with the final chords of Auld Lang Syne. This is not new. We’ve all been around the block a few times; we know how difficult it can be to get back on track come January. We could just stay on course for the next couple of months. Yet, if we all know what this time of year is like, why do we do this to ourselves every year?
The answers are numerous, but at the core is “habit.”
To permanently change habits, we need an accurate understanding of what they are. Most people mistakenly consider habits to be repeated behaviors done without thought; developed over time. Whereby that’s partly true, it misses focusing on the more significant elements: everything which precedes the behavior. Not understanding the entire chain condemns us to be victims of our actions instead of their masters.
That said, let’s re-define more accurately what exactly is a habit: “A recurring pattern of thoughts and feelings triggering a repeated behavior, which all work together to simplify our lives.”
We are not mindless Zombies, aimlessly wandering the landscape, driven by impulse and instinct, reacting without any control. Instead, since most of us have functioning brains, we develop patterns – rituals – which allow us to lower the cacophony between our ears and think less. The benefit of which is that it simplifies our lives by putting much of it on autopilot. After all, it’s hard to constantly be “on,” we need relief.
There are three components to habits.
- Thoughts: Thoughts are like leaves in a stream; a continual, non-stop flow of observations. Most go unnoticed, yet periodically we pick one up and focus on it. A random example might be, “The pandemic caused me to not be able to go to holiday parties again this year.”
- Feelings: As Louise Hay said, “a feeling is a thought that sticks.” Thinking of how isolated I have been and everything I miss, sadness kicks in – as might anger about how I cannot do what I want.
- Actions: We are “hard-wired” to respond more quickly to emotions than to logic (thoughts). So, over the years I realized that eating something “fun” diminishes those anxieties. Therefore – without thinking – I grab the chocolates I bought for the Christmas stockings. The sugary taste and smooth texture take my mind off my anxiety; I feel (a temporary) relief instead. Therefore, I continue eating, leading possibly to guilt, a cousin to anger, triggering more eating. The habit cycle is complete and continues.
Summed up, “What I say to myself determines what I do to myself.” Another way to remember it is “Thoughts > Feelings > Actions.”
To effectively – and permanently – unleash ourselves from the vice-grip of habits, we must change what we say to ourselves.
Instead of reacting without thought, we respond with a different thought. In this case, when the longing for holiday parties arises, slow down, get centered, take a deep breath, relax, and think, “What else is true about this situation?” I might say, “While I certainly miss holiday parties, I am proud of the fact that I take care of myself and those I care about by staying away. By avoiding them this year, I’m making the new year even better.”
That thought might trigger a feeling of pride or accomplishment, which is less likely to end up in the resulting action which I dislike.
One final note: Habits aren’t developed overnight. It’s vital to be patient, compassionate, and kind to yourself while you tread this new path, creating a whole new habit. Avoid beating yourself up for the inevitable slip-ups that are bound to happen. Remember, if guilt or shame were motivational, we’d all be happier, healthier, and more successful.