10 Life-Changing Facts About Habits


“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
~Albert Einstein

A few weeks ago, I published a post called 10 Life-Changing Facts About Fear. I was walking on the beach yesterday with my lovely friend Evan who suggested I write a 10 Life Changing Facts series. “Brilliant!” I thought (thanks, Evan), and what better topic to write about than getting unstuck.

The Pain of Being Stuck

And who doesn’t know what it’s like to be stuck? We find ourselves doing the same unsatisfying thing time after time or looking at situations and people in the same habitual way that doesn’t get us what we really want. Being stuck is tunnel vision, it’s prison, it’s limited and small and frustrating.

It can even lead us to despair, feeling there is no way out.

But here’s the good news: you can get unstuck. You absolutely can. No matter what habit is gripping you, you can find the courage to explore it, to understand how it works, to uncover the feelings that drive it.

Be Inspired to Get Unstuck

Need some inspiration? Here are the words of Deb, who commented on a recent post:

“A little over a year ago, when I first found your blog, I felt exactly as you describe in the first paragraphs. I wondered how I could ever not feel so alone, so unworthy. You are right, you just have to keep acknowledging your feelings and letting them go. I kept it up and one day I thought, hey, I don’t feel bad. I stepped out of my tight little box of unworthiness and insecurity, a little at a time, and it worked.”

Habits can’t sustain themselves in the light of conscious awareness. They thrive on resistance and evasion. But when we illuminate them with laser-like attention, when we are willing to see things exactly as they are, they soften. The momentum begins to slow, and we become aware of space for new perspectives and choices. We realize freedom.

Consider the Facts

Whatever your habit is – busyness, overeating, over-thinking, procrastination, passivity, argumentativeness, shyness – consider these life-changing facts about getting unstuck, then the ball is in your court. What do you really want for this precious life?

1. Moving through habits takes focus, willingness, and perseverance. You are addressing an automatic, repetitive, long-standing pattern that has momentum. Your true desire to be free of the habit has to be stronger than the force of the habit itself.

2. Habits stay in place through unconsciousness and inattention. If you keep doing the same thing, you will get the same result. The radical choice is to enter into whatever you experience rather than avoid it. See how your thought process works, what feelings drive you. Get to know the direct experience of desire and lack that underlies many of our conditioned tendencies. Eventually, the habit will surrender, I promise you.

3. Habits are driven by feelings you aren’t aware of. If you are carrying out a habit that isn’t serving you, you haven’t yet acknowledged the underlying feeling. It might be fear or sadness, anger or loss. Gently explore the deepest places inside you so can be free.

If you are afraid of the pain, meet that fear first. Then welcome the feelings – they have been waiting for your loving attention.

4. Habits are perpetuated by a story that runs in your mind. Look for thoughts that start with: I need, I can’t, I am missing, I have to, if I don’t. These are stories you tell yourself that convince you to play out a pattern that you know doesn’t serve you. Investigate these thoughts to see if they are actually true.

5. You will experience urges and cravings. No matter what pattern you are addressing, the moment of the urge to engage in it, once again, is the moment of truth. Are you going to experience this moment or avoid it? Urges have a physical component, so get to know what that feels like in your body. Go through the fire, and you will come out the other side.

6. Getting unstuck from habits means facing the unknown. When a habit drops away, your experience changes. You think and feel differently, your insights and perspectives change. You see choices you never noticed before. Don’t let your fear of the unknown keep you from the happiness, peace, health, and well being that are your birthright.

7. Dismantling habits takes patience. Your habit has probably been in place for years, so it will take some time to unwind. This means you will keep doing it even when you don’t want to. Be gentle with yourself, but don’t lose focus. Start small, and keep going, seeing each experience as an opportunity for learning.

8. There is no goal. I know you want to change your habit, but don’t turn it into a fight. Rather, be conscious, loving, and aware. Be willing to experience your feelings and investigate your thoughts. Lovingly usher yourself through the moment each time you feel the pressure of the habit. Then your whole relationship with your experience changes, and there is space for your inner wisdom to be heard.

