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The Innocent and Brilliant Roots of 'Bad' Habits and the Path to Change

It seems counterintuitive that any of us engage in behaviors that aren't good for us but, of course, we all do. The reason is that these behaviors do something for us. There is some way in which we need them, although it's very likely that we're not aware of what the needs are.

Unhealthy or unhelpful behaviors fall into the category of survival strategies, which are the psyche's ingenious way of keeping us alive amid circumstances we experienced as life threatening or unbearable. Most of us are not currently in such circumstances on a daily basis so why do we engage in such behaviors anyway? Habit? I'm not so sure.

Behaviors like eating comfort foods, shopping a lot, staying in bed too long, overworking ourselves, or 'failing' to follow through on intentions may have roots in things we experienced in childhood, or even in utero, that did feel life threatening or unbearable. These situations can easily go unrecognized if we reflect on our early years only from the perspective we have as adults, or if we simply don't remember enough of what happened to reflect on it at all.

As adults thinking about having been left to cry ourselves to sleep when we were infants, for example, we may simply conclude that it was unfortunate and feel strongly led to do differently when our children cry. But if we put ourselves in the infant's shoes and realize that when we were a day, a week, a month old or even older, we had no idea anyone would ever come to us when we were left alone in distress, we begin to understand how painful this in fact was. For an infant, the future doesn't exist. It's only the now and, in the now, the infant in distress only registers that they are absolutely alone and unsafe (even if mother or father are in the next room). When they cry and no loving response comes, they have no further capacity to get what they need and, from their perspective, survival is at stake. This is a trauma, and a survival strategy becomes absolutely necessary. The strategy is to dissociate. This may look like success to the parents who see that baby has stopped crying and may even be soothing itself by rocking or thumb sucking. However, the baby has had to repress their need for comfort along with all their feelings of fear, sadness, loneliness, pain, and anger.

As the child grows, this split off trauma continues to exist in their subconscious and patterns of dissociation and emotional suppression will, if left unaddressed, continue and gradually morph into more sophisticated forms - all with the purpose of keeping the individual safe. Depending on the parents' availability and capacity to respond in a loving and supportive way, there may be subsequent traumatizing circumstances, new survival strategies, and reinforcement of old survival strategies throughout the child's life.

As we grow into independent adults, we carry with us all that happened to us in our early years. Using the example above, the dissociation and self-soothing behaviors we learned out of necessity may be with us today in the form of not asking for help or comfort when we need it, of holding ourselves at arm’s length to avoid the possibility of abandonment or disappointment, or of eating, smoking, or drinking when we feel anxious, bored, or sad.

It is nearly impossible to stop the behaviors we deem bad, unhealthy, or unhelpful without first understanding how these behaviors developed - what the early unmet needs and unexpressed feelings are. I find that this discovery is one that is best embarked on from an energy of curiosity, patience, and gentleness, for it is our own little selves we are seeking to meet, and little selves have a keen eye for what is safe and what isn't. They know when our motivation is to 'get rid' of aspects of ourselves we don't particularly like and will hide their tender hearts and deep wisdom from us, just as they did from those who did not understand us or meet us with kindness when the original traumas happened.

IoPT provides the structure and support to journey back to our young selves, to learn what happened to us that was so painful, to befriend ourselves by listening deeply and responding lovingly as if we are now the parent who is equipped with the resources and the wish to be there for ourselves. When we meet ourselves in such a way and open the space for suppressed feelings to emerge in their own time, the survival strategies that are no longer needed will gradually fall away and we will find ourselves feeling more and more free to live the lives we envision for ourselves.

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