Welcome to Episode 34. This is Kristi Angevine, and today you’re going to learn why you can’t use shame or self-criticism to change your habits and what to do instead.
Welcome to Habits on Purpose, a podcast for high achieving women who want to create lifelong habits that give more than they take. You’ll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that’ll help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel and act as you do. And now here is your host, physician and Master Certified life coach, Kristi Angevine.
Hello, hello everyone. Here in Oregon the weather is shifting from warm and summery to fall and cool. But currently we’re still in the thick of fire season. So instead of things like mosquitos or humidity like I was used to in the southeast, here there’s drought, smoke, and wildfires. Thankfully unlike some communities adjacent to us we personally are not dealing directly with fires at the moment, just with the smoke from the wildfires.
Now, not being someone who grew up with this around me this is new to me. And one of the things that I find myself doing is checking the Air Quality Index to know, can we walk to school? Is it okay to exercise outdoors? Will soccer practice be cancelled, etc.? But one thing I’ve realized is the act of checking the air quality is an act that can actually be extrapolated to a similar practice when it comes to habits. So, check this out.
When I’m checking the AQI my questions are, what is the Air Quality Index? How might that affect my activities today? How might that change my day? And what adjustments do I need to make to the plan that I previously made? A similar check-in with a focus on your habits is also really useful. So, before we dive into the topic for today I’m going to give you a really quick and useful check-in process that you can use for your habits. So just like my questions about the AQI you can ask yourself the following.
Number one. What are my mental, emotional, social, menstrual, physical conditions today or this week?
Number two. How might these things change my approach to the habits that I’m currently working on?
Number three. What adjustments to my plan might be practical and useful?
With these three simple questions you can take into account quality of sleep, the weather, if you have ovaries or menstruate you can take into account where you are in your menstrual or hormonal cycle. You can take into account how your partner is doing mentally and emotionally, stressors that your kids might have, community news, community events. And with this information you can engage the parts of you that like to be strategic and to plan. And you can make any helpful changes that are relevant to what you’re doing when it comes to changing your habits.
Let me give you a scenario. Perhaps you’re working on making exercise a habit and prioritizing reading, and maybe having more one-on-one time with your partner. But then your kid gets sick and no one in your house got good sleep. You’re also about a week before your period and you’re feeling emotionally a bit labile, maybe a little sensitive. So, knowing this and knowing that when you’re tired and you’ve got PMS that you actually do so much better when you give yourself some grace instead of just pushing through.
You might change that peloton interval class to an hour where you just go for a slow walk while you listen to a book. And then you might decide to communicate to your partner that maybe date night this week isn’t going to be dinner out but you’re just going to cuddle up in front of a movie at home. So, the three questions that you can ask either on a daily or a weekly basis are as follows.
Number one. What are the mental, emotional, social, menstrual, physical conditions today or this week?
Number two. How might they change my approach to the habits that I’m working on?
And number three. What adjustments to my plan might be practical?
Now, let’s shift to the main topic of today’s episode. And at the end we’re going to come full circle to how you can integrate these questions I just gave you into the topic at hand. To change any habit, you must understand what that habit is solving for. What challenge or problem do your habits provide the solution for? This idea applies to absolutely every habit. Maybe for you it’s a mindset like I have to always be productive in order to feel worthy.
Or maybe it’s a recurrent emotional response. Take for example, guilt in the face of someone else’s disappointment if you say no or if a plan changes. Or maybe it’s behaviors like zoning out with scrolling social media for hours, or overdrinking, overeating, compulsive shopping for things you don’t need. Can you relate to any of these habits? To make a lasting change with a habit it is absolutely essential that you understand what that habit solves for. So, let’s unpack and explore this together.
My assertion here is that every habit we have has a damn good reason that it exists and perpetuates. That is to say each, and every habit serves a purpose, even if we don’t like that habit, even if we don’t like the consequences of that habit. Even if there’s weight that we gain, a groggy hangover, the stress after we’re cranky from yelling at our kids, or the exhaustion of people pleasing at the expense of our own self-care. Each and every habit on some level serves some purpose.
