10 Uncommon Mental Exercises to Change Your Bad Emotional Habits
Have you ever noticed that whenever you’re thrown off-center by a bad experience or bad news, or when you’re really tired or not feeling well, you automatically fall into a “default” emotion, such as fear, anxiety, despair, anger, sadness or depression? It can be debilitating to try to be creative and productive when your emotions are dragging you down. After finding myself falling into despair over and over again for several years, often with no apparent cause, I finally questioned what was going on. I began to think of this automatic response as an “emotional habit.”
Most of us were taught emotional habits in our childhood that made us “emotional dependents” (a nice alternative to emotional vampires) later on in our adult lives. These are habits that limit our personal growth. Such habits creep up on us, without us being aware of it, until we get to a point where nearly everything triggers the same response—fear, grief, or anger.
Habits are formed out of seeking pleasure and avoidance of pain. This aspect of the mind cannot be changed. However, we can change how we perceive pleasure as internal values and pain as a loss of those values. That’s when emotional habits truly begin to change, allowing us to form well-rounded personalities in the process.
Below you will find the top habit-reforming exercises that have helped me overcome my mental blocks and neurotic tendencies.
They create a more responsible, aware, purposeful, and accepting person in me, little by little, day by day.
In simple words, they make me more self-aware and self-confident.
This is not the cross-fit of the mind promising you to kick the habit in 30 days. This is slow, deliberate, and real lasting change that’ll improve your self-perspective as long as you keep immersing in them.
10 Uncommon Mental Exercises to Change Your Bad Emotional Habits
1. Write down Reasons Why You Won’t Perform These Exercises
Your brain is already telling you to skim through the 10 reasons and how it would be nice to try it one day.
Maybe you’ll email this article to your friends who might need it more than you. But the reality is that everyone has some negative emotional habit that they need to change. Also, everyone has excuses that will stop them from bringing any real change to their life.
So go on, write down your list of excuses.
This doesn’t just work with emotional habits. It works with any habit you know is sabotaging you, but you just can’t help yourself doing it.
You already know that the first step is always conscious acknowledgment.
Why this works: Our automatic mental excuses seem so rational, so real, so important, until we write them down. That’s just how mental inertia works – habits are always supported by excuses to keep the wheel spinning. It’s only when you poke it with a stick that you realize how resistant to change your mind is. You have to upset the balance of this inertia and you do so by attacking the foundation it’s built on.
2. Rank the Validity of Each Excuse, Then Take Action against the Valid Ones
As you might imagine, some of the excuses you wrote down might sound silly.
The thing, however, is that there are no silly excuses.
I don’t buy half of my excuses, and neither should you with yours.
Most of the excuses you wrote down have a reason to be there.
You are too tired because you didn’t sleep well last night?
OK, fair enough.
You don’t have time? That might be also true.
Systematically dismissing all excuses in order to change a mental habit doesn’t really work.
The brain will just find a way to come up with new ones. Before long, you are caught up in a circle of inventing excuses and dismissing them.
A better method would be to rank the validity of those excuses relative to each other. The bottom ones will just fall out, naturally. With the top ones, write down what you need to do to convert those excuses to action.
Not enough time? What do you need to do to make time?
Too tired from doing other important stuff first? What’s more important than your inner peace or your self-confidence?
Why this works: By converting your excuses into action, you are reversing the momentum of the inertia. It’s the motivation to act despite mental inertia that creates positive mental habits to counteract the bad ones.
3. Visualize a Place Where You Have Higher Regards for Yourself
Imagine a place where you go to mentally that is free of judgment from yourself and from the world.
Note how you feel when you are in this place.
What would it be like if you have the same feeling in the real world, where people are constantly stressed and out of synch with reality? Do you feel calm? Do you feel confident?
As Dan Gilbert pointed out in his book, “Stumbling on Happiness,” facts and reality have a way of prioritizing over imagination in your brain.
It’s a coping mechanism so that we don’t get lost in dreamland and endanger our lives.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t visualize yourself being completely calm and confident and slowly work toward becoming this person every day.
Eventually, no matter how many cold buckets of water reality hits you with, this calmness and serenity will be with you in the face of the greatest emotional turmoils.
