Tag Archives: growth

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Becoming a Better Man: How to Learn a New Skill

The first car I bought in college cost me $250. It was a ’77 Lincoln Continental. I knew almost nothing about cars, or I probably wouldn’t have bought it. It was rusty, barely ran, and blew such a large cloud of smoke when it started that a friend commented to me that she could see it from across campus. The first time it broke down was about 15 minutes after I paid for it. It was not the last time. Keeping the Continental running soon became a full-time hobby. The biggest problem with this hobby was that I had no idea what I was doing. I had spent almost no time using tools; I didn’t know that my Lincoln had a V-8 engine, and when I looked under the hood of my rusty old car, all I saw was a scary mess. However, my budget (or lack thereof) and my jalopy forced me to take action. I started out by tuning up the car. This meant buying a Haynes manual (a car fixing book) and borrowing some tools. Over the next several years, I read every repair book I could find and I asked questions of anyone who I could find who knew anything I didn’t. My uncles, other students, my philosophy professor, and the guy at the auto parts store all reached a point where they rolled their eyes at the words: “I have a quick question about cars…” Within a year, I was making extra money doing minor repairs to other students’ vehicles. In the 20 years since, this skill has served me more times than I can count. Now, it is a relative rarity for me to pay a mechanic. 

This is one of several skills I’ve acquired over the years, which are purely a product of deciding I want to do it and then applying myself to learning. These skills range from mechanical to computer related talents to relationship skills, and many others. We live in an era where knowledge is easily acquired and is often free. Very little is more fulfilling to a man than learning to take on a problem themselves and then doing it. Solving problems yourself is satisfying and confidence building. I can think of very little in life that feels better than saying: “I got this” and it actually being true. A basic part of becoming a better man is incremental growth through ongoing study and effort. Along the way, I’ve figured out a handful of basic tips that can be applied to the process of acquiring a new skill:

  • Read and ask questions. The great thing about knowledge is that it’s easily acquired by reading books. Libraries, the internet, and bookstores are easily accessible and serve as a wellspring for almost every area of learning. I learned more about how cars work by reading the diagnostic pages of the repair manual than from anyone I have ever asked. This truth isn’t limited to fixing cars. I learned to BBQ ribs, build a campfire, clean fish, aim a rifle, and a dozen other skills by reading books. Further, most folks who have knowledge are happy to share it. Asking questions of folks who know what they are talking about is a great shortcut. The great thing about the time we live in is that the Internet can connect you to experts all over the world, who gather on discussion boards. Further, YouTube offers all sorts of instructional videos on subjects ranging from plumbing to cars to cooking to anything else you can think up. 
  • Don’t be intimidated or work through it when you are. Cars scared the heck out of me when I started. Taking things apart was even worse. I found that diving in was the best way attack the problem. The problem I’ve seen in myself and other novices is the fear of just getting started. Self doubt and worry blocks the path. However, most of those fears are baseless. In 20 years, I can think of only a handful of instances in which I wrecked something because I took it apart when I shouldn’t have. 
  • Be patient. The biggest issues I’ve encountered in learning a new skill is when I get ahead of myself. You can’t expect to be an expert immediately and attacking a project without understanding everything involved can create a lot of headaches. Before starting anything new I make it a point to read and study everything I can find. Reading all the steps first is a great way to avoid those sorts of “uh-oh” moments. Practice is the pathway to expertise.
  • Take notes. My first tune up taught me not to take things apart without making note of how to put it back together again. Since then, I’ve labeled everything, drawn diagrams, taken notes, and photographed everything. A picture makes it much easier to remember which wires go where. Relying on your memory when working in unfamiliar territory is a bad idea. This is especially easy with large projects. It’s easy to forget little details in the middle of a complicated task. 
  • Don’t limit yourself. It’s easy to limit this process to purely mechanical skills. This is simply not the case. A few years ago I decided to needed to step up my game as a husband and father. A couple dozen books on the subject have made me a better man in these areas. Most of my graduate school experience was done through distance learning. Essentially, this means I learned almost everything through reading books and asking questions. You can learn anything through reading and study. I often have folks ask me how they can understand the Bible better, I invariably tell them to read it. Sometimes I give them a couple of guidebooks to move them on their way. 
  • Reading the RIGHT books is essential. Setting out to learn theology by picking up an advanced textbook written for doctoral level theologians might not help, largely because you won’t understand it. Reading a motorcycle repair manual to fix your Honda Civic will likely be of little aid. Find the right material before you start. I have found that most folks will willingly point you in the right direction if you ask. In addition, Amazon searches and book reviews will give you some great hints regarding what level of student a book is meant to help. Finally, if you start on a book that’s too advanced for you, put it down and read a different one. It’s easy to get frustrated and quit, but you’ll gain nothing by doing this. 

The biggest thing to remember is that all education is an incremental journey. We learn to read over the course of several years as children. We learn to walk, only after mastering sitting up and crawling. Anything can be learned if you are willing to put in the work needed to learn it. Any skill you have is a skill you can teach to someone else. 

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