I’m fascinated by how the brain works, which means I do a lot of reading about habits, habit formation, and personality, especially how they are formed, combine and interact. One of the most interesting concepts, to me, is that habits write neural pathways across our brains. Each time we perform an act, or a thought pattern, the neural pathway that particular process uses becomes deeper and wider. Just as river bed deepens and becomes more permanent over time, our thoughts and actions are writing their patterns across our minds. The impulses which drive our actions and responses are like water, they will always seek the most familiar path to travel.
This is part of why habit formation and especially habit changing is so difficult. Not only are we writing new pathways inside our brain, we are constantly having to convince our impulses not to take the more familiar pathway.
For whatever reason, these scientific facts have helped me have grace for myself. Why do we do the things we do? Because the pathways are written into the very meat of our brains, and maybe, just maybe, writing a different pathway is too much for us to consider today.
As last year drew to a close, I began to feel a sort of aching weariness accompanied by a deep, angry cynicism. 2017 was an emotional time for me from the global to the deeply personal. I realized that although I was “riding it out,” I was allowing bitterness and anger to write pathways across my soul. Deeper and deeper they eroded away as I allowed myself to dwell and wallow.
Because of what I know about neural pathways and destructive thought patterns, I began to notice my triggers. What are the things that send me on a negative spiral? If I could cut these behaviors off at the start, I wouldn’t have to work so hard to divert my impulses to new pathways. I wanted to start new and healthier behaviors patterns, but I also needed fast results so that I could be happier and healthier now, not in six months (yes, sometimes good things take a long time, but sometimes things are at a critical level and require drastic action. I felt drastic.)
In the end, I found a constant stream of news, social media, binge-watching Netflix, and too much unstructured time are all danger zones where my bad impulses go to frolic and breed. The very things used as sources of relaxation actually wind a coil of anxiety tighter and tighter the longer I mindlessly indulge them.
So I stopped.
And yes, it’s been harder than I thought it would.
And yes, some days I sit and argue with myself whether or not I will log into twitter today and devolve into the never-ending stream of rant and rage.
And yes, I do still watch Netflix but I really try to stop after 2 episodes…and I don’t scroll other devices while I do it.
And yes, I still read the news. Once a day. If I feel like it (I didn’t this morning). If I don’t feel like it, I delete the email and remind myself this world rolls along whether I am informed or not.
But I didn’t simply cut things out, I intentionally added things to fill the spaces. When my brain starts doing that thing where I deliver scathing diatribes unto mine enemies, neatly detailing all the ways in which I have been grievously wronged, I turn on my audiobook or a few podcasts instead. These things are mostly not about politics, or rants or snark, and definitely not about what’s wrong with Christianity ← another trigger. I listen to new artists on Spotify and I sing loudly while cleaning. I’m participating in a reading challenge with some friends at work, so there’s a continual stack of twenty or more books at my fingertips. I take walks. I play with the dogs. And now, I blog..again. I’m working more hours and really enjoying what I do. It’s probably the closest thing I will ever find to being a professional reader.
Life is good. I am happy.
I’m not sure how to quantifiably measure my happiness level, but I know I feel better about myself and about the world, about myself in the world.
I look at all of these measures as ways of loving my soul. I’ve spent decades beating my soul up, and down, trying to wrangle myself into being a better person, assuming unnatural postures to meet outside expectations. Lately, I’m trying something new. I’m loving myself into a better way of being. I’m becoming self-disciplined by using things I naturally love to heal and explore wholeness, joy, and growth. I’m amazed that I haven’t considered this way of change before. I believe the world has a negativity bias ( test me by turning on the news) and mainstream Christianity has a shame bias (original sin, anyone?), and I’ve decided not to buy either package. There’s a third way. I’m giving it a try.
I’m falling in love with my wild, unpredictable soul again, just as she is. Sometimes we work together to learn new and better ways, but I’m done berating, shaming and beating her into submission. She has things to show me which are courageous and true, and I have places I want to take her, willingly, joyfully, not kicking and screaming in protest.
We’re learning how to live together again. It’s definitely the beginning of a great love story.