9. The root of being stuck goes back to childhood. Many long-standing patterns start when we don’t have the skills or support to deal with strong feelings. In order to survive, we send them underground, and they stay there fragmented and lost. Then we come up with any number of creative ways to avoid them.

The medicine for this cycle is loving attention. Make a safe space for these experiences to come out of hiding. Integrate them into the whole that you already are. Let go of the effort to manage your inner world. Take a deep breath, let it go, and let everything be.

10. Getting help helps. I just finished eight sessions with a therapist. My friend, Tess, from The Bold Life, speaks about how getting help saved her marriage. Talking to an objective, skilled person helps you clear the fog of your habitual ways of thinking. Do yourself a favor: if you’re stuck, consider getting help, with me or anyone else you trust. Just one session can often make a difference.

Now it’s your turn. Here are the facts about habits. What is your next step? Any stories of frustration or success? I’d love to hear…

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  1. avatar Clare
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    I have difficulty in forgiving and in forgetting. I recognize when it is happening and sometimes I move through it. Yesterday, I did not. It was not impulsive; it was a conscious unemotional choice. Surprisingly, the result was not associated with the usual guilt or remorse. An associate of mine and my partner’s has screwed us over a few times, for lack of a better term. After a bad ending and several years of non-communication, he cheerfully called yesterday for a favor, (a huge favor), like nothing had happened at all. I did not exactly welcome this call, but my partner acted like nothing had ever happened, which made me wonder how and why I remember these “wrongs” so vividly and hang on to them to vehemently. I do work on this. I know it is and issue and am conscious of it, but it is still perplexing.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      Hi Clare,

      I don’t know why you hang onto it either, but I do know that things happen in their own time. If stuckness and holding on is what is arising, then that is your opportunity to be welcoming and compassionate with yourself. Wishing this non-forgiving away isn’t helpful. If it’s here, it’s here. And maybe you can offer a little compassion to this associate?

      I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  2. avatar Jay Cohen
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Excellent article.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you liked it, Jay. Thanks so much for visiting here.

  3. Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    I hear you loud and clear.

    Where I am stuck is beyond my control in a way. I do not want to sound like a victim but I am.
    .-= Bunnygotblog´s last blog ..Update =-.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      Hi Bunny,

      And I hear that you are a victim. I can’t comment on the particulars of your situation, but I am including a link to an article I wrote on Goodlife Zen about Elizabeth Smart and resilience. She is someone who could have easily slid into victimhood, but she is choosing differently: Why Some People Thrive No Matter What Happens

      I send you so much love and wish you well…

  4. Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Gail, thank you for reminding us of the power of habits and the persistence to to nudge at them in order to make changes. Number 7 calls to me — patience. It seems as the more I am aware, gentle, and oh so patient, the more I can dismantle some of my patterned notions and behaviors.

    .-= Susie´s last blog ..Claiming Your Calling =-.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

      Hi Susie, and welcome to you!

      Ah, patience. Makes me take a big, relaxing breath. And I love your use of the word “nudge.” We want things to change so badly, but if we stay with it one moment at a time, gently nudging, persistence pays off.

  5. Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Very nice post. I see myself at various stages of acceptance and progress on each of your facts. Beautifully done!
    .-= OccasionallySerene´s last blog ..A new year- a new start- a new career =-.

  6. Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Gail – I really enjoy reading your posts, and finding those gems that make me stop and really take in your words, as well as hearing my own in response. In this most recent post, this really got my attention: “Urges have a physical component, so get to know what that feels like in your body.” So much goes on in and around our bodies that we miss or disregard. Thanks for the reminder to check in physically as well. Patrick

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      Hi Patrick,

      I appreciate that you took the time to comment. Thank you.

      I completely agree about attending to what is going on in the body. Essentially, all our problems begin and end there. If we look carefully, we will see that all habits start with a physical sensation that may be quite subtle. And the final unwinding of them ends with a physical release of tension. Urges to engage in habits, for sure, include a physical component. Getting to know the energies and sensations of the body is a wise endeavor if we want to realize freedom.

