Six Tiny, but Harmful, Mental Habits — and How to Fix Them
Do you remember that time something on your bike was broken, so the mudguard rubbed against the tire, creating a consistent and terribly obnoxious grinding noise whenever you pedaled? And then you thought, “Hey, I should fix this.” But then you thought, “Hey, I don’t know how to fix this.” And then you didn’t think about it anymore because you were preoccupied with life. Then you got back on your bike, and not only was it still making the grinding sound, but now it was impossible to shove backward, and the light fell off because the wire had been sanded down. And you were like, “Yeah, this is annoying, but I don’t know how to fix it.” And you just became accustomed to a sound accompanying you everywhere you went, like iiiiiiihh-aaaaaahh… e-iiiiiiihh-aaahahhh… e-iiiiiihhh-aaaahhhh.
And guess what: You got so used to the sound that it became second nature! You didn’t even hear it anymore.
Until one gray, drizzly day in September, a friend’s dad replaced a screw, and suddenly your ride was… so very different.
Smooth. Free. Silent. Everything seemed to be moving automatically. You felt so strong. You were suddenly riding so fast. It felt amazing. Like flying. Like a burden had been lifted, not just from the bike, but from your shoulders as well.
Even if the bike story doesn’t ring a bell, think of a time when applying a small fix suddenly improved your life immensely. For me, other such fixes include waterproof shoes in the cold season and more expensive pants.
If I have learned anything in the past year, it is that no matter how big the problem, it can only be faced with small fixes. But also, small fixes can totally change shit! They can stop inevitable chain reactions and break vicious cycles.
Are you ready to apply some small fixes in order to stop going iiiiiiihh aaaaaahh… e-iiiiiiihh-aaahahhh… e-iiiiiihhh-aaaahhhh in your daily life?
To do this, we have to reassess some old thought patterns. Thought patterns are very useful friends. They enable us to think super fast and sometimes help with useful stuff. They are persistent and a little lazy in their nature. Thought patterns that come to visit more than once often like to settle down as mental habits.
But there are some frauds, imposters, some con artists among them.
They don’t serve us, or anyone, really. They hold us back, make us hesitant, slow, and unwieldy. They confuse and stress us subliminally and can make us look foolish and distract others.
Tiny but filthy mental habits.
To overcome them, you have to track them down and kick their asses! Or just simply replace them. That works, too.
Lesson 1: Replace ‘shit’ with ‘sorry’
Don’t make things emotional that are, in fact, quite meaningless.
First, let’s examine the knee-jerk reaction to a so-called or so-perceived “mishap”: A bowl falls and breaks. A bus is missed. An earring is lost down the drain.
Does your instant inner or outer reaction resemble anything close to this:
OHHHHH NOOOOOOO!!! NOOOOOO!!
Or, also popular:
Many people have the habit of immediately spilling lots of energy and emotion due to their interpretation of “this wasn’t supposed to happen!” They carry out an emotional reaction to match this belief.
But why spend half a second thinking about whether something was “supposed to happen”? That doesn’t really make any sense.
First, who are we to decide whether something was supposed to happen? Second, the answer doesn’t change anything. Third, you are inevitably going to feel like shit while thinking about that, seeing as something happened but wasn’t supposed to, and now, worst of all, it has already happened, which means you can’t prevent it anymore. Which you should have, but you didn’t, and now it’s too late.
Kind of a boring story, really. And guess what: There’s a reason humans hate boring things. They’re a waste of (life)time and energy.
You’re a human being in a world of things full of subject matter. You’re a grown up (hopefully) or at least working on it. You’re responsible for your actions because you chose them, allowing them to have consequences. You’re responsible for your items because you put them in your life with the agreement to care for them.
But you’re also no superhuman, and you’re bound to break and mess up and lose some things all the time.
Sorry to disillusion you, but this won’t ever stop. Nobody turns 30 and suddenly learns to be sovereign and all clumsiness disappears.
So, why don’t you simply look at the broken bowl in a caring way and say, “Sorry!” — really meaning it. And then drop it (the topic, not the bowl again). Apologize to the bowl because you failed to care for it sufficiently, then tidy the shards. Apologize to yourself when you see the bus drive off because you failed to put yourself on it safely on time. Say, “Oh, hey, I’m sorry,” and then go on with your life.
