I wrote this article originally about three months ago but simply haven’t found time to post it earlier. However, I’m happy to say that the method I used has worked long-term as well. The unconscious behavior remains completely gone.
NLP (short for Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is a funky tool to have. I stumbled on it couple years ago and have used some of the NLP techniques mainly to change certain aspects of my personality and overall turn myself into a happier, more social, and balanced guy to hang out with.
Some time ago I got my hands on the Anthony Robbins book Awaken the Giant Within. Ever since I saw him speaking in TED I’ve thought that the guy is quite obnoxious and has gotten to where he is by mainly taking advantage of the naive and gullible. However, Tim Brownson, a life coach and one of my favorite bloggers mentioned the book on his 20 best self development books list, and as I found it on a bookstore when visiting Kuala Lumpur I figured to give it a try.
I have to say that Robbins has a knack for taking the best tools from NLP and other areas of psychology, and making them easy for anyone to understand. He has also structured the book brilliantly, moving from basics of how we think and behave – and why we do what we do – into how to take conscious control of our emotional states.
Personally, though, the biggest and most mind-blowing impact the book has so far had is that with one of the techniques I was able to stop a behavior that has stuck with me for over 20 years: biting my fingernails.
It is something that I have been doing pretty much automatically, without conscious thought. Sometimes when I realize I am biting my nails I am able to stop it, but it requires quite a lot of willpower and conscious effort, and even more to keep from doing it again after a minute or two. Imagine blinking your eyes: You can blink consciously, but most of the time it happens automatically without you even noticing it. Biting, clawing, and tearing my fingernails was like that.
I believe the method I used to stop biting my nails can be applied to pretty much any other behavior. Maybe it’s getting angry, shouting at your spouse, or simply managing to get out of bed when the alarm rings instead of hitting the snooze button over and over again. And the best thing is that the behavior change is almost instant! It’s freaking hard to believe, but that’s how it works.
First of all, there are two things you need to know before we get to the actual behavior change:
1. Our brains are unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Functional MRI scans show that the same areas in our brain activate whether we sing or simply imagine singing. Study subjects who imagined training their leg muscles had equal strength gains than those who actually went to gym and did the same exercise.
2. Each and everyone of us has different emotional states we would do anything to avoid. Some people are extremely risk averse because being in a state of uncertainty causes them a great deal of pain and anxiety. In my case, I can’t stand guilt. I’m not very fond of public humiliation either, or feeling embarrassed.
The trick in destroying a behavior is to create a link between the behavior and one or more of the emotional states that cause you extreme pain. If you think about it, this is how we adapt new behaviors and get rid of others in real life as well.
When I was a kid I accidentally kicked a dirty football to a neighboring old lady’s window and ran to hide. Later the same day she found us kids and told us how she was too old to clean windows and how sad the dirt made her. I felt so bad, yet I was afraid to say it was me who did it. I’m fairly certain that my aversion to guilt stems from this very event, and consequently I have grown to try avoid guilt.
And this is how you kick the ass of that unwanted behavior:
Imagine, visualize, picture (or whatever verb you want to use) a situation where you are doing the behavior you want to stop. Imagine it as vividly as you can. Focus on the sounds, colors, what is happening, and especially the way you feel. Now, somehow your behavior causes you to feel one or more of the emotional states that are most painful to you. What happens exactly? Focus on the painful feeling and how it is YOUR doing . How your behavior CAUSED it.
After you have the situation nailed down in all the details, go through it again. And again. Do this multiple times a day over the next few days, and especially every time you think about the behavior or lapse and get closer to actually doing it. In effect what you are doing is creating a memory that is as real as any memory that actually happened, and a way more vivid and powerful than most of the stuff you encounter in your daily life.
Doing this probably sounds harder than it is, so as an example here’s how I stopped gnawing my fingers:
I pictured myself in a business meeting. There were some of my coworkers whom I hugely respect, as well as some client people and we were discussing a very important business deal.
My finger headed into my mouth and I took a bite (yummy!). At the exact same moment the discussion stopped. Everyone had their eyes on me. They looked at me mouths wide open, in disbelief. Some looked nauseous. A moment later one lady doubled over and vomited. The client people left the room, saying that no way our company would get the business. I had just fucked the whole thing up.
You can imagine how embarrassing this was, and how guilty it made me feel. Just writing the imagined situation here and re-experiencing it makes me feel awful and that is the whole point. It wouldn’t have the same effect if I had imagined someone in the room just say “please stop.” The memories and images that stick are of unusual events that invoke powerful emotions. Try to remember the last time you took a shower and then your first kiss. Notice any difference between the two?
Like I said, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is real what is imagined. What we experience in real life changes how we behave – especially the stuff that invokes powerful emotions. In this case you simply take charge and design the memory of an experience yourself.
My compulsive behavior stopped. In the rare occasions I entertain the thought of biting my nails or when my hand is close to my mouth, I don’t need to do anything but remember this vivid, extremely painful moment and biting my nails feels absolutely repulsive.
The whole process – imagining and experiencing the event – took only couple minutes. After that, I relived the event again a few times, and over the course of next few days I went through the memory every now and then. That’s all it took to stop a behavior that I hadn’t been able to get rid of despite trying bad tasting nail polishes, moisturizing creams, and sheer willpower.
Lastly, instead of simply getting rid of a behavior you may want to consider replacing it with a new one. In this case the process is somewhat reverse and you need to be well aware which emotional states make you feel extremely good: Imagine a situation where you would want to use the new behavior. Make the image again as vivid as possible. Then picture yourself behaving in this new way, and notice how good it makes you feel. Rinse and repeat :)