Our past doesn’t cause suffering, but the habits it fostered may
A client of mine—we’ll call her Jennifer—came to therapy because she had, in her words, “daddy issues.”
She explained how for years she had wanted to restart her career away from teaching and go into business for herself as a health coach. But every time she seriously considered making a move in that direction, she found herself crippled by anxiety and panic attacks, inevitably returning to the “safety of teaching.”
She was sure that her anxiety and “stuckness” professionally had something to do with her alcoholic father who had been abusive toward her and her siblings for most of her childhood. Her best guess was that she hadn’t adequately “processed” her anger toward her father.
As I worked with Jennifer and explored more about her past and her difficult childhood, an interesting picture emerged…
Her father had been truly awful. Jennifer described how she and her siblings lived in a state of near-constant fear of him. And as the oldest, she felt responsible for protecting her younger siblings, sometime having to lock herself and them in a bedroom closet for hours at a time while her father was in a drunken rage.
In addition to having to physically avoid and hide from her father, Jennifer also described how she had to always be watchful and “ready for anything” when her father came home.
Sometimes he was sober and fun-loving. But sometimes he was already drunk and would walked through the door literally cursing and screaming at his young family. Every afternoon on her way home from school, she explained, Jennifer would plan out in her head what her strategy would be if her father was drinking and come up with as many “escape routes” as possible.
At the time, these mental habits of preparing for the worst and always looking for an “escape route” were necessary for her to stay safe and protect her siblings from her father.
But as Jennifer grew out of childhood and into adulthood, she never lost those mental habits.
Even though her environment was now objectively far less dangerous and unpredictable, she still fell into the habit of predicting the worst and looking for ways to escape when confronted with a stressor or something scary.
And so, each time Jennifer actually considered making a career change—an inherently scary but not necessarily dangerous decision—she reacted mentally in the same way she had reacted to major stressors as a child: hypervigilance, planning for and expecting the worst, and always looking for a way to escape.
Predictably, this lead her to feel like she had felt as a child — anxious, stressed, panicky, and inadequate — and to “self-sabotage” her dream of becoming a health coach by always going back to teaching instead of trying something new.
Interestingly, the crucial insight Jennifer and I had about her past wasn’t fundamentally about her past.
Recounting her story didn’t eliminate the pain of her childhood or suddenly imbue her with the confidence she needed to make a change in her life. What Jennifer did realize was that it wasn’t her father’s alcohol abuse or her lingering anger toward him that was holding her back.
What was really holding her back (and causing her anxiety) were the habits she learned in the past but carried with her into adulthood — catastrophizing, escape planning, reassurance seeking, etc.
As we worked together, Jennifer slowly began to replace her old habits with new ones.
She was still faced with a barrage of anxiety-producing what-ifs as she considered giving up teaching and starting a business as a health coach:
- What if I go bankrupt and lose everything…?
- What if nobody likes me and I never get any clients… ?
- What if someone sues me for everything I have…?
But Jennifer learned to recognize these thoughts and this particular way of thinking as a leftover habit from her childhood and not necessarily accurate or helpful in her current circumstance.
She could then practice identifying these unhelpful mental patterns, and eventually learn to challenge, replace, or simply ignore them:
- It’s possible that my business won’t succeed but does that really mean I’ll lose everything?
- I’ve already had many friends and co-workers tell me they’d love to work with me.
- In reality, how often to healthy coaches or personal trainers get sued by their clients?
Over time, and with a lot of practice, Jennifer got better at identifying and catching this old mental habit and substituting more useful ways of thinking. This lead to lower levels of anxiety, and eventually, the decision to begin her new health coaching career.
What her father had done was still terrible. She was still angry and upset about it. And the memories of her childhood still bothered her. But when we clarified the connection between her past experiences and the mental habits it produced, she was then able to undo those habits and move on with her life.
The Uses (and Misuses) of History
The key takeaway from Jennifer’s story is that illuminating the past is often only useful insofar as it clarifies what needs to be done in the present.
According to Jennifer’s initial theory, her anxiety and stuckness were the result of not adequately “processing” her feelings toward her father. But she had spent her whole life feeling angry toward her father and “processing” that anger with several different therapists over the years. And yet, she stayed stuck and anxious.