Stay lighthearted. Realize that a broken bowl and a missed bus are outside topics — you don’t need to answer with emotions.
Lesson 2: Replace ‘I can’t’ with ‘I have never’
Don’t make things universal that are nothing but a past observation.
Have you ever formulated thoughts like these:
- I can’t do a cartwheel.
- I can’t sing.
- I can’t speak French.
- I can’t put both my legs behind my ears.
While those statements may seem true at first glance, they all carry a filthy lie.
“Can’t” is present tense. People use present tense for things that apply universally—that is, “It was like that, it is like that, and it’s always going be like that.”
Here are some universal principles where using present tense would be appropriate:
- The sun rises at dawn.
- A mosquito can’t eat an entire rhinoceros.
- My neighbor is from Spain.
The conditions we are describing in thoughts and statements using the word “can’t,” like those I listed earlier, have nothing to do with universal principles. What we actually mean when we say those “can’t” statements is:
- I have never managed to do a cartwheel previously in my life.
- I have, up to this point in time, never hit more than two notes in a row.
- I have never learned French.
- I have never, without intense pain, managed to put both my legs behind my ears.
This sounds a lot lighter already, right?
These statements aren’t prohibitive. They aren’t about pitying yourself.
Plus, there’s a bonus: Shifting from “I can’t” to “I have never” means you are no longer sabotaging yourself.
By saying “I can’t do a cartwheel,” you secretly program yourself to never, ever be able to do a cartwheel. Saying “I have never done a cartwheel” automatically opens up a possibility chain:
- I have never done a cartwheel.
- Well, do I want to learn?
- I will start practicing a cartwheel for five minutes every day./I don’t give the slightest hoot about cartwheels.
It might not seem like there’s a lot at stake here, but what if we exchanged the whole cartwheel thing with something like this:
- I can’t be in a loving relationship where I feel happy and relaxed.
- I can’t open myself up to anyone.
- I can’t say what I want or need.
- I get panic attacks when I’m in crowds.
- I am always sick.
Replace these statements with actual facts.
You may have never been in a loving relationship before, but that’s only good to realize. Try it now, as a first. You might have had several panic attacks in large crowds, and it’s good that you notice it — now get help to change this previous condition.
Train yourself to be precise, otherwise you will keep feeding your subconscious with wrong information.
Lesson 3: Replace ‘I have to’ with ‘I want to’
Be clear that you are free to choose anything, and there is no demand or pressure. It’s only that your actions come with results. (And that’s a good thing, right? Otherwise you would be a hamster in a wheel in the corner where no one notices.)
Humans are constantly striving for freedom. It can be traumatic to have no choices or agency. Perceived lack of choice can be a major root cause of stress, stress disorders, anxiety, depression, and aggression.
Unfortunately, the world trains us to endure this loss of control and accept the associated distress.
Did your mom ask you at six in the morning on a cold November Tuesday, with a bully and a history exam awaiting you, the day after you got braces, “Do you want to go to school today?”
My mom didn’t. Had she asked, my reply would have been, “No I don’t think so, seeing that I hate school right now, and I never want to go back.”
So, we train for years and years to believe that we have no other option for some things, that some things just have to be done, that you have to do it.
Sounds like there’s no choice, right? But this is where we uncover the next lie.
Turns out, you have all the choices. Once you leave your parents’ house, it’s your job to decide what you’re going to do, and wouldn’t it be ridiculous to spend even a minute doing anything you don’t want to do? Nobody does that! Believe me or not, everything you do, you chose to do it because you want to do it.
- I have to go to work tomorrow.
- I have to pay rent.
- I have to answer that email.
- I have to prepare for that exam.
Stop it already with all the lies!
This is all not true! You could choose not go to work the next day. It’s easy: Just remain planted in your bed. You could choose not pay rent. Then, after some time, you might, as a result, want to either ask a friend if you can sleep on their couch or set up a tent in the forest.
By the way, there is another way people use “I can’t” in a sloppy and imprecise way: “I can’t go to that meeting tomorrow.”
This implies some kind of failure: Something was expected or supposed to happen, but you couldn’t meet that expectation.
What you mean to say is: “I don’t want to go to that meeting tomorrow (because I am scared/sick/have other plans).”