And it’s my view that universally behind every habit we have there is a positive intention. Now, if we don’t take the time to learn what that good intention is, trying to change a habit is going to go at the pace of an ambivalent snail with a heavy shell. And if you’re anything like me, I don’t want things to take longer than is necessary.
As some of you may have read on Facebook I recently had a four year anniversary for a health scare. I call it my ICD anniversary. An ICD is Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator. Basically, a tiny device that’s about 2 x 2½ inches and it sits under my skin below my left clavicle. And it has leads that go to my heart and it will deliver a shock if I go into a dangerous heart rhythm. I had it placed after having a syncopal event. Basically a few hours after coming home from camping in the middle of nowhere with my family I passed out and hit the floor in my kitchen.
And thankfully my husband as a retired ICU nurse was great about keeping his wits about him and promptly called 911. And thankfully this didn’t happen while we were camping in the middle of nowhere or gosh forbid while I was driving. Ultimately I found out that I have what’s called apical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. And for the non-medical listeners it’s just a thickening of the apex of the heart that makes you prone to having rhythm changes or arrhythmias.
And it wasn’t a total surprise to me since my dad has had some similar but much more complicated things happen with his heart. So, I ended up spending a few days in the hospital and my sweet partners at my practice covered my surgery and my clinic schedule. And I left the hospital with my ICD. So, this is just my way of saying that thanks to that experience as well as to just the general awareness of mortality of humans that you get from working in medicine that I’m acutely aware that every day could be my last day.
And I really don’t want to faff about with ineffective actions when it comes to changing habits. So, if you want to be efficient with habit change and if every habit has a positive intent like I’m saying then to change a habit you need to deeply understand what your habit is solving for, what its purpose is and what the positive intent is. So how the heck do you do this? Well, there are two parts. First of all, you have to recognize that shaming, and self-criticism, and strongarming yourself to try to change your habits will never work for sustainable change.
And number two, you must identify the positive intent that’s hidden inside your habits. And to do this you need to engage in a curious friendly form of self-inquiry that’s aimed at discovering what your habits are solving for. So let me expand on both of these points. First of all, shaming self-criticism and strongarming yourself do not work for sustainable habit change. Now, this may not initially land for you or make sense to you especially if you have spent a lot of time using self-criticism as a way to motivate you to doing excellent quality work.
It may also not make sense to you if you were on the receiving end of shaming and criticism as a child. These particular techniques are very common and temporarily very effective for behavior modification when they’re used by caretakers and parents towards young children.
However, these techniques also have what I consider very undesirable long term consequences where they burden a child who then becomes an adult, and they are burdened with a sense of shame or inadequacy. Now, when it comes to adults looking to change a habit, when we try these same tactics on ourselves, shaming ourselves, criticizing ourselves or strongarming ourself towards change it actually looks like things like beating ourself up, telling ourselves that we shouldn’t have a habit that we have.
Telling ourselves there’s something wrong with me, we’re trying to use willpower to control our desires for food, shopping, alcohol, surfing the internet. It also might look like an effort to silence or banish the inner critic that drives perfectionism or being busy all the time. And as you hear these you might recognize that you do some of these. But using these approaches, criticism, shame, and willpower does not ever work for the long term and let me explain why.
Think about it like this. Have you ever been to a meeting where you get the feeling or you got an explicit message that your point of view did not matter or worse, that your perspective was wrong, unwelcome and you should frankly just be quiet? I want you to take a minute to just imagine this meeting where other people thought it would be better if you were just quiet, you kept your ideas to yourself and you just went along with the group. Experiencing this in general can feel awful.
In the moment you might respond with anger, or you might freeze, shut down, withdraw, feel discouraged. You might make it mean there’s something wrong with you. And you might find that to be so painful that you squash this emotional discomfort down and maybe plaster on a fake smile, be diplomatic. And then later after the meeting vent to a friend, get a drink, smoke something, eat a box of thin mints or all of the above. Bottom line, when we feel shamed, attacked, rejected, told that we should be quiet by other people it can feel really terrible.