Jennifer only started to move forward when she saw the connection not between her past and her current feelings but between her past and the habits that it gave rise to, which in turn maintained her anxiety and resistance to trying a new career in the present.
The relationship between our past and how we feel is always mediated by our habits, especially our mental habits.
This is really good news, because while there’s nothing we can do to change our past or how we feel directly, we can change our habits.
This more nuanced model of how our past affects us should throw a bucket of cold water on the romantic but naive idea that some new insight about or “processing” of our past alone will somehow free us from suffering in the present.
In Jennifer’s case, it was relatively easy to make the connection between her past experiences as a child and her current habits of catastrophizing and worrying — we hit upon this insight in her second or third therapy session.
But we spent the better part of six months practicing the skills of identifying old, unhelpful thought patterns and replacing them with more accurate and useful ones or learning to simply accept them rather than reacting to them.
The Habit of Looking for Habits
Most of us are in the habit of looking for facts in order to solve problems.
This makes sense — we spend the first couple decades of our lives in school learning to think this way, and many of our jobs involve the same style of thinking. But when it comes to personal growth and well-being, learning to look for habits is a much more useful way of solving problems.
Think about how many times the initial excitement of a new idea or “insight” has quickly given way to the discouragement of another failed endeavor—the exciting new diet program that works for a month but doesn’t seem to stick, for example, or the shiny new guitar that gathers dust in the den.
This is the danger in many forms of self-help, therapy, and personal development programs — they promise change through understanding without much thought or guidance to the hard work of identifying and unlearning old habits and building new ones.
Consequently, I think it’s essential to get into the habit of looking for and noticing habits rather than perpetually getting distracted by the sirens’ call of ideas and insights.
Insight is a necessary but rarely sufficient condition for lasting change.
If we think that our past or some element of it may be contributing either to emotional difficulties or some kind of stuckness in our life, the key question to ask is this:
What habits — mental or behavioral — might I have developed in response to difficulties in my past, and where are those habits causing pain or friction in my life now?
Maybe the best place to start is our habits of thought. We think all the time, but how often do we pay attention to our thoughts themselves? How often do we think about our thinking?
Put another way: We’re constantly narrating our own lives and telling stories about ourselves, what’s happening to us, other people, etc., but how often to we step back and look at the way we’re narrating?
Here are some good places to start looking for mental habits:
- Driving. What sorts of narratives and stories do you tell yourself while driving, especially in stressful conditions like rush hour? How do you tend to characterize other drivers?
- Checking email at work. What thoughts do you find running through your mind when you first sit down at your computer and open up your email? How do you talk to yourself about the task of reading email?
- When your alarm clock goes off. What are the first thoughts you think each day? Are you thinking immediately about work? Or maybe about something that happened the day before? Are you doing mental math to figure out how many more minutes you can eke out in bed snoozing before you really have to get up?
- Watching or reading the news. The news is full of provocative headlines and information. What are your default mental reactions to them? Are there patterns to the way you think about the news and the events in it?
- Boring meetings. Where does your mind tend to go when it’s bored? How would you describe the style or tone of your mind’s narrative when you’re stuck in a situation you want to out of?
Once you start to develop the habit of thinking about your thinking, the next step is to ask: How useful is this way of thinking? Is it helpful or does it lead to not-so-great consequences? If so, what else can I do instead?
Personally, the more storytelling I do about how terrible other drivers are on my way home from work, the more irritable I am when I get home from work and the more not-super-fun I am to be around.
On the other hand, if I can catch myself starting to berate the poor driving skills of my fellow commuters, realize that criticizing them doesn’t actually change reality in any helpful way, and instead put on an interesting podcast, not only do I feel better when I get home but my family probably enjoys me a lot more.
Notice that nothing in that description involved a deep examination of my childhood or insight into the origin of my habit of being critical of other drivers.
To feel less stressed when I get home from work and be more available to my family I didn’t need some profound insight about possible anger issues or inferiority complexes. It was enough to recognize an unhelpful mental habit and have a good plan for what to do instead.
Identifying and reworking old habits isn’t as sexy as uncovering some shocking unconscious conflict, but it does work.
Of course, being less critical on the road is a relatively minor example compared to major anxiety and starting a new career. But the underlying dynamics are the same.
The origin of a problem may or may not be useful in helping understand why a certain habit exists. But in either case, in order to grow and move forward, habits and the habit of looking for them are essential.