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  • Writer's pictureErica Webb

When Habit Hurts


We all have them.

Without them, little would get done.

Imagine if you had to think deeply about how to brush your teeth or pull on your socks or sweep the floor or take a step every single time you did it?

You'd be left standing still. Teeth unbrushed, socks stewing in a filthy dustball in the corner.

Habits, therefore, aren't a bad thing. They serve a significant and useful purpose.

But what happens when habit hurts?

The way we hold tension in the body is habitual. Sometimes it's tension in response to a stressor - be it an injured knee or a fear response to internal or external stimuli. At other times it's tension in response to the way we load our body - think holding your child on one hip all the time, always sitting in the same position, or 'hanging out' on one hip while you wait in line at the supermarket.

It will come as no shock, I'm sure, that, over time, these habits sometimes hurt.

Muscles get chronically 'tight' and we find ourselves unable to shift that knotted ball of tension.

But why is it so hard to change these habits and iron out the tension they can cause?

Well, I believe there's a few reasons.

In part, it's because they are simply so well worn into your life and automatic responses that you barely notice what you're doing. Sometimes you don't recognise these habits until they start to hurt or someone points it out.

But habits are also hard to change because the muscular response that comes along with these habits isn't entirely under our conscious control (at least not when we're moving habitually)

Have you ever had the experience of trying to stretch a chronically 'tight' spot in your body, only to get fleeting relief? Part of the reason for that comes down to your nervous system, which basically instructs the muscles to behave in a particular way. So, if you do something for long enough, your nervous system 'learns' this way of doing things and sets that as 'normal' in the brain. Then, try as we might, we can't seem to shift away from this set point. Our nervous system just keeps pulling us back. (There are totally ways to change this, so do not despair!)

Another reason these habits are hard to shift was alluded to right at the beginning of this post: habits are USEFUL, so change doesn't come easy.

I'm not about to throw away my dishwasher because without it I could more fully explore the capacity of my own hands to wash dishes ... likewise, to move outside of habit requires more effort and attention.

It is attention well spent, though.

Consider your exercise routine. Whether it involves a yoga/pilates mat or the treadmill or a boxing bag, chances are you are participating in movement that you know well (or well enough). You do it automatically, EVEN when you think you're paying attention. But are you certain that what you think you're doing in that movement is actually what is happening?

I'm going to use an example from the weight training world here. Bicep curls. You know what they look like, right? A bicep curl is reasonably straightforward in that you hold a dumbell in your hand and flex and extend your elbow. But ... how often do we see people moving in what looks suspiciously like a bicep curl but in fact is more akin to a loaded shoulder movement? Their elbow stays fixed and their shoulder is the only thing moving. For all intents and purposes that person probably truly believes they are doing a bicep curl; but the end result will not be quite what they set out for because, in what will eventually become a movement habit if not recognised, they're moving one way and expecting the results of quite a different way of moving.

Well then. Where does that leave us?

Habit hunting comes with a big responsibility: a commitment to non-judgement.

It's not about spotting deficiencies or things you're doing 'wrong', but instead is about fostering a deep sense of curiosity and self-kindness. Judgements spring up, of course. That's how our minds work. They like to categorise - pop things in tidy tubs marked 'good' and 'bad'. But if we know this we can catch ourselves in the process of judging and choose to move away from it, back toward kindness and compassion.

We keep our senses open to noticing and remain invested in deepening our awareness.

We engage in activities like somatic exercise, yoga, pilates ... or anything we can do mindfully. Not only that - we give ourselves TIME and SPACE to notice beyond our ordinary, habitual way of noticing. Importantly, we stay steeped in awe at our incredible bodies. And we explore. Then explore some more.

Present. Trusting. Curious.

Knowing that when we move like this we open our world to new possibilities.

We put ourselves in the 'driver's seat' as such ... and recognise that we do not have to be victims. But instead can be empowered.

Happy habit hunting.

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