So, if we take this meeting example and apply it to how we treat ourselves and how we think of our own habits then if we shame ourselves, if we shame our habits, if we criticize ourselves for how we think, and feel, and act, if we essentially reject ourselves and make ourselves wrong we are going to feel terrible. And when we feel terrible this is not a great place from which to change a habit. Telling yourself, I’m so sick of myself always overdoing it, what kind of loser eats so much, drinks so much, doesn’t keep her word, stays up so late, yells at her kids?
What kind of mom dreads bath time? What kind of mom gets so snippy and irritated? What’s wrong with me that I’m so hard on myself, that I procrastinate, that I can’t be as put together as so and so, that it takes so long to do something so simple? When you tell yourself that you simply make yourself feel terrible. So, when we shame the part of us that has a bad habit it might temporarily inspire a brief burst of action where we temporarily stop drinking, or stop scrolling on our phone for a week or two.
But eventually the shame fades and the determination for change goes away and the habit just returns. And this is because the habit has a role. It has a role in your overall system and serves a purpose. It solves for something that you don’t quite yet understand. And this is how ultimately shaming yourself, making yourself wrong for a habit does nothing but make the habit more entrenched.
So now let’s talk a little bit about why a different approach is so much more effective. And then I’ll explain exactly how you can start doing it. So instead of the meeting example, this time I want you to think about a time when you have felt deeply seen, heard, and understood. Maybe it was when you were with a group of colleagues, or friends and you heard someone say, “I totally hear where you’re coming from. That makes perfect sense, I get it.”
Maybe it was in a group coaching session where after you said what you were going through someone else speaks up and said, “I could have shared the exact same things, that’s my exact same experience. Thank you so much to putting to words what I experienced but didn’t know how to articulate.” How do you feel when you are deeply heard and understood? For me it’s a combination of things. But generally, I feel less alone. I feel more connected. I feel acknowledged, reassured, and encouraged and I might even feel a sense of self-confidence that was not there beforehand.
Feeling seen, heard, and understood by others is really powerful. So, in contrast to feeling criticized and strongarmed when you can create the feeling internally of feeling acknowledgement, and acceptance, and understanding. Think about how much easier it’s going to be to take action towards a goal, towards changing a habit. When we feel encouraged, less alone, and confident it is so much easier to do everything, especially establish new habits.
Versus when we feel a low level hum of discouragement, shame and defeat it takes enormous energy to do anything. So shaming, self-criticism and strongarming do not work for long term habit change. Now, since every habit has a purpose, a positive intent, and solves for something, let’s elaborate on exactly how you identify these things. It’s my opinion that when you approach a habit change by deeply understanding why a habit has made sense, you will not have to work so hard against the habit.
Now, what I’m going to do now is I’m going to outline a technique that draws on the wisdom of internal family systems therapy. And I’m going to go over the steps in general terms and then I’m going to give you a specific example of what it might look like. So, to do this exercise I recommend that you get a pen and paper, or a computer that you like to type on, or simply just go to someplace that is quiet where you can reflect. The whole exercise takes about 15 to 20 minutes, or you can extend it further if you want to.
The first thing you do is you focus on one habit. And to do this you want to focus on one habit at a time. Next you picture yourself doing that habit or if you like that film called Inside Out which by the way if you haven’t seen it, even though it is geared towards children and it’s an animated feature, you should definitely go watch it, it’s an excellent film. But if you like that film, picture the part of you or the character version of you that’s in charge of that habit.
And I find it helps to imagine myself and the part of me that does this habit being two distinct entities. And to imagine that there are two distinct people sitting down and having a conversation. And just picturing this helps me get some distance and perspective. The next step is this, notice how you feel towards the part of you that does that habit in question. Maybe you feel annoyed, or irritated, embarrassed, angry. You don’t need to change how you feel toward it but just take note of these emotional responses.
