Breaking a Bad Habit

Breaking a Bad Habit

I’ve spoken before in various ways about shifting out of our habitual response to life. We tend to resist what we don’t want, including what is arising from inside ourselves. While this is a subjective trick to avoid experiencing something, it is quite ineffective. Instead of resolving, the issue festers and grows

In this TED talk from 2015, Judson Brewer talks about how to break a bad habit by shifting our approach to it. We move out of fighting it into simple curious noticing.


In the talk, he emphasizes the role of positive and negative reinforcement and how they’re tied into our survival response. And then how we learn to apply that reward system to handle our emotions, leading us into issues like smoking and over-eating. Even if the habits are killing us, they’re tied to the primitive brain and survival. This is part of why they’re so hard to break.

But rather than fighting our response, he suggests working with it. This means we allow the behaviour to arise but focus instead on being curious – curious about what it’s like when you engage your habit. Then you can experience viscerally what it’s like, become disenchanted, and let the habit go in time. No force required.

He describes this as a willingness to turn toward our experience rather than pushing away the unpleasant. He notes that curiosity itself is pleasant, making it easier to engage.

Judson also mentions how the cognitive brain is the first to go off-line when we’re stressed. This means that no matter how well we understand that a behaviour is bad for us, it will continue to be triggered and reinforced by our more basic reward centers.

He talked about how body sensations come and go but there’s a trick in there he misses. Attention on the sensations can help resolve them, along with repressed emotions that may be reinforcing a habit. That is a key part of this process in my books.

I also suggest noticing responses as they arise rather than going on a hunt for them. Some people get a little obsessed with “fixing” themselves and practice techniques almost constantly. This impedes living your life here and now.

I would also add that this approach can only work if there is sufficient presence already established so we can observe the habit behaviour. If we’re quite entangled, there will be insufficient “space” for the curiosity and observation to take place in. That’s where the importance of transcendence comes in – to develop presence and act as a general disentangler.

“Feel the joy of letting go…”


Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.


  1. Tim Owens

    This reminds me of the remarkable genius of Alcoholics Anonymous. New members are treated to “speakers’ meetings” and listen to descriptions of other people’s history of addiction. These descriptions allow a person to engage in a kind of detached, third person experience of their own inner reality. As the new member experiences repeated descriptions of the common features of addictive behavior, he or she can begin to progressively separate from the obsessive behaviors that trapped them.

    1. Hi TO
      Yes, it’s common for people to think their experience is different and difficult. When they discover others have been through it, it makes it more OK and then we can step back from it a bit. Interesting AA uses this. Quite a few other programs are based on AA’s approach.

  2. Jim

    Good advice. Thank you. Nothing will come of opposing something, except opposition, and the growth of same.

    Moderation with pretty much everything, works. Along with the absolute necessity of transcending reliably and regularly, the difference being like trying to swim in one’s bathtub, vs. the ocean. The former is impossible, the latter, effortless.

    As you say, listening to oneself is critical. Not something to do wholly with the mind, but cultured over time, a dynamic reflection of our total and growing intelligence, informing us through intuition, integrated with action, and leading to wisdom.

  3. K

    Yes the ocean analogy is nice because I encode presence as “capacity” – perhaps I don’t fully understand what presence is but for me it is a capacity to co-exist with the discomfort and look at it. Like the the old Indian two birds on a tree analogy. And then feel the discomfort as it flows – it is kind of like physical pain – when I was young I had no tolerance for physical pain but as an adult I am able to accept it and deal with it. David – I think you have posted on cultivating presence in the past via effortless meditation, gratitude etc. One question I have is whether gratitude has to be positive. For e.g. I was thinking what I could be grateful for and then felt grateful to have enough materially. Suddenly, I felt very grateful (like really grateful :-)) that I was not with my parents who are very entangled and can quickly drag one down. This second one was real gratitude mingled with relief! I guess it is okay to feel those types of gratitude as well which seems not so uplifted.

    1. Hi K
      Presence isn’t capacity but does have that quality. Consciousness can be likened to a container. As we expand our consciousness (settle into deeper values), we expand it’s container. But that also includes greater intelligence, love, bliss, clarity, and other fundamental qualities.

      So yeah, greater capacity. 🙂
      And also, it’s inverse. Less contraction, mistakes, fear, fog, etc.

      And yes, pain works the same way, be it physical or emotional. It’s essentially a signal something is wrong so when we accept it, it can ease up and we can support the healing.

      Yes, presence is best cultured by culturing consciousness itself, for which I recommend an effortless meditation. In terms of Yoga, it’s called Samadhi.

      Gratitude is a little different. Gratitude cultures a more positive outlook and less resistance to life which allows healing.

      (laughs) Actually, you offer a good example. You looked to gratitude and it opened a door – notice there was relief and expansion. This indicates healing. The response was spontaneous so it’s just fine. Just allow whatever comes up and let it go.

      That said, the idea is to experience and release whatever comes up. Try not to build stories from what arises – it just indicates old trash heading for the can.

      Remember that it takes 2 to tango. When we heal, we no longer respond energetically the same way. When we get established in absolute being, the surface dramas are just noise. We stop playing the game and it deflates the influence and changes the relationship.

      How they respond to that is up to them but when you loose your buttons, it stops being an issue. Of course, this takes time but it’s much superior to be unpacking than taking it on…

      Congrats – once you have a direct experience of the process, it’s much easier to grow it. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest