I used to believe everything was fixed. I would make excuses and say to myself, “this is just who I am”, or “this is just the way it is”. Until I realized it wasn’t, and I could change. That there was still an opportunity for personal growth. Time to be a better man. I started reading, listening to podcasts and looking for answers to why I felt and acted certain ways. I learned there are biological and cognitive limitations in our minds and that even a basic understanding of these limitations creates an opportunity to understand our thoughts, actions, and everyday interactions (Psychology of Success).
I learned anger and anxiety develop from poorly adaptive responses to our primitive survival instincts. Since a lot of our decisions and actions come from these primitive predispositions, psychologists argue these instincts create patterns in our subconscious that impact our relationships and everyday lives. This helped me realize that reacting aggressively or with anger had become a habit, but what’s worse, I allowed it to become an acceptable form of behavior.
“The Habit Loop”
According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, the habit loop is a cue that leads to a routine and then a reward. He writes, “we may not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are logged within our brains, they influence how we act. Often without our realization.” This does not mean we as mankind are not capable of rational thought, it just means our survival instincts can supersede our rational. As a result, it is common to revert to our default method of behavior based on particular circumstances. This meant that by immediately being reactive, I was naturally and automatically being defensive.
When your brain registers something as good or essential to your survival, it rewards the brain with small amounts of dopamine to reinforce that behavior. That is why we naturally crave high calorie, fatty, salty or sweet foods. Because once upon a time those foods were the most essential to our survival (McKay). The same principles apply to sex or seeing something in/on a person you find attractive. I would make the argument that beyond the urge to procreate, your brain is telling you that person may be essential to your survival. In a lot of ways, that could be another interpretation of love.
Great Expectations or Cravings
The more your brain becomes accustomed to a habit that it registers as essential to your survival, the more compelled your brain is to repeat that habit (Duhigg). The problem is, your brain cannot distinguish between a good habit or a bad one; and this affects the brain and its neuroplasticity. Which means your brain is plastic in the sense that it is moldable. It is what allows the brain to change over your lifetime and changes how it processes information. The brain is constantly firing synapses in response to everyday stimuli. The more this happens, the more your brain creates an expectation of a result. Which is how cravings work. For example, if you think of chocolate, your brain will start registering the effects of chocolate before you eat any (Duhigg). But what happens if you cannot complete the habit loop or fulfill a craving? You become anxious because the brain is expecting its dose of dopamine. Without it, your brain assumes something is wrong and the brain’s default assumption is that you are in danger or there is a perceived threat.
Fight or Flight
When you encounter danger, your brain registers fear and produces adrenaline, cortisol, or epinephrine — fuel for the fight-or-flight response. They are what give you the strength to fight or run for your life. The issue today is that life and death situations are rare. Especially since we don’t hunt for our food or fight for our survival. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop our brains from reacting the same way to today’s more common, yet less dire circumstances. For example, when the WIFI doesn’t work. Studies show the brain reacts the same way to hearing the word “no”. That is one reason if children haven’t become familiar with the word “no” by the time they are a toddler, they have a complete meltdown (Click here for a good article on this).
Disruption of the Habit Loop
This is because there has been a disruption in the habit loop. Meaning the cue and the routine are the same, but there is no reward or fulfillment of a craving. Which means no dopamine. This tricks the brain into thinking something is wrong and instead will produce the previously mentioned stress hormones and anxiety ensues. This is where perspective and managing your expectations is important because otherwise it can lead to catastrophizing. Which is an abstract chain reaction of worst case scenarios. For example, What if I fail my test, that means I’m stupid, I’ll never get a good job, my girlfriend will leave me, what if I’m gay?! (Not that there is anything wrong with that).
“Change Your Physiology”
Over time your experiences, your actions and your habits solidify and become a part of who you are. Or who you believe you are. That is why people must try to change. It’s hard because you have to rewire your brain or, as Tony Robbins says, “change your physiology”. That is why it can be so hard and sometimes physically painful to make major changes in your life. Even positive ones. Because if you’ve done something for so long, any modification causes an imbalance to your homeostasis and your body will fight it. The same way your body will initially fight off an organ transplant (Peterson). Meaning, even if you’re changing a bad habit, your brain will process that change as a potential threat. Making it easy to revert to your previous behavior, which your brain has catalogued as normal or good even when it is the exact opposite.
Beyond the Looking Glass
If you apply this to how people think about themselves today and the expectations of feedback and reassurance, you run into more problems. Most notably, personalization. We associate validation or approval with our same preservation instincts. In a hunter and gatherer society, being liked among the group was imperative because otherwise you risk exile (Psychology of Success). Which meant death. This can affect the “looking glass self” which is, “the development of oneself and one’s identity through their interpersonal interactions within the context of society”.
Meaning you see yourself based on how you think others see you — or how you think others should see you based on social constructs established through hearsay, religion, media and marketing. Then we develop the habit of acting or reacting a certain way based on those models to stay congruent with the social norms and their implications. Meaning our actions become subconsciously controlled by the fear of how others will react or what they will think, what we think they will think, or if we think it will hurt someone’s feelings or upset them. The flip side is if you encounter a situation where someone else contradicts your idea of yourself.
Tip toeing around so many subjective social obligations is exhausting because you are constantly on high alert. It is hard to relax if you are hyperactively trying to manage the world’s hypersensitivity (Peterson). And even if you try, and still upset someone, you feel confused or wrong. Or worse, if you are trying to hold someone else to your strict, unrealistic idea of human behavior and end up disappointing yourself. It is a constant battle with the known and unknown, with an abstract and subjective consensus (Peterson). How can you be confident in yourself if the rules keep changing and you haven’t developed a pro-active personal standard for yourself? And if the rules keep changing, it is hard to be confident in who you believe you are or who you may wish to be.