If you have pen and paper you can write them each down. You can map them out with little circles, however it works well for you. Or you can just mentally keep track of them. And once you notice all of the ways that you feel toward that part of you that does this habit, see if you can ask all of the emotions that are not in the realm of compassion, or curiosity, or warmth, to pull back a little. And to do this you can picture that all the emotions are individual characters or people in a meeting.
And you’re essentially asking if they don’t mind, to just hold their comments for later. You’re not asking them to go away, or to be quiet forever, you’re just asking them to step back and give you a little space so that you can get to know the aspect of you that performs the habit in question. Now, if these different emotional responses, these different parts of you agree and you can then tap into, it feels like a modicum of curiosity, or warmth, or compassion.
Then simply turn your attention back towards that part of you that does the habit, just like you would turn to resume talking to someone externally. And then you’re going to ask one or all of the following questions. You’re going to ask, why do you do x, y, z habit? Or another way to phrase it is, what do you want me to know about why you do this habit? What does doing this habit solve for? What’s the purpose of doing this habit? Now, once you ask one or all of these questions, just sit back and listen for the answers that come to you from that distinct part of you that does the habit.
Don’t think of the answer, just wait for the answer to come to you. And you may be surprised at what answer actually comes back. Now, I’m going to make a little sidenote here because you might be thinking, this sounds a little crazy. Am I going to be talking to myself in a way that meets some DSM criteria for a pathologic diagnosis? Isn’t a bad thing to hear voices? Let me just reassure you that hearing voices and I’m doing air quotes, hearing voices is the pathologizing way of looking at the very nature of how we think anyways.
It’s why we say things like, “Well, a part of me wants to go to the party. Another part of me hates parties. And another part of me just wants to be a hermit at home with a book and a blanket.” What we learn from the internal family systems paradigm is that our natural state, the way that we think, the way that our mind works is actually a multiplicity and a very complex system of different parts relating to one another.
So, when you do an exercise like this and you engage in this very specific type of dialog, you are actually deliberately and explicitly looking at different parts or different aspects of yourself as distinct entities or subpersonalities. And when you open yourself up to this process you’re most likely going to be quite surprised and possibly delighted by what you actually hear and learn when you listen to yourself like you would listen to another person. Now, let’s backup a little bit.
Say that you actually can’t tap into a shred of warmth, compassion, curiosity, calm, and your main emotion when you think about how you feel towards this part of you that does this habit is really irritated, or really angry, or really embarrassed. This does not mean that you cannot do this exercise. It just means that there’s a new direction and a new focus for your conversation.
So instead of asking those questions that I just listed off, instead of asking those questions to the part of you that does the habit, you get to ask them to the most staunch emotion that is not interested in giving you some space. So here is an example of what this whole thing might actually sound like. Say I want to better understand why I procrastinate with organizing the papers in my office. So, I would first bring to mind a time that I delayed doing it.
And I would picture the part of me that procrastinated by sitting down and reading a book or going and emptying the dishwasher instead of focusing on that pile of papers. After I bring that to mind then I would check-in to see how I feel toward that part of me that did the dishes or read a book instead of focusing on the papers. And at first I might notice that I’m kind of perturbed. This part of me is annoyed that I did that. So internally I would say, “Okay, it makes sense. I have a part of me that’s perturbed. It’s not unreasonable to be perturbed.”
And sometimes I’ll even picture that this perturbed part is another distinct character, maybe even play around with it. And I might picture, this is one that carries a clipboard, and furrows its brow, and it might even resemble some old school librarian walking around the library telling people to be quiet and fiercely shushing them. And once I bring this to mind I would just ask inside if this annoyed part, this part that’s perturbed, would be willing to pull back a little bit so I could get to know the part of me that procrastinates.
And if this part does pull back and give me a little space then I will check-in again and see now how am I feeling toward the part of me that procrastinates? And I might notice that I feel a little bit warmer, a little bit sympathetic towards it. I might even kind of wonder, why when I really want these papers organized, that this part of me prefers to avoid it. So here I would notice it, I have just a little bit, I have enough compassion and curiosity to go on to ask those questions.
