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The PPD: How Habits Work

Hopefully you have already spent some time tracking your pleaser habits of thinking and behaviour as well as keeping a Feelings Diary amongst other activities. Part of the reason why you do this, aside from increasing your self-awareness and self-knowledge, is to give you on the job training in understanding habits and how if it wasn't for the fact that you're now shining a light of awareness and curiosity on what you're doing, you'd have done a hell of a lot of this stuff without a great deal of conscious thought.

Those automated pleaser responses and your regular tendencies that you engage in – these are habits. This class is a crash course on habits so that you can apply the insights you gain to get a working knowledge of your own habits of thinking and behaviour.

It’s important for you to uncover why you do what you do and what prompts certain feelings and thoughts. When you're unconsciously responding to feelings with pleasing habits based on flawed beliefs as well as unconsciously engaging in habits that you've gotten used to using as a means of escaping your feelings and thoughts, you are unaware of how these habits amount to unconsciously and yes, in some instances consciously, looking to an external solution to solve your internal issues or to at the very least numb or give them a lift or ‘upper’. You're thinking about temporary relief, distraction, release etc., which is all well and good if it's healthy self-soothing but not so good if you do something that gives you temporary relief but then detracts from your sense of self.

In situations where your pleaser is activated, you’re not responding to your thoughts and feelings in a conscious manner because you typically default to what you know – you’re responding out of habit, not out of knowledge or reality.

The PPD addresses understanding yourhabits of thinking and behaviour so that you can neutralise the effect of anything that’s taking you away from who you are and causing you pain.

You also don’t want to be falling for the same con time and again and falling through the trapdoor of your own habits - The Disappointment Cycle.

By intervening on your ‘disappointment cycle’, you get to take more control of you and have an active response which means that you are more assertive, which means that you will be happier, which also means that you’re getting to be you as opposed to a sleepy puppet. You change the way you feel, you spend more time conscious, aware, and present, which affects your mental wellbeing. Awareness is the first step to becoming conscious enough to have active responses instead of passive ones.

Remember that just as much as being passive is a habit, so is being assertive, so you can, with awareness, repetition, and replacement, very much change your habits. It does take work but you’d be surprised how quickly you can feel the benefits plus adapting your habits has cumulative benefits – the more you do and the longer you do it for, is the more of a benefit you see but it also puts some reserves in your self-esteem bank so that when life’s inevitable bumps occur, you’re more robust for them as opposed to being exposed and feeling ill-equipped to do anything but what you typically do but that you know doesn’t work. Yep, guiding principles of PPD.

So, how do habits work?

Habits require a few things to get going. Cues, signals that you interpret as prompts to think, feel, or do something; triggers which are events that act as a catalyst for you to respond in some way, and of course the responses (thoughts, feelings, actions). All habits are fueled by repetition which may fit within a cycle. At first it may be more of an effort to respond in some way but over time, the more that you do it, the less willpower it involves.

Habits are hugely beneficial, simply because they automate huge chunks of our day. If we had to think out every last thing, we would be bloody exhausted.  There are parts of our every day habits that we do consciously and there are other aspects that are unconscious and/or automated.

When looking at your habits, it’s important to uncover your unconscious / automated habits and your conscious ones (where you make more conscious choices), as well as habits where there’s a mix of the two. Obviously you’re not looking to evaluate all of your habits – you need to evaluate the ones that you've identified as fueling your people pleasing habit. The great thing is that once you pull apart a couple of habits, it topples others that are connected to it like a house of cards. It brings the beliefs within them into question.

Many BR readers make conscious choices that are related to unconscious cues, triggers and responses that stem from poor self-soothing habits that likely originate in childhood. They have learned to soothe what they regard as difficult emotions and to resolve issues or at the very least distract themselves from them, by looking to external solutions. Now it’s not that on occasion we shouldn’t involve healthy third parties in our soothing because comfort, relationships romantic and otherwise, are an important part of our life.

The problems kick in when we’re excessively emotionally reliant on others in order to feel good and in order to deal with discomforts. The problems kick in when we have a low tolerance threshold for the uncertainty that comes with not being able to read people's minds or control them. 

