Today I want to talk about bad habits.  You have some, you know you do.

Maybe you find yourself in the pantry after dinner eating too many Oreos, even though you’re not really hungry. Perhaps it’s the glass or two of wine you used to only drink on weekends, but now it’s every day while cooking dinner.  Or you find yourself scrolling social media on your phone when you’re supposed to be writing that grant proposal.  Maybe it’s staying up until 2 AM binge-watching Netflix, even though you are exhausted.  Pick a vice, any vice.

Ever wonder why you keep doing these things even when you know better and can see that they don’t serve you?

It’s not because you’re weak or broken.  It’s because of how your brain is designed.  

There is a primitive part of your brain that is programmed for survival.  Above all else, it is motivated to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy.  Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the primitive brain pays the most attention to.  It’s how it recognizes what’s important.

So anything that stimulates the reward centers of our brain, like sugar, alcohol, or likes on Instagram is always going to be something that our brain thinks is very important and will want us to repeat.  And we all know about repeated stimuli and receptor down-regulation.  Suddenly, you’re eating the whole sleeve of Oreos instead of just one or two.

And these bad habits compound.  The things we think make our lives better start to make them worse.  Overeating leads to being overweight and having low self-esteem.  Overdrinking leads to feeling crappy the next day and poor performance at work.  Procrastinating by over-indulging in social media means scrambling at the last minute and pulling an all-nighter to get that grant proposal finished.   Then, we further compound the negative by beating ourselves up: 

“Why do I keep making the same mistakes?”

But there is a way out because we also have a higher brain:  our prefrontal cortex.  This is the part of our brain that can see the big picture and understand that in the modern world, our survival needs are well taken care of.  It understands that we need a different motivational triad.  We actually need to seek natural pleasures, move towards discomfort, and exert more energy in order to be fulfilled.

Once we understand this, we can find self-compassion.  Even better, we can learn how to harness the power of our prefrontal cortex in order to do what we say we’re going to do consistently.  In this way, we build our most important relationship.  The one we have with ourselves.

If you’d like to learn more about rewiring your motivational triad and becoming more effective in your life, I can help.

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