Why this works: According to research using brain imagery, visualization works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement.
4. Sentence Completion Exercises
Sentence completion is when you start out with a particular sentence start (called a stem), and write a few endings at a time.
One example would be to start out with “if I acted with 5% more assertiveness today…” Then you would write 6 to 10 endings like “I would voice my opinion when I feel it is needed” or “I will tell her/him how I feel more often.”
Bar none, this method has been the most effective in my life.
I have noticed myself impulsively becoming more assertive in a fashion that I surprise myself.
My bad emotional habits are slowly melting away. I no longer feel dejected at any point in my day, I have more energy am I’m more productive than I’ve ever been.
This will work in any particular arena of your life, or it will just raise your self-esteem in general.
Dr. Nathaniel Branden, author of “Psychology of Self-Esteem” suggests some great examples on his website. You can find out more here.
Why this works: According to Dr. Branden, we all have subconscious parts of our minds that are constantly striving to grow and become more self-confident. Sentence completion activates these parts of our minds and gently nudge them into the direction of positive mental habits. This way, there is no rationalization and no resistance.
5. Routinely Perform Neurotic Emotional Self-Checks
I recently told one of my close friends that my life turned around when I identified neurotic tendencies in my behavior.
She laughed and said “we all do.”
That was very poignant to me, as I had already known that all of us possess some form and extent of it. However, hearing it from somebody whom I thought had her life so well figured out really made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.
Knowing that we do have neurotic beliefs that lead to bad emotional habits is step one.
Step two would be to catch them when they surface.
This takes an amazing amount of self-awareness, and perhaps some pain, but it’s so worth it. When you are able to stop yourself from acting on your neurotic impulses, they start to lose their powers over you. This is how you start to reassume control over your life instead of running from one urge to another.
When you have a strong urge to do something, ask yourself if the urge comes from a neurotic impulse or if it’s based on your true calling.
An easy way to tell is by asking yourself if you are doing this out of a negative or a positive emotional space. Are you doing it out of fear and anger, or out of love and altruism? Are you doing it out of a false sense of justice or out of a need to collaborate?
Why this works: Catching yourself exhibiting neurotic behaviors is the first step to self-awareness. Then you can work towards minimizing their emergence and the impact they have on your life.
6. Regularly See the Consequences of Your Bad Emotional Habits
I recently finished a book that is probably the most influential one in my personal development so far. It is called “Beyond Success and Failure,” and one of the most critical points mentioned in the book is this:
Perhaps the only way to get rid of your bad mental habit is to see their ultimate consequences.
Your unconscious brain does two things extremely well: it seeks pleasure and avoids pain.
As long as your emotional habit is tied to pleasure, you will perform it. When you tie it to particularly painful experiences, you will avoid it like the plague.
If an alcoholic wants to stop drinking, he can’t simply abstain from drinking altogether. This will only intensify his craving. He stops drinking when he comes face to face with the damage it causes to him when he loses control.
Seeing his life in shambles can be a strong motivator for quitting.
Why it works: Bad emotional habits, such as addictions, became habits when we once needed them in order to numb some painful experience. It’s also something we run to when things don’t go well in reality. To kick these habits once and for all, we have to come face to face with the low self-esteem they cause us. Then and only then the resolve to change becomes more powerful.
7. Make Yourself Visible by Seeing Yourself in 3rd Person
It’s too easy to lose yourself in this new information age.
You are constantly bombarded with new ideas about who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do. “Top 10 places to visit before you die.” “How to become even more successful,” etc. Buried underneath this mountain of information is the real you, who is striving to grow and has all the necessary tools to do so.
You simply have to become an observer of your reality. A few times a day, practice looking at yourself in 3rd person. Act as if it’s another person in your world who is very important. You’ll truly realize what you need to do, to actually make this person get the most out of this world.
A quick and easy way to do this is by setting reminders to yourself throughout the day. It allows you to snap out of whatever information trance you are being caught in.