When we have self-soothing issues, we may not recognise that we, for instance, may feel bored due to not knowing how to enjoy our own company, to occupy our time, or how to just sit with our feelings and then we consciously look to the person or thing that we typically rely on to chase the feeling away and occupy them. This takes away their responsibility.

Cues and triggers need a few things in order to have meaning to you.

Associations – the links that you make with certain feelings, situations, thoughts, actions, conditions, images, smells, words, sounds etc.

You have positive and negative associations that impact how you’re highly likely to respond. Without you realising it, your brain quickly works out whether you’ve experienced similar before and checks your mental database. As a Pleaser, when you’re confronted with a typical pleaser activating situation, you go into your default modes of being compliant and pleasing.

Your mental database may flag up that there’s a difference between what you hold on file and a current situation, which may prompt you to feel uneasy, confused, full of self-doubt, confident etc. You might then look for other cues and triggers to give you the green light to respond in your typical manner.

Your associations have beliefs, assumptions, and expectations behind them (you can learn more about these in the positive and negative association classes) and of course experiences that inform your perception as well as repetition of the responses.

With learning new habits, there’s always a tipping point where things seem to slot into place.

For example, when I started smoking as a teen trying to fit in, I didn't take to it like a duck to water and in fact didn't like it for ages. Then at some point I did. Equally though when I gave up smoking, it felt unusual not to have a glass of wine and a fag in my hand when I was in the pub (or when I was at a bus stop and other typical smoking haunts) but eventually I got used to it.

Your cues, triggers, and responses have been taught to you by you and others, likely the people you’ve spent the most amount of time around – family and caregivers, as well as anybody linked to any significant experience that impacted your perspective.  If we teach a young child the cues, triggers, and responses for, for example, using the toilet, we (and they) are learning through repetition and training that these are the correct cues, triggers, and responses.

Now this is all well and good with any habit that benefits us – useful, healthy, enjoyable etc – but not so good if we’re learning unhealthy responses as correct and not knowing that they’re unhealthy. Or knowing that there are alternative responses and that the way that another person such as a parent is responding is unhealthy, but gradually being taught or teaching yourself that unhealthy or not, it’s the ‘right’, ‘best’ or ‘only’ thing to do. He-llo people pleasing.

Habits work off a lot of assumptions – they don’t need facts. They are cycles of assuming X + Y = Z or assuming that if certain conditions and criteria are met, that we should respond in a certain way. What we don’t always allow for is considering whether we’re looking at enough conditions and criteria in the first place.

For instance, if each time a person feels bored, lonely, stressed, or down, they reach for alcohol, drugs, call an ex, berate themselves or something, they’re not looking at the origins of what they feel or even whether what they say that they feel is correct or whether the response is the most appropriate. By ‘correct’, this means accurate labeling. Many smokers respond to feelings of hunger, boredom, stress, and tiredness with a cigarette. Because the habit has been repeated so often, the cues are no longer picked up as hunger, stress etc and are instead picked up as ‘Need a ciggie.’

As a people pleaser, some of your cues are guilt, a sense of obligation, uncertainty, admiration, tension, status, authority, and appearance.

Some of your triggers are requests from others,  hostile situations, being needed, problems that give you a purpose, disappointment, loss, embarrassment, stress, loneliness.

Cues tend to be more subtle – they’re feelings, things that you sense, and the correlating stemming from your associations. You tend to have more subtle responses to cues whereas with triggers, you tend to feel triggered or activated into something and so your response is likely to feel or look stronger.

Triggers tend  be more direct and linked to specific events – something happened, something was said, a memory, smell, dates, anniversaries, strong feelings and sensations, etc. Even though you may have a strong response, you may not be aware that your trigger is a trigger or that your response is linked to that trigger. If you’ve reacted in what you came to regard as disproportionate, when you were in a conflict, it may be because you weren’t reacting to the specific conflict and instead, maybe the nature of the conflict or something that was said, or how you felt prompted a strong reaction. For instance, criticism or perceived judgement would trigger me into being super defensive.

