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Psychotherapist Paweł Malinowski talks about good and bad habits, as well as how to give them up or ...
2022-01-17 09:00:00

Turn Off Your Autopilot
An Interview with Paweł Malinowski

Photo from the collection of Paweł Malinowski
Turn Off Your Autopilot
Turn Off Your Autopilot

We talk to psychotherapist Paweł Malinowski about good and bad habits, as well as how to give them up or shape them.

Read in 20 minutes

Paweł Malinowski graduated in medicine and has worked as a psychotherapist for 20 years. Intrigued by ancient yoga and other approaches to individual and social development – such as functional medicine, neuroscience, quantum physics and artificial intelligence – he is the author of Umysł, ciało, duchowość. Drogi do zdrowia i rozwoju duchowego z perspektywy psychoterapeuty [Mind, Body, Spirituality: Health and Spiritual Development from a Psychotherapeutic Perspective]. He practices meditation and various forms of everyday mindfulness.


Maria Hawranek: Have you developed any healthy habits recently?

Paweł Malinowski: Regular physical activity. I failed at this for many years, practising only in spurts. With time, however, I discovered that I am not becoming more fit. At the same time, I wanted to spend time actively with my son. We once watched a film together – it was about a creative Chinese man, Wang Deshun, who took up sport only after 50 and started practising seriously when he was 70. His great physical fitness allowed him to put his grandson on his back when he was almost 80. This is incredible if we consider that at this age many people find it challenging to do their own shopping. This made me aware that I can influence what my old age will be like, naturally disregarding genetic predispositions and random injuries. I felt the desire to make sure my body is not a burden.

You just saw one film and that was it?

Of course not! Distant and difficult goals need to be waggled like a carrot on a stick from time to time, so that we keep focused on them. Otherwise, the chances of success are slim. This is why I saw many more films of this kind, finding inspiration in watching people who feel good about their bodies. I started climbing with my son. I like the atmosphere at the climbing wall, where you can be together and also do general exercises. I find this kind of place much better than fitness clubs. We have not adopted a rigid schedule. If we do not feel like it, we can exercise at home, ride our bikes, or just rest. Still, we always arrange a different date: on the next day or later in the week. Although we do not put ourselves under pressure, we never ease up. Then I suffered an injury when reaching for a ping-pong ball, which caused pain in the lumbar-sacral region. Physiotherapy did not bring long-term relief for months, because weak muscles provided little support and stabilization of the spine. Finally, I developed an exercise routine that made the pain go away. I went through it every day for a year-and-a-half, then two to three times a week. This helped me develop the habit of regularity.

So your motivation was spending time with your son, enjoying a certain place and activity, fighting through pain, and struggling to keep fit.

Yes. It was crucial to spend time with my son and stick to a certain vision of the future. I felt that the stakes were high and that the result would be settled now, not in the future. That was my main motivation, fuelling the long-term endeavour.

Why did you fail to develop this habit for so long in the past?

When I was young, I avoided sport because I did not associate it with agency and success. In primary school, I did not feel fit enough to enjoy physical education classes. The atmosphere in my class was not favourable, either. Perhaps I was also affected by my parents’ warnings not to sweat too much because I would catch a cold. Usually these are complex configurations of factors, which are difficult to reconstruct ad hoc. As a result, however, I felt like I did not deserve to enjoy movement, finding comfort and strength in it.

Before we discuss what else prevents us from developing good habits, let us define them. How are they different from rituals or other regular patterns?

All acquired reactions and behaviours can be called habits. We define them contextually as patterns in relations, e.g. typical reactions conditioned by our weaknesses or patterns of choosing partners (“Why do I always end up with this kind of person?”), everyday evening rituals, habits of spending free time, as well as habitual beliefs or associations, for example that only doctors are right about health, or the other way round – that they know nothing. Plus, there are various defence mechanisms.

Would you say these reactions and behaviours do not differ at the level of the brain?

I think that would be an overstatement… Depending on the sphere of life, habits can engage different brain centres. Still, the mechanisms found at the root of habits have a shared core. The brain is being intensely studied and more details will certainly emerge. Surely, habits differ from our innate automatisms, the ones that regulate the organism and need not be taught. Habits are acquired, consciously or not – usually the latter and not from our own will.

When does this happen?

Throughout one’s life, through repetition. Habits are brain shortcuts that simplify decision-making processes.

Is it not the case that they are mostly acquired in youth?