Another common incorrect statement: “I can’t do this anymore.”
This sentence also implies that you have to or a least should keep doing it, which isn’t the case. (Remember, it’s just that your actions have results.)
And it’s simply not true! You did it repeatedly up to now — if you wanted to, you could do it another time. You just don’t want to. What you mean is: “I want to take a break.”
Or just: “I am taking a break from this.”
Use the words “can’t” and “have to” less and the word “want” more. Because guess what: You’re allowed to want stuff — in fact, it’s super healthy.
- I want to go to work tomorrow so I can maintain the image of a reliable employee and to get money.
- I want to pay rent; otherwise, there will be annoying results.
- I want to answer that email, because things will get more annoying if I don’t.
- I want to prepare for my exam, because I will feel better during the exam if I am prepared.
An interesting side effect of replacing “have to” for “want to” is being able to suddenly recognize cases of “borrowed desires.” In other words, you realize that you’ve been doing something only for the cause of making someone else happy or in agreement—or at least not in disagreement.
An example: “I don’t want to lose weight, but society has convinced me that my value is relative to the size and appearance of my body.”
Acknowledging the difference between “have to” and “want to” is a great way to find the reality behind your motivations. And that reality might be just what you need to reevaluate and determine if you want to break a link in that chain.
Lesson 4: Replace the story about ‘what you fear’ with the story about ‘what you want’
Don’t invent a future reality out of present fear—in other words, stop worrying all the time.
“Eight minutes,” whispers the stage assistant while he sticks his head into the backstage warm-up space. We nod in silence. Some dancers quickly go to pee again. Some keep revising a few steps. I choose instead to bounce with my feet in parallel position, making weird humming noises.
This is a strange moment in a dancer’s life. Before this moment, you had lots of chances to improve the performance: to practice, change something, train for strength and security. Now there’s nothing really you can do. A million things could go massively wrong. What if in the sacred, still moment at the end of a piece, you fart into the silence?
This weird moment offers numerous opportunities for dancers to completely go off the rails. That is totally an option. I’ve seen it happen.
So, what is the difference between the dancer who first runs in circles, fully panicking, then pukes, then thinks about leaving this second and eloping to Barcelona, and then starts hysterically crying and the dancer who feels excited and focused and calmly conducts all the steps necessary to prepare for the performance?
Both are likely experiencing a movie playing inside their minds. It’s just that Panicked Dancer is in a totally different movie than Grounded Dancer. Panicked Dancer is experiencing literally the opposite plot.
Panicked Dancer’s brain is generating lively images of mistakes, accidents, blackouts, crashes, and farts. Panicked Dancer could, in fact, bleed to death on stage if enough things go wrong.
Grounded Dancer, however, doesn’t really think of these things. Their mental movie is all about success. Their brain is busy experiencing the exuberant, strong sensation of intense focus while moving on stage. They are preliving the blissful, proud feeling when they will bow in the end, knowing they were 100% on fleek.
The thing is, neither of them actually knows what’s going to happen on that stage.
In reality, all the scenarios running through both dancers’ minds could occur. A friend of mine once fell off the stage into the orchestra pit, hurting her back and leaving four or five musicians in clinical shock. Ambulances came to pick them up, the show was stopped and canceled, and hundreds of visitors were sent home. Shit does happen.
But preliving the shit doesn’t make it go away. On the contrary: A human in anxiety and panic will be so much more accident-prone than a focused, grounded person.
Of course, it’s not just stage performances that bring on these bouts of nervous energy and worst-case scenario visualizations.
Any of these thoughts sound familiar?
- I am so going to fuck up this job interview.
- I think I’ll get mugged on this trip or miss all my flights or massively overpay or maybe lose all my money.
- I will totally fuck up this exam.
- My date is going to hate me because [insert plethora of inane reasons].
- My symptoms are probably some horrible disease. I will probably die of this or live in illness for the rest of my life and be a burden to all my loved ones.
You might have different worries than these. Everyone comes up with their unique panic flavor. But try to become more aware of any moment you are worried. And whenever you feel worry, anxiety, or panic arising:
- Understand the scenario you’re afraid of.
- Is there an actionable step you could take now that would prevent or minimize the chances of this happening? If so, take it.
- Acknowledge that this story is, in fact, just one possible story.