So, ask this part, “Why do you procrastinate?” Or, “What do you want me to know about why you do that and why you go read the book and do the dishes instead of the papers?” Or I might just cut to the chase and say, “What does the procrastinating solve for?” And then I would listen. And when I listen I might hear something like, “Once I start the papers, I don’t know how long it’s going to take, what are the projects I’m going to unearth, I’m going to get behind on everything else, it’s going to be messier than before. And then I’m going to have extra messes to clean up.
So, if I just read or I do the dishes at least I’m doing something that has predictable results.” And now after hearing that I have some useful information about this habit. I now realize that the part of me that avoids office paper organization by unloading the dishwasher or sitting down and reading a book does this because it doesn’t want to get behind. It doesn’t want to make things messier. The habit of procrastinating isn’t from laziness but from a desire for order and predictability.
Can you see how I now understand the purpose and the positive intent behind procrastination at least for this office paper example? Let me just go back and comment on what would happen if the part of me that felt really perturbed towards the part of me that procrastinates, wasn’t willing to step back and give a little space, what I would do. So, in that case I would recognize, okay, I have essentially another person at this meeting that really is calling for some attention.
And so, what I’m going to do is I’m going to then see, how do I feel towards that part of me that’s perturbed? And once I can get to a place where I can feel some compassion, or curiosity, or warmth, then I’m just going to ask those questions to that part. And that might sound like, what do you want me to know about why you’re so perturbed about this part that procrastinates? Or, what does being perturbed help with, what’s the purpose of it?
And then just like I did before, I would listen to whatever this part has to say. So just take it full circle back to the Air Quality Index example and the mental, emotional check-in questions that I mentioned at the beginning. Once I go through this exercise and I learn more about what purpose for this example, procrastination serves. I can then ask, given what I just learned, what adjustments might I make? When approaching organizing office papers maybe I could set a timer past which I won’t work.
And then I can build in 15 minutes at the end to make just a quick list of tasks that might need to be added to the calendar for another day. And I could set myself up with a folder and a bin where I could place the papers that I couldn’t quite finish organizing into a very finite area so that there’s actually not a bigger mess when the time is up. So, this whole process can be done with any habit, and it can be done no matter how you feel towards the part of you that does that habit.
So let me sum this up. Ultimately all of our habits are solutions for something. All of our habits have a positive intention infused in them even if it’s completely not obvious on first pass. When we shame, and criticize, and try to strongarm ourselves to change our habits, this will never work. But what does work are using really compassionate open conversations that elicit the purpose behind a given habit.
So, I encourage you to try this in the next few days and then let me know what you discover. You can share this in the Habits on Purpose Facebook group, or you can find me on Instagram @kristi.angevine. And if you want help, this is one of the approaches that I use with my private and group coaching clients. And I find it to be tremendously revealing and powerful for changing any habit. The current Habits on Purpose for Physicians group coaching program is enrolling now.
And if you’re a physician who identifies as female, it would be an honor to have you join us. So, if you listened to the episode today and thought how you would like help doing the work that I discussed, how to practically in real life actually change your approach to your habits so you can change your habits for life, you’re going to want to join my small group coaching program that starts in October.
The Habits On Purpose for Physicians Small Group coaching is an intimate six-month coaching program for female identifying physicians who want to better understand why they do what they do, so they can be more intentional with this one precious life we have. The Habits on Purpose for Physicians or HOPP program comes with CME, and it's capped at 30 women, so once enrollment fills, you won't be able to start until the next round.
So, to sign up go to habitsonpurpose.com and at the very top of the page you will see where you can get all the details to sign up. And if you’re not a physician but you’re interested in this type of coaching I have something in the works, something that I’m preparing that I think that you are going to really, really love. So, stay tuned. I'll see you in the next episode.
Thanks for listening to Habits On Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit www.habitsonpurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.