We know that children soak up everything, primarily attitudes, reactions and behaviours, words later. Thus a habitual basis is formed in childhood, conditioning the way we function as adults. Luckily, however, we retain neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and change – throughout most of our lives. Although it diminishes with age, we can influence the degree to which we keep it. The brain can be trained in the same way as we try to remain flexible in our lives. Neuroplasticity increases during states when alpha or theta waves prevail: during relaxation and meditation, respectively. An intense need for control can diminish it (“Let everything be the same every time, because it makes me feel safe”), while curiosity can boost it. This also depends on one’s personality, which can also be regarded as a complex network of acquired ways of feeling (or avoiding feeling), thinking, interpreting and reacting, which are rooted in the innate characteristics of one’s nervous system.

Where in the brain do habits reside?

We are still learning about the neurobiological basis of habits. For example, it has been discovered that a huge role in shaping habits, including compulsive behaviour and addiction, is played by the basal ganglia, the dopamine reward system, and the oxytocin bonding system, which reinforce certain actions or provoke negative reactions that cause us to avoid certain things due to a drop in dopamine levels and a rise of acetylcholine in the reward system. Obviously, the number of repetitions and the strength of emotional reactions elicited by a given stimulus are also hugely significant.

If beliefs about oneself and the world are habits, is psychotherapy not all about working with them?

You could say so, if we define habits very broadly as patterns of functioning. To a large extent, psychotherapy involves work with these unconscious reaction patterns at the emotional level of the brain. Let us imagine a situation in which a certain detail in the behaviour of another person is enough to make us feel ignored and humiliated: a moment of inattention during conversation or the lack of immediate reaction to a need of ours. This can stir painful disappointment and grievance, with which we pester that person, or cause us to react with long silence and withdrawal. We lose empathy and only an admittance of guilt can change the situation. However, an ordinary apology is not enough – the other party needs to fully confirm our point of view. It is only then that we can forgive, allowing them to gradually return to grace. Even if we note exaggeration in our reactions, we cannot stop and change our attitude without replaying the whole situation. The lower, emotional brain and the higher, reflective one are both very stubborn and fail to communicate. This is a typical instance of strong emotional flashback, in this case affecting another person, usually our partner.

Still, in many situations we suffer alone. Pete Walker, who wrote a book on complex trauma disorder (c-PTSD), recounts that at a certain stage in his life he decided to take better care of himself and start preparing his own meals instead of eating random food. However, he immediately felt that he did not like it and began wondering what had caused this aversion. It turned out that certain trivialities like spilling something or missing an ingredient cause emotional flashbacks – reactions that suddenly bring back a remembered experience from the past. He would then immediately switch to hazard mode, feeling anxiety and tension, which would in turn make him dislike cooking. In the case of classic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks usually bring back scenes of dramatic events that caused the trauma, but in c-PTSD these are often the experiences themselves and not their contents.

Am I to understand that unlike PTSD, c-PTSD can have roots in ordinary childhood?

It may be ordinary in the sense that others would not note anything special about it. Terms such as ‘psychic trauma’ or ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ are relatively fresh and their meaning has been mutable. Initially, the focus was on the traumatic event itself, or the stimulus, which became the basis of the disorder’s definition. Later it was discovered, thanks to brain imaging, that a key role is played by the response of the nervous system. Psychic trauma has a specific neurobiology that determines whether the event turns traumatic or not. Trauma is not inherent in the event itself. Certain dramatic situations that can be shared with someone close, allowing one to find support and help, may not become traumatic, unlike an everyday burden with which one is left alone.

In the case of people suffering from c-PTSD, the brain functions in such a way that even the slightest reminiscence of the original event – for example, the tone of voice – may be enough to interpret the situation as identical, treating it as a danger and activating rescue mechanisms in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, causing us to flee, fight, freeze or mollify the torturer. This physiological state briefly helps us survive under difficult conditions. If it is frequently triggered during the day or week, it can cause fatigue or a variety of health issues, obviously leading to tremendous suffering because it is a highly unpleasant state. c-PTSD is caused by repeated emotional neglect – for example, when we do not feel safe as children around our carers because they are emotionally inaccessible, disregard us, fail to acknowledge our subjectivity, disrespect us, or even treat us with hostility and aversion. We are biologically programmed in such a way that we cannot survive without carers for longer periods. Thus, if this relation is broken, our brains receive a signal that something very dangerous is going on. This does not have to be caused by tormenting or taunting – it is enough that one parent was sick and the other had to care for them, making us feel invisible for some time.

This would mean that we can hit upon a childhood trauma while cooking for ourselves. Are you appealing for more consideration with regard to why we feel bad in certain situations?