      May your investigation be fruitful…

  7. Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    God does not close one door without opening another window or door for you to go through. The pain of change is me with my foot stuck in the door that is closing. Let go and let God.
    Most people have a Higher Power that gives them choices…standing in the hallway awaiting the perfect glass door to come by is a waste of a life, go with the instincts, follow those who heve been thee and done that.
    Celebrate the opportunity, have gratitude for choices, be the person your Higher Power wants you to be…

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      I love this advice, Michael. I would use different language, but the sentiment is the same: surrender.

      “Celebrate the opportunity, have gratitude for choices, be the person your Higher Power wants you to be…” All truths that we can seriously consider living from.

      Thanks so much for contributing here.

  8. avatar marilee
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    In love with the flying dog!!! :-)

  9. Posted January 21, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Oh, my worst habit hands down is negative thinking. I grew up in a negative environment and as an adult I never stopped to think just how much of that negativity I carried around with me when I left home.

    In our family, we just gritted our teeth and “survived despite” all the bad things that “just happened to us.” When I started to work on my own negativity, I finally realized how much of that negativity was self created.

    Now I work just a little each day, never overwhelming myself, on identifying those negative thoughts, challenging them and trying to get rid of them.

    Great post! It’s nice to read about how thoughts can easily turn into patterns and become a habit.
    .-= Laura F´s last blog ..Stress and the body =-.

    • Posted January 21, 2011 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Hi Laura, and a warm welcome to you!

      I appreciate your comment because it illustrates so well those insidious patterns that plague us – and the possibility that they can be seen and moved through.

      It’s nice to understand the why of our patterns – for you it was something you learned in your family. But ultimately, if we want to not engage them anymore, all it takes is paying attention. I think people can get sidetracked in the why, when it is really the how (how does this pattern work) and what (what’s happening now) that are transformative.

      I love your gentle, persistent approach. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  10. Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    This has helped me to realise more fully that not all my thoughts are actually true and I am not going to play out stupid patterns, based on false thoughts, that don’t serve me or anyone else. Thanks Gail, I feel so POWERFUL, armed with this little fact!
    Peace Out
    .-= Dan´s last blog ..Having a Hard Life =-.

    • Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Oh, peace right back to you, Dan. I love your fire to be free!

  11. Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Hi Gail,

    Great post. I especially resonated with the “unconsciousness and inattention” point. It’s good to be aware that I’ve not been aware! ;-)

    I’m in the midst of changing some habits and it’s two steps forward one step back. (Or is it the other way around? Sometimes I wonder.) Which also means I resonate with your point about patience. Ain’t it the truth.

    I’m glad to hear you’ll be doing a series. Your posts are always so helpful. Thanks!
    .-= Patti Foy´s last blog ..Enhance Your State of Mind in Minutes with This Easy Tool =-.

    • Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Hi Patti, and welcome to you…

      You make an important point about patience and not expecting perfection. When we investigate habits, we are looking at a freight train that has been barreling down the tracks at high speed for a very long time. So we need to be firm and gentle, persistent and compassionate.

      And something tells me you have it in you to do what it takes!

  12. Posted January 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    This post is really well done. I like the list you’ve made, thanks for the advice!
    I have a few unwanted habits that I can look into with the help of your list…looking forward to changing them!
    .-= Cristina´s last blog ..Interior inspiration- kitchens =-.

    • Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for stopping by, Cristina! I’m so glad you found the list helpful.

      Sending love your way…

  13. Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Gail, great advice and I’m lucky to travel to Europe. Often I feel stuck and just traveling allows me to get my mind thinking in a different way. I had trouble writing my memoir synopsis for months, but getting away from my everyday life, to another country, made me think differently.

    • Posted January 21, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      I love reading about your travels, Sonia. As you say, traveling gives us a new perspective that gets us unstuck from our habitual ways of thinking. My experience has been that habits were challenged that I didn’t even know I had!

  14. Posted January 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    Each point you make is helpful. Love heals and being more loving and gentle with myself…I can make progress. Beating myself up, I fall back into the habit. Maybe doing that is my excuse for not changing the habit. I think that’s a big insight for me.