- Speaking of possible stories: Ask yourself how do you actually want it to happen? And now imagine that instead.
The antidote to worry: Determine what you actually want.
Your goal is to become so clear about what you want that you can visualize it and feel it in your body. If you can’t manage that yet, just practice. Take the time you would usually spend worrying and instead practice imagining what you want things to feel like. Take the energy you’ve been burning on coming up with possible catastrophes and instead redirect it toward imagining the easy-feeling, successful, desired scenario.
Following the example of Grounded Dancer, indulge in the imagination of yourself mastering the job interview and walking out with some new personal fans. Imagine the trip being safe and smooth and fun. Imagine the person you have weird stories with being open and nice, and imagine yourself having the guts to sincerely apologize or start a clearing conversation. Imagine—I don’t know. You know. Imagine something nice.
Lesson 5: Replace being dramatic with being obsessively precise when talking about things that feel bad
Resist the temptation to make things “really, really bad.” Instead, assess the facts.
In this lesson, let’s take a look at knee-jerk reactions to high-stress situations.
By “high stress,” I don’t mean a full schedule or any other part of your outer reality. I am talking about stress in your body. We have all experienced this. The reasons and triggers may vary from person to person, but here are some examples:
- Losing an item or money.
- Perceived danger through illness.
- Perceived threat in a relationship.
- Sorrow over the end of a relationship.
- Something more frequent, like a spiteful remark from a colleague or supervisor.
We are all familiar with this inner response of stress, sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, dejectedness. These feelings arise in our bodies just like physical pain.
But that’s barely chapter one of the story.
The second those emotions arise, our brain starts inventing an entire novel about our life: how it came to be so fucked up; in what ways it is all fucked up; which humans were involved in fucking it up; how and why you do or don’t deserve this; the ways you aren’t ever getting what you need; and which ways you could dramatically change your life now, due to the fact that everything is so bad.
Our brains try hard to make that story interesting because, obviously, the emotions want to get heard.
Are you trained to be dramatic? Many of us are trained to come up with dramatizing mental stories that are not realistic, let alone helpful.
Ask yourself this: When did your true, original-scale inner condition get the needed response? Did merely saying “I feel slightly unsettled” get you any attention, help, care, or solutions? Were you taken seriously when you said you didn’t want to go someplace because you just felt weird about it? Did you get to stay in bed when you were sad or felt overwhelmed?
Often, surfacing emotions are put down as “You’re just tired,” “You’re being silly,” “You’re acting like a baby,” “You’re being such a drama queen,” “You’re just hormonal,” or “You’re just going through a phase.”
Only when we are “really ill” do we get to stay home from school and rest and get some care. Emotional pain is ignored until it becomes really loud. In some cases, it’s always ignored — no matter how loud it gets—which means that the only way to receive rest and care is to get a physical problem. This painful observation in a growing person’s life can bring things like self-harm, eating disorders, and psychosomatic disorders.
Ironically, many people build up the story around their problem, making it more dramatic and imprecise because they are trained to do so. At the same time, they’re suppressing the emotion, avoiding voicing it, and instead just being latently “pissed” or “stressed” or “peeved” or “tired” or “mysterious” (or just “weird”).
And it’s easy to feel super shitty and unseen when going by this pattern. In some cases, it’s like creating a horror show and then not even opening the curtain for a little light. Instead, you play the whole five-and-a-half-hour thing to yourself, alone in the dark. Afterward, the artists don’t hear applause or any other reaction, and they can’t find their way backstage anyway, given the all-embracing darkness, so they just start over.
Kind of sounds like an inevitable downward spiral, doesn’t it?
We’re taught that a “small emotional problem” doesn’t deserve attention. That asking for help is us “just being silly.” The thinking goes: I don’t really deserve attention, so let’s not talk about it. In case I do need help, though, let’s cultivate a decently painful story so people will understand how bad everything is and acknowledge that I do, in fact, deserve help.
Are you familiar with thoughts or statements that look kind of like this?
- This is bad. This is really, really bad.
- This is just terrible.
- This is so fucked up.
- My life is a disaster.
- This is cruel.
- Fuck this.
Uh-oh. Did we just uncover some tiny little horror shows?
Fuck all that kind of self-talk. Instead, try the “where is the hook” method: Describe precisely what you observe.