It is always worth trying to be more aware of such things. Still, I would not advise anyone to assume that their past is hiding a dark secret or to forcibly seek traumas in it. I would rather recommend considering our level of security here and now. If it drops, we may enter a state of anxiety or nervous bustle, tidying up, handling things or planning, constantly keeping our minds preoccupied, which indicates fleeing from danger. Alternatively, we can become impulsive or quarrelsome, raging – this is fighting. If we become weirdly favourable and docile, failing to say ‘no’, we enter the mollifying mode. Finally, if we slip away into fantasy worlds to an extent that interferes with our lives – for example, through gaming – it becomes the counterpart of freezing. If our state is often distorted and these patterns recur, it may be a sign that we carry within ourselves traces of difficult experiences from the past. They need to be acknowledged to take care of oneself, but there is no point in frantically looking for them.

I did not know that analysis of habits can offer such deep insight into our psyche. Which habits help us and which do not? How can we identify them?

Judge them by the fruits. Our mental autopilot is both an asset and a liability. Habits can be useful: brushing our teeth, performing simple rituals that boost our sense of security, trying to stay in shape both mentally and physically, resting. We cannot function without habits, which does not make them suspicious in themselves, but rather inevitable. It is much like driving a car. At first it requires a lot of attention: clutch, brake, distance from other vehicles, starting and stopping. However, when driving becomes a habit, it ceases to be so absorbing.

Habits can be also harmful, as in the case of substance abuse or forms of self-neglect such as workaholism or emotional coldness to oneself. Balancing them is also important, since it determines whether we live consciously or compulsively. Too many habits turn us into automatons – the opposite of free people who control their lives. As a result, mindfulness is necessary to verify whether we have consciously made a certain behaviour habitual, as well as to confirm whether it brings us benefits. In fact, what used to bring us comfort in childhood may be harmful in adult life.

Patterns of thought can also constitute dangerous habits. They may helps us in social life, making it easier to communicate, but they limit our ability to learn about the world and develop because they convince us that we ‘know’ without checking. This leads to hasty categorizations of people as good or bad, and of information as true or false. People tend to think they make independent judgements, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most of us really repeat opinions that circulate among those with whom we identify, without verifying their origin and factuality.

This really seems dangerous. Can you tell us how we can effectively change habits?

The difficult truth is that there is no simple algorithm that works for everyone. Methods of shaping habits may be better or worse, but our own minds have the last word. It is our ability to control our own behaviour and make conscious decisions that determines how successful we are in introducing new habits. The crucial thing is the extent to which one manages their mind and to which it manages them: choice-based life versus living on autopilot.

This makes self-awareness the key. Is there anything else?

First of all, we need to honestly admit what we strive for and why this is important for us. These reasons should be clearly formulated and speak to our emotions. Moreover, the scope of changes should be adapted to our abilities. We need to take into account how much time we have and what kind of effort we can make. Finally, new habits need to take into account our style of functioning and our characteristics – we should not go entirely against ourselves.

What if I wanted to begin my day with yoga and reading, but most of all I like to sleep in due to maternity-caused deficits? Is it better to stop fooling myself and make more realistic plans?

If our vision does not match our predispositions, we may find it challenging to acquire new habits. Even if we do not start our day very early, there is some margin. Maybe we could try to get up a quarter of an hour earlier. We should not be afraid to experiment. What happens if I go to sleep at 10pm for one week? When would I wake up and in what mood? Still, it is worth remembering that if we go beyond our natural margin too quickly, things can get messy.

When I wanted more sports activity in my life, I needed to figure out the reason. Do I want to feel light again when I move? Do I want to enjoy my looks and figure? Perhaps I became aware of the passage of time, wishing to have a good old age and spend time actively with grandchildren? Is it health? What is really important to me and worth my effort? Do I have enough self-worth to give this to myself?

We need to consider all of this and then recall the fundamental motivation – our carrot on a stick. Again, this boils down to self-awareness. With its help, I can determine the form and scope of the sports activity that will bring me pleasure and can be made compatible with my lifestyle, schedule, physical abilities, and preferences. Last but not least: it is better to make a little step than do nothing.

The well-known researcher B. J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, advises taking small steps and pushing further once these changes settle.

If your plan is unrealistic, frustration is bound to arise soon. Small steps, on the other hand, can be satisfying, motivating us to work more. Regularity and little pressure can help to gradually allow the new activity to sink in – then we can expand, if we need to. If we react to emotions with compulsive eating and wish to change it, we should first learn to identify the trigger – only then will we be able to do something about it. When a familiar compulsion surfaces, you can procrastinate satisfying it for three minutes, reminding yourself of your motivation, e.g. the wish to regain freedom or health. Then you can extend this to five, seven, 10 minutes, gradually gaining a sense of control. At the same time, we may try to discover and tame the emotions we escape from while eating, learning to notice our feelings instead of acting upon them. This can be achieved through the practice of ‘felt sense’ – it only takes 10 minutes a day.