Why this works: Throughout the struggle of life, the end goal is to actually be more visible to either what we perceive as value or what others perceive as value. We travel to exotic locations to post pictures about it to show off to our friends. We do this because we think that they value travel, relaxation, and beautiful sights, just like us. The conundrum is that when we seek to be visible to others, we become less visible to ourselves. This exercise makes us realize that if we are already visible to ourselves, by living out our values every day and every moment, there is no longer a need to be visible to others.
8. Practice Asking Yourself – What If I’m Wrong?
Just like many others, I’m full of ideas and thoughts about what the world should be like, and how I should fit into it.
For instance: “The world should be more open and friendly so it’s easier for me to be myself.”
Of course, anybody can tell me that this is a wrong notion. I ought to learn to project myself even when it seems dangerous and embarrassing to do so. But no one can hear my inner voice except for myself. That’s why I practice filtering every thought through the “what if I’m wrong” filter to identify bad emotional habits.
Most of the time, you are neither right nor wrong. Most thoughts are subjective. The benefit of training yourself to maintain this internal filter is that you are able to tip the subjective scale to your side.
If you start to have self-reproaching thoughts, you can put the brakes on them and turn them into positive thoughts. If you are driven by some emotion to react negatively to some matter, this becomes your cognitive reappraisal ability to change your perspectives on the fly. Such power cannot be understated.
Why this works: You will realize that it’s okay to be wrong. Being wrong has nothing to do with your self-confidence. Being able to correct yourself is instrumental in being connected to reality. The mark of a highly confident individual is not that they are secure inside their “box” of beliefs, but that they can escape from this “box” comfortably.
9. If You Are Stuck in an Emotional Rut, Change Your Environment and Your Physical State
Like most people, you will find yourself in an emotional rut at times. An emotional rut is characterized by having a thought or emotion that you just can’t shake. It haunts your every thought and if you try to think positively it ends up making it worse.
The larger issue might not be a mental state, but a physical state that you are in. The body has a specific way of letting you know it needs to move and create new experiences. When this happens, don’t even try to fight it mentally. Just attempt to change your physical environment by going for a walk outside, if possible.
I find that simply leaving my place to go somewhere else with a different ambiance (like a coffee shop or park), changes my mood pretty much instantaneously. My lust for life starts to fill my body and mind once again.
Why this works: Not matter how immediate and strong an emotion seems, it is always temporary. It’s the habits behind these emotions that keep them coming back, making them seem so important. The simple counter-balance act that you can perform is simply to put yourself in another place physically. Your brain receives two messages when you do this. First that you are capable of taking action in sprite of emotions and second that your perspective can always change. You condition your subconscious brain not to stay in one mental state and suffer, but to take the initiative, no matter how small, and change.
10. Feed Your Sense of Purpose
Purpose is the ultimate form of internal emotional manipulation. My purpose is to write and whenever I feel anxious, sad, or angry, it almost always replaces those feelings with positive ones.
The problem is that most of us don’t feed our sense of purpose habitually enough. We either do it only when we really need to or only when we force ourselves to. That way, the brain perceives this act as painful instead of pleasurable. We become emotionally starved of the one thing that can save us in the long run.
Make it a habit to do something throughout the day that gives you deep fulfillment. This deep fulfillment is your sense of purpose and it needs your attention to grow.
Why this works: Each of us has a unique set of values that we strive to adhere to. This drives us to live purposefully and truthfully. However, lacking the capacity to develop and realize these values, we seek it in others. We do this subconsciously through the emotionally dependent habits that we learned as children. We manipulate and get manipulated by others instead of focusing on changing our own habits and eventually becoming self-reliant. Unlike being emotionally dependent, which is simply a set of habits, emotionally independent people need intent behind these habits. They need to know that what they do, no matter how boring, painful, or difficult in the short term, has a long term value-realization goal behind it. This goal is a sense of purpose.
Bad emotional habits are a cry from our inner child that seeks to mature and make peace with the absurdity of the world around us.
We don’t need to be too harsh with the child.
We just need to acknowledge it’s existence and nurture it the way we would like to be nurtured.
Adopting the right habits can be an arduous task. If you want more structure and inspiration for that process, my ebook “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” can offer a lot of inspiration in that respect.
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This article was drafted by my good friend Quan and edited by me. All credit goes to him and his exceptional ideas.
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