    Thanks for the link love. I was thinking this is so good I want to print it off and put it in my journal. Then I see my name and it’s like icing on the cake. Yummy. Have a great weekend.
    .-= Tess The Bold Life´s last blog ..Running- Why My World Revolves Around It =-.

    • Posted January 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Well, you inspire me in so many ways, Tess.

      You make an interesting point about beating ourselves up as a way to stay the same and not change. There is definitely, in all of us, that inner scared survivalist that doesn’t want to change, and he/she can some out in all kinds of sabotaging ways. Again, another opportunity to be aware and stay with what we really want.

      Thanks for another fabulous insight, bold one.

  15. Posted January 22, 2011 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    This is just so good to read today. And it has me thinking, now, about the habits I have that are ones that I find less desirable in my life.

    And that really, for me, is about the conscious awareness of what I’m doing. Anyway, this really has me thinking about that – awareness – and how aware I really am (or aren’t!).

    This really is wonderful…thank YOU!!
    .-= Lance´s last blog ..Not Your Typical Kelly Blue Book =-.

    • Posted January 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      One thing I absolutely love about you, Lance, is your openness. You are always so receptive to new ideas, to looking within yourself, to not taking things for granted.

      Thank you for inspiring all of us.

  16. Posted January 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Gail: Great and helpful post. I think one of the things I have probably tried to work on the most was breaking the habit of the negative thought cycle. As you mentioned, when you aren’t paying enough attention and aren’t conscious enough, you can fall into the trap of just thinking by default. I call this uncontrolled and undisciplined thinking because it just happens and if the thoughts you are having are negative, it is like one of the worst re-runs you will ever experience. I appreciate all of your words of wisdom here, especially when you pointed out that it is a process. In the beginning, I had the expectation that I could eliminate these negative thought patterns easily, but it really does take consistent practice and discipline. Great post and information.
    .-= Sibyl – alternaview´s last blog ..How to Figure Out Where You Are Going Next =-.

    • Posted January 24, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s such an important point to emphasize, Sibyl, that it isn’t about getting rid of anything, but in meeting our moment-to-moment experience, however it shows up. With no goal, there is no chance of failing.

      When we start becoming aware, we become more sensitive, and yes, these negative thought cycles are very painful re-runs. We don’t realize it until we start seeing them and feeling the effects of them.

      I appreciate your insights, Sibyl!

  17. avatar Tom Burt
    Posted January 25, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    great post gail. your earlier posts on habits changed my life. they cut right through my egoic mind’s defense strategy of hiding these habitual patterns from me. and now they are gradually dissolving as I simply observe them with curiosity, patience and loving kindness. for those of your readers who are interested in going deeper in this area, I strongly recommend that they read 6 of your earlier posts: “freedom from the prison of your habits” #1 – #5 and
    “there is great freedom from simply being aware”. I am so grateful for your sharing this deep wisdom.

    • Posted January 25, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Hi Tom,

      I am so happy for you that you are no longer hiding from habitual patterns and that all it takes is simply observing for them to dissolve. This is actually revolutionary. When we stop avoiding and fixing and allow ourselves to see things as they are, transformation becomes possible.

      I appreciate your mentioning these other posts that you found helpful. Here are the links: Freedom from the Prison of Your Habits and There is Great Freedom in Simply Being Aware.

      I wish you well on your journey….

  18. Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I just discovered your blog today and look forward to reading more.

  19. Posted January 26, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Gail, one of your most perceptive observations: abandoning old habits is facing the unknown and letting go of a certain comfort level, even if the habits bring pain. That’s why getting help can be such a great idea.

  20. Posted January 26, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Well, since my blog is all about habits, you know I loved this post!! I’m printing it to keep in my file. Thank you!

  21. Posted August 13, 2011 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I know this is an old post but I’ve just found it. Thank you – this is all so true. Having been through various addictions over the years I know what it takes to change, and how ingrained they can be. Three years of counselling later, I’m still a work in progress… :)

    • Posted August 15, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Welcome to you, Oneinsix,

      I’m so glad you resonated with this post.

      Much love to you…

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