What is it?

It is a concept developed by the American philosopher Eugene Gendlin. He also used the term ‘focusing’ in relation to concentrating on the ‘felt sense’. It means being mindful of everything that appears in the sensual sphere at a given moment, including all kinds of sensations like tingling, warmth, pressure, etc.

It sound a lot like mindfulness-based meditation.

Yes, but it would be more about freely sensing that which is still unformed, just emerging at the threshold of experience.

Very well. But what if we struggle to acquire new habits?

When moments come when we resign from our plans, it is crucial not to give up entirely. Maybe I failed today, but I will try again tomorrow. Nothing is completely lost and I can understand that there will be ups and downs. This also requires working with thought patterns to avoid falling back on generalizations.

It would then be safer to assume that we will occasionally fail. However, we usually do not think like that. For example, New Year resolutions become a festival of dreams about a whole new, better me.

We prefer magical solutions. In the imagination, it is easy to achieve many things just like that, without effort and time. Flights of imagination are not endangered by the ‘sabotage programs’ we all carry inside us, while real actions are. If I imagine being well-rested, it may feel quite acceptable, but when I add more rest to my daily schedule, this can activate beliefs like “You will not achieve anything without hard work”, or a vague sense of guilt for resting and putting yourself in first place.

I want to feel rested without leaving time for rest, so I expect to feel something I do not really allow myself.

Exactly.

Summing up, what sabotages the introduction of beneficial changes?

An unconscious sense of guilt and false beliefs about your life, e.g. that you cannot possibly succeed because it was not meant to be. Another treacherous factor concerns toxic beliefs about ourselves, e.g. low self-esteem, sense of inferiority, fear of making a fool of oneself. Such thoughts strike right at the heart of our confidence, sabotaging our striving for what is good and healthy. Another problem concerns misrecognizing our motivation and making plans ill-adapted to our abilities. For example, if someone likes group activities but decides to exercise alone, this idea already contains a Trojan Horse.

We rarely do what we desire,” Yogananda argues, “only what we have made our habit.” You speak of a compulsive life. Am I right to understand that up to a certain moment we all live compulsively, that our lives are governed by unconscious habits?

I would say so. I do not mean compulsion in the medical sense, but more broadly as living on autopilot. Although we like to consider ourselves autonomous, free and fully conscious, we are rarely like that in real life. This is perhaps because following habits is effortless, unlike abandoning them. On the one hand, we long for freedom and truth, but on the other, we are tempted to make use of half-truths and illusions that make us feel better for a while. From a broader perspective, our understanding of the world is very young, since it emerged relatively recently in the scale of the existence of life on Earth. In this sense, we are like children who think that they are the centre of the universe, but are afraid of everything they do not understand, trying to sweeten all that surpasses them.

A lot depends on our upbringing. Some children learn at an early age that their curiosity of the world matters along with their thoughts and feelings. This allows them to become mindful adults who are open to themselves and others, ready for various experiences. If this is not the case, we need something that will incline us to reflect, but these are usually unpleasant experiences.

They awaken us or set us on a path towards awakening. It may not be accidental that many spiritual practices involve working with good habits.

We need to start somewhere if we are not highly mindful yet and our compulsive behaviours prevail over conscious choices. However, good habits are not the ultimate goal of spiritual practice, but merely a means necessary at the initial stage.

A means to what?

Different people have different reasons for becoming interested in spiritual practices, which can be variously cultivated. If I were to define their ultimate goal, I would say that it consists in enlightenment. To use metaphors closer to us today, we could speak of ‘hacking the system’ or upgrading to a ‘higher level’ of experiencing life and engaging reality.

What can become the ultimate goal of our small efforts to change for the better?

A more self-conscious existence, broadened perception, and fuller knowledge. Acquiring a sense of being connected with everything and finding inner harmony. People who have reached this state feel safe, comfortable and are not easily affected by circumstances and outside events. They can regulate their mood from the inside, achieving self-propelled well-being.

 

Translated from the Polish by Grzegorz Czemiel

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Published:

Maria Hawranek

is an independent reporter, born in 1987. She works alongside Szymon Opryszek, with whom she published the books “Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki” [We Only Dance on All Soul’s Day Now] (2016) and “Wyhoduj sobie wolność. Reportaże z Urugwaju” [Grow Yourself Some Freedom: Reportage from Uruguay] (2018). A lover of Latin America and life in the countryside.