“Where is the hook?”
As a dance teacher, I am trained never to say that a kid did something “badly.” Nothing is “bad” in my classes, simply because that’s a prompt to shut down people’s courage and initiative. It’s also not precise enough feedback to improve anything. Instead, I find the missing link in the chain that’s preventing the student from completing the task. There is a German saying: “Wo ist der Haken?” or “Where is the hook?” It means “What exactly leads to this problem?”
Instead, I’ll say, “Your concentration went missing after a few steps,” “I think you had a foot salad,” “You lost coordination in between,” “You forgot what comes next,” “Your legs didn’t dance on beat,” or whatever. Then the kid and I fill in the gaps.
Mostly it’s some sort of problem with some sort of body part. It hardly ever happens that everything is just a complete mess. Or sometimes it is, but it all started with the brain or a different body part getting confused at some point.
Same in life. So, search for the hook.
To find our hook, to get to the source of the painful feeling, our missing link, we need to examine the whole thing realistically. I mean, when encountering a previously unknown monster, we don’t know its story yet. We don’t know:
- Where it came from.
- What it wants.
- How you can get rid of it.
- Why it came.
- Why it came to you, of all people.
- What or who it’s going to take with it into damnation.
- How it will behave.
- What this means for your life.
- What you should do now.
These questions are so many steps ahead of schedule. The expert guy from pest control would tell you what to do first. Cunningly observing is your only task at hand now.
Precisely describing the problem’s “phenotype” could look something like this:
- My heart is beating rapidly. I am dizzy. I feel like I am in shock because of the breakup that just happened. I am tight in my chest, and I feel sick, and it feels like too much to process.
- I have been feeling anxious and stressed with pain in my back and chest since Tuesday. I have slept fewer than four hours every night.
- I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with all my daily tasks since April, when my sickness came on. I fear that I will be a bad mom.
- I feel jealous and angry since hearing about my partner’s work friend. I feel more jealous than angry. I am afraid they are going to leave me.
- I will have to borrow some money from a friend or move back to my parents’ house if I don’t earn $1,200 in the next five weeks. I feel stress in my neck and chest because I feel like I failed in my career.
The “where is the hook” method might feel uncomfortable at first, because there’s a fear that as soon as you stop highlighting things as “bad” or “terrible,” you won’t ever get help or attention.
But it might actually be the other way around.
You will simply have to start surrounding yourself with people who are willing to take your word for real. A good doctor will take you seriously when you describe an emotional imbalance or sleep deprivation. A good friend will be happy to comfort and help you when you describe the subtle things in your heart. And a good partner will take you seriously when you just feel “slightly weird” or “sad without a reason.”
Lesson 6: Replace ‘too’ with ‘very’
Don’t add a sense of inadequacy to what is simply a difference in quantity.
So, there’s one more word to get rid of: “too.” This little word is a sneaky way to make something more dramatic and untrue.
“Too” is mostly a subjective, judgmental offense. It can make a lot of sense, especially when used in relation to something: “I am too big to fit into this Ikea kiddie chair.” “This door is too small for this door frame.”
But most people also use it like this:
- I am too shy.
- I am too ugly.
- I am too stupid.
- I am too old.
This sounds kind of painful, right? This is because you are saying, “This is the current state, and it is not okay.” Beware of any such insidious statements. A quick shift is to replace “too” with “very” or a relative or absolute quantity. And FYI, if something is just your perception, remember to add this indispensable information:
- I am very shy.
- I perceive myself as uglier than 26 people I know.
- I perceive myself as less intelligent than 80% of people my age.
- I am 67 years old.
Now, these are just some facts that belong to this moment, and they can live in harmony alongside other facts of this moment. You can leave the facts in peace, and they will leave you in peace. And if you want to change some things, start exploring how you would do that. Remember lesson three: You have choices!
Of course, maybe there’s really nothing you can do to make reality always do what you had planned for it. That kind of control is, of course, elusive.
But my point is that we could stop reacting in such unproductive ways. There are so many ways we accidentally make ourselves feel bad.
Emotions are supposed to work as a highly sensitive indicating system to show us where we should make more use of our freedom. But when we constantly make ourselves feel bad and then fail to act on the resulting feeling, we abuse that system, and it wears out.