Delicate Cognitive Dissonance and Mike Dexter
After a time, any contradiction to your personal narrative results in a certain level of cognitive dissonance, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change” (Oxford Dictionary). Which causes anxiety and a sense of urgency to reconfirm preexisting beliefs if you fail to foster what Carol Dweck calls the “Growth Mindset”. This reminds me of the character Mike Dexter from 1998s, Can’t Hardly Wait. Specifically, when the other students reject and heckle him after he breaks up with “Aman-Duhhhh”. Then he desperately tries to get her back, but she rejects him. All contradictory to his previous four years of high school and being the most popular guy in school that got whatever he wanted. After the kids at the party turn on him, his opinion of himself flips from being the coolest guy in school to being a loser.
His entire world and idea of himself shatters in an instant and he has to learn to redefine who he is as a person. And he does. He becomes friends with the same kid he bullied throughout high school. But it wasn’t enough for Mike Dexter to make a lasting change in his life. Instead, he reverts to what he’s used to, which was being an asshole. He brushes off his own personal growth and dismisses any positive changes in his life to remain where he feels safe so he can maintain cognitive consistency. Meaning it is common to re-interpret additional evidence to reinforce our original beliefs by making excuses and rationalizing why it’s ok to never change.
Cognitive Biases Beware
If it is possibile to automatically adopt good or bad habits, it is also possible to adopt the habit of using cognitive biases to rationalize our behavior. A common coping method of cognitive dissonance is going around asking for advice until you hear the answer you want. It is an attempt to retake control of your own habit loop and personal narrative. All feeding into the cognitive biases I mentioned in the article discussing consumer power. This means the following biases can become our default response to events that cause us mental strain or contradict our view of the world. These include “the bandwagon effect,” following what others are doing, and leads to self-deception, oversimplification, and emotional reasoning; “Loss Aversion”, the fear of losses over gains; “Framing Bias”, deciding based on presentation as opposed to facts; “Anchoring Bias”, where pre-existing data skews new data and the decision-making process; “Confirmation Bias,” where people seek information or data that confirms pre-existing notions and ignore contrary information. For example, the Salem Witch Hunt. The contradictory information being, witches do not exist… (Lukianoff & Haidt 2019)
These cognitive biases negatively support being reactive and defensive. Contextually, being this way is ok under specific circumstances. Like if you were really in a life or death situation. For example, if you had to physically defend yourself or your loved ones. However, today it seems more common to take the form of personalization. Where we ask ourselves, “what does that mean?”, “what did they mean by that?”, “do they not like me and why?”, “what does that say about me?” “what does any and everything have to do with me?” Then your brain responds with either anger or anxiety, which your brain pairs with the appropriate hormones, and the cycle continues.
Personalization and our Ego
I listened to a book on tape called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. One point the author drove home was the process of personalization — when you insert your ego into a situation. He says,
“If you say, ‘I’m right or you’re wrong’, you have implicated your ego which you will invariably try to protect. Taking either successes or failures personally means by definition that your ego has become involved and you are in jeopardy of incurring losses due to psychological factors. If you take your failures personally or like Henry Ford, take your successes personally, you have set yourself up for disaster. Having tied your self-worth to the vicissitudes of factors beyond your control, you will be primarily concerned with protecting your ego rather than trying to determine the appropriate course of action”.
I titled this as my answer to everything because I believe it applies to everything. Any involvement of your ego, your reactions to defend it or disruption of the habit loop under any circumstance can cause varying levels of anxiety, and it compounds exponentially with our lack of control or, at the very least, lack of awareness. Without that awareness the default method of reacting will always be defensiveness, and when we are being defensive, odds are we are projecting rather than being introspective.
Mad Max: Fury Road
One example is road rage. Someone is in your way, maybe not driving the way you think they should, and keeping you from where you want to go and how fast you want to get there. It makes you angry and you can justify a million reasons that person sucks and might deserve to die. That is a poor habit because you are being reactive and justifying your anger instead of taking responsibility for your emotions and your expectations.
Not that we shouldn’t have expectations, or want things to be better, but it is counter-productive when we are all operating in a realm where everyone else is the problem and everyone else should change. Especially in situations where you are on the highway and can’t communicate. Or when the odds are, they are reacting the same way.
Open Ended Conclusion
I learned by writing this that there are no definitive solutions. Only that the answers can hopefully be found in the ability to ask yourself pointed questions. Some being; do I feel this way because I am naturally trying to defend my personal narrative or my idea of myself? Am I reacting in a way I think is expected of me? Am I passionate about what I am saying or am I just filling an awkward silence? Do I care more about being wrong than with what I want to be right about?
When I take things personally I ask myself a series of questions. “What does this really have to do with me?” “Why do I REALLY feel this way?” “What can I do differently?”, “if I do that and the problem remains, how do I move on?” or “what can this person or situation tell me about myself that deep down, I don’t already know?” Then I answer these questions brutally and honestly. I ask myself how I will cope and grow from the “worst-case scenario”. Then I apply that to the “habit loop”. What is the cue or trigger? How does that make me react (the routine)? Then what is the reward? Or what is the end result I want rather than what am I most afraid of? “Am I better than the man I was yesterday?”