Bad Habits

This is something I wrote about a year ago after a tough parenting day.

My daughter’s lips were moving but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.  “What?” I said, pulling off the headphones and pausing my iPod for about the fiftieth time that day.

I’d rolled out of bed that morning and quickly realized it was going to be one of those days.  I was tired and as my Grandma used to say, I had no ambition to do anything.  The irritations started bright and early as my children bickered vigorously with each other and threw fits.  I had a long “to-do” list filled with things that I had zero interest in actually doing.  Top all of that joy off with a gray, drizzly day as the backdrop for a family who had already spent too much “quality time” together during summer break, and cabin fever had definitely staked a claim in our house.

Everything and everyone I encountered that day felt like they came with sharp edges.  By mid-afternoon, as annoyances piled atop one another, my mood turned pitch black.  I had barked at the kids continuously, refused to do anything that would actually make me feel better, and resorted to listening to my iPod with headphones in an effort to cocoon myself from my daughters’ unending, fingernails-down-the-chalkboard shrills.

By the time the babysitter arrived, my own personal storm cloud hovered just above my head, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to be good company for anyone.  Since one of the ways that I escape the unrelenting, mundane tasks that can bury a stay-at-home Mom is by ensuring that I get some solitude periodically, it seemed that the only sensible thing for me to do was to go sit in a dark theater and watch a movie.  Nothing about attending a movie solo in the middle of a weekday invites conversation, and that suited me just fine.

Shutting out the world and being entertained by a decent movie for a couple of hours lifted my spirits enough to come home, make dinner and get the children into bed with minimal yelling.  Now I fully admit that I may live a little too much in my head, but I really do need a break from the day’s chatter to think, reflect, assess my behavior, plan, and hopefully evolve in the process.  So once the house got quiet, I looked back on the day and realized that this had turned out to be yet another day, in a collection of them since my children were born, capped with self-doubting, remorse-tinged thoughts that “I could have done better” and “tomorrow, I’m going to try harder.”

Late into that evening as the black tide began to ebb, in an effort to connect with that quieter, knowing part of myself, I read some things that felt poignant to me.  In this case, I read part of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and a magazine.  The novel dredged up deep sadness in me as I read about a little girl who was so lonely throughout her young life, and who was consistently, profoundly disappointed by most adults, especially those closest to her.  It made me think of my own little girls and wonder how often I may have stung them with words or made them feel as if they were invisible or unnoticed by me.

In that fine state of mind – regretting my less-than-stellar parenting efforts earlier in the day – I started thumbing through O magazine and got to the article “31 Ways of Looking at Power”.  What I read in the section about Pema Chödrön struck me.  A native New Yorker in her 70s with four decades of study and contemplation under her belt, Chödrön is a Buddhist nun, prolific author, and respected teacher.  The article presented her take on the Power of the Pause.  “[I]f right now our reaction to seeing a certain person or hearing certain news is to fly into a rage or to get despondent or something equally extreme, it’s because we have been cultivating that particular habit for a very long time.”  She went on to say that, in the midst of the frenetic day-to-day of our lives, “…we could choose to stop, to slow down, to be still for a few seconds.”  This pause “creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present”, and can give us time to reset ourselves if we breathe and take in the stillness of that short pause.

This turned out to be a pretty serious clarifying moment for me.  As a 40-year-old with bouts of extreme moodiness over the past few years (my poor family!), I know with certainty that hormones are a significant contributor, but I hadn’t connected with the fact that, for a good part of my life I’d habitually responded to a hormone-induced funk by disengaging from the world and indulging myself in a quiet but palpable fume, single-handedly turning an emotional dull throbbing into an acute hammering.  I had always thought of my mood swings as biochemical, uncontrollable things that were just part of the landscape of being female.  Until I read Chödrön, it hadn’t occurred to me that a large part of my bad moods was caused by habitual response, and was therefore changeable.

Interestingly, none of what Chödrön was saying was particularly new to me.  I consider myself to be open-minded and fairly self-aware.  I have done my time thinking deeply about what my core issues are and why I do the things I do.  I make a regular effort to take stock of my behavior and to change what isn’t working.  But occasionally, something that’s been said before manages to reach in and grab hold in a different way, and rather than just passing through my brain for a short visit, it sticks.  This was one of those times for me.

It occurred to me that if my moody days are mostly habitual, then what I need to do is remember this when those days come and adjust my perspective about my crappy mood by accepting that it’s just where I am instead of struggling against it.  And though it will probably feel about as uncomfortable as rolling around in a fluffy pile of fiberglass insulation, I need to muscle through and force myself to do the things that I know will make me feel better in those moments.  And honestly, it was liberating to think that I didn’t need to do a lot of navel-gazing to divine the deeper “why” behind my bad habits, I just needed to change my actions.

Having absolved myself of worrying about the “why”, I was all set to work on the “how”.  But as so often happens, a few days later all sorts of relevant information about the “why” showed up in the form of a New York Times article.  Entitled “Brain is a co-conspirator in a vicious stress loop”, it offered up scientific research results that explained to a degree the “why” behind bad habits that get established during tough times.  Basically, scientists studying rats have discovered that prolonged stress creates changes in brain physiology that reinforce a tendency to make choices that in no way help those rats get out of the stressful situation in which they find themselves.  This was oddly comforting, so I ran with it and took the liberty of applying this to myself.   (a) I have created bad habits in my life, and (b) it’s possible that my brain rewires during stressful times so that I am most comfortable continuing to make choices that are unlikely to help me get out of the bad place.

That was a rather amazing revelation to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for holding myself accountable, but sometimes it just feels like I’m flogging myself because I can’t seem to manage to “do better” even though I have every intention of pulling myself out of the mire.  To know that my brain may in fact be working against my better efforts is helpful, and I’m pretty sure that knowing this will allow me to be a little gentler with myself.  The silver lining here is that the research also showed that, just as the brain can wire negatively during prolonged periods of stress, it can essentially be rebooted to default neural settings that help us make better choices as soon as we start to take care of ourselves again (e.g. eating well, getting adequate sleep, exercising).

So here’s what I know:  I’ve got some bad habits.  I’m going to have to work with some uncontrollable things (hormones), some potentially tough but malleable things (stress-induced changes to brain physiology), and fortunately, some things well within my control but which will require extra diligence (my behavior patterns) in order to change my bad habits.  Should be a piece of cake!

About Chris DeVinney

Me in a nutshell: mom, writer, former lobbyist, wife, volunteer, lover of music and art, massive fan of traveling, and something of a smart ass. A typical INTJ, I quietly observe anyone and anything that comes into my orbit, squirreling away material for future essays. These days I spend my time writing about whatever interests me (both professionally and personally) and trying to strike the balance between taking care of kids/family/house/pets and me. Occasionally I nail it, hang on to it briefly, and then scramble back toward the center when the tipping starts again. I know, it’s a common story.
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