All codependent and unhealthy relationship patterns are the result of not knowing that your cues and trigger are your cues and triggers for unhealthy responses, or not recognising that the response is unhealthy, or that you may be responding to the past due to trying to fill voids or right the wrongs of the past.

When you have unhealthy habits, you get caught up in The Disappointment Cycle. It’s not too dissimilar to gambling and it relies on short-term thinking. In fact all unhealthy habits of thinking and behaviour rely on the person seeking instant gratification or living in the short-term.

People pleasing is an example of this cycle. You’ve experienced some ‘wins’ from your behaviour and outlook so you keep hoping to increase your success and win big.  You gamble with your sense of self by suppressing you and you keep pleasing because you hope that the person in question will respond in the way that you would like so that you could experience the reward that you perceive their response to be linked to. Hence, they do X and you take this as your cue or trigger to feel or think something, which may prompt you to feel or think something else, until it prompts some sort of action.

So in the illustration below, you have an event (the starting point of your cycle 'SP') and then you think, feel, and/or action something (T F & A) then because of your predictions and expectations you experience hope and the underlying desire for the reward, which triggers more responses (T F & A), then you eventually have a 'big action' (like agreeing to meet up with the shady ex that's got back in touch again with plenty of pleasing thrown in for good measure), more TFA, then you experience the fallout/downside, more TFA followed by disappointment which reinforces your beliefs followed by more TFA then back on the cycle again. And lather, rinse, repeat. That, my dears, is the cornerstone of every unhealthy relationship cycle.

The Disappointment Cycle

You get back on this Disappointment Cycle because you're gambling that you’re going to experience your desired outcome. This time.

If you keep believing that because you responded as you did that they should have done _________, you will wonder what went wrong and question whether you should try again. It may be that you have responded this way with another ex who responded in a particular way so you expected success. It may be that you assume and believe that when people do X that you should experience Z outcome, and so you will feel baffled by it not working out, even though the truth is that you are treating the assumptions that fuel the associations that fuel the responses, as if they are fact. This is how a person keeps carrying the same baggage, beliefs and behaviours, choosing similar people, and yet expecting a different result and wondering why not. It’s relationship insanity but it’s also bad habits.

The key to adapting/replacing unhealthy habits is awareness and opening your mind up to challenging what you believe to be correct. You also have to have a reason to change a habit that you’re willing to back because otherwise, you will quickly tire of changing it and will lack the incentive because you don’t see the benefit or recognise the true consequences of continuing. Often understanding why you do what you do is very empowering. I procrastinate out of fear of failure and it stems from being a child who felt like they had to please, perform, and never put a foot wrong. As an adult, deadlines, that sense of being close to finishing something, feeling overwhelmed – these are all triggers for me to procrastinate and to have pleaser anxieties about getting it wrong.

Practicing new habits with a mix of repetition, recognising the cues, and making new associations is how you teach you and your mind new ‘routes’. Your mind doesn’t decide the route on its own – you are the one that teaches it the habits hence you’re the one to make the changes. Being conscious and increasingly self-aware makes it much easier to ‘train’ you. That and being receptive.

By recognising your cues and triggers, or how frustrating you find your responses, you can listen to you and look at how you could respond in a way that respects and represents you. You have to question the logic of what you do – When I finally gave up smoking back in April 2001 after several previous failed attempts, what I had on my side was knowing why I smoked, why I feared stopping smoking, the mounting costs, and my own support. It was the same with No Contact – once I could see the pattern of my habits, I could see our cycle all too clearly including recognising that to try again would be to throw myself into oncoming traffic and then being surprised that I got run down.

Habits (like a PPD) take more willpower at the outset but they hog up less resources as you go along. If you find that you’re trying to start a new habit and yet after a significant period of time (more than a few weeks), you find that you’re using the same or even more willpower, not only are you likely to cave and regress but you also need to recognise what it is that you’re fighting against within you and address the beliefs so that you can help you to be successful at making the changes.

If you keep doing things in the same way then you’re going to end up with the same, similar, or even worse results. The great thing is that you're actively working on changing this.

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