Live a New Year Free of Negative Habits

Habits can be good or bad. It’s the negative ones that cause us problems. These are self-sabotaging behaviors. And whether we are aware of them or not, all of us have a negative habit or two.

Negative habits are anything we continue to do despite the negative consequences they create. Maybe the habit is overspending, procrastination, complaining, gossiping, talking excessively, or social media.

Or maybe it’s a more dangerous habit like smoking, drug use, gambling, or excessive eating or drinking. Regardless of where you are on the continuum, negative habits typically get worse over time and cause us suffering.

Negative habits form when we do something that brings us temporary comfort from things that create discomfort for us. They provide short-term gain but cause us long-term pain. So how do any of us get over our negative habits?

First, we must be aware of them. Second, we must want to be rid of them. And third, we must learn how negative habits begin because that is the key to their end.

The first step takes some courage. This is the awareness step. Even non-life threatening habits like gossiping, complaining, and criticizing can damage or even end important relationships. People who we trust can really help us become aware of our negative habits. We just need to summon the courage to ask their help. We all have blindspots.

For those whose negative habits are more destructive and self-sabotaging, like drinking and drugging, awareness of the habit comes from the extreme suffering they cause. But in the early stages, a person may not be fully aware of the issue. Again, friends and family can help us see it.

So awareness brings us to the second step: the readiness step. It requires honesty. Do we really want to stop indulging this habit? I have the clients I work with answer a simple question: Does the habit come between you and the life you want for yourself? Ask yourself this question. If the answer is yes, then you are ready to move to step three: learning about habits.

All habits are powered by thought. And that’s the key. To end a negative habit, we must change our relationship with the thoughts that created the habit. To do this requires a little more understanding of how negative habits begin.

Habits are a way of alleviating discomfort. We are stressed after a hard day at work, and we have a drink to relax. The lower brain—the amygdala—notices that we feel better because of the drink. It creates a neural link to that pleasant feeling. Each time we take that drink after work, the neural connection strengthens. That neural connection creates the habit. This is true of other habits like procrastination in which we do something that brings us pleasure to avoid what brings us discomfort.

The amygdala is not only responsible for our survival, but it also regulates routine. It becomes like an alarm clock that rings in the form of an urge or craving. And this is where the habit becomes tragic. Not only do we feel the stress of our daily lives, but now we feel the stress of the craving. What once brought us comfort now compounds our discomfort. It’s like a pet dog that now bites us.

Because the amygdala is responsible for our survival, satisfying the craving feels like a matter of life or death. It tells us that we have to have that drink or that smoke or that Vicodin or that pie. The craving seems bigger than us. And the only way to get rid of the tension is to give in to it. That’s the message the amygdala sends us.

This message, however, is a thought. And thoughts cannot harm us or force us to do anything. As we all know, the thousands of thoughts we have in a day are like vapors that come and go. It’s the ones we pay attention to that we give power to.

So it all comes down to changing your relationship with the thoughts that are giving you trouble—the ones that are creating your urges. The truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who you really are. The key word here is SEPARATE. You are not your thoughts. You generate your thoughts, but they are not you just as I am not the words I am now writing.

Realizing this is profound. It changes your entire relationship to your thoughts. You are the subject and the thoughts creating the urge are the object. Now these thoughts become like characters on a stage and you are watching them from a seat separate from them.

When you are aware of this relationship, you can benefit greatly, as my clients have, from the insights Dr. Amy Johnson provides in The Little Book of Big Change.
These are:

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lower brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lower brain (the amygdala) the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lower brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

Some thoughts are more difficult to defuse from than others. In my life coaching practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with clients because it provides powerful tools for overcoming negative habits. You can apply these ACT techniques on your own with an ACT workbook to guide you. One I would recommend is The Wisdom to Know the Difference. If your habit is particularly dangerous, then a support group like Alcoholic Anonymous is highly recommended.

Another alternative is seeking out my help. We could work one-on-one either in person or on Skype on a negative habit that is keeping you from living a richer, fuller, more meaningful life. Go to my website at To find out more about me or to read some of my articles published in The Fix, the AA Grapevine, or Addiction Unscripted, just Google my name.

Here’s to living free of negative habits in the New Year!!

RJ Handley
Life Coach

The wonder and awe beyond addiction

I am a big fan of Alcoholics Anonymous. It literally saved my life. When I finished my 12th Step, I had achieved what Bill W. promised: a spiritual awakening. And to me that was the miracle we talk about in AA. I was transformed. My family saw it. My friends saw it. My colleagues saw it. And I saw it.

The 12 Steps brought me to a place of wonder and awe—a place that spiritual awareness opens us up to. It was a fabulous place to be. And, like many of you, I hungered for more.

So what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this sense of wonder and awe? That’s the question that powered my spiritual quest beyond the 12 Steps. It became such a passion that I spent a year and a half becoming certified as a spiritual life coach. It was an intense, amazing, and transformative journey into greater spiritual expansion.

One of my favorite parts of my life coaching practice is to guide clients to greater spiritual awakening. Though I work with clients on issues such as addiction, relationships, depression, anxiety, negative habits, and grieving, I find that all the work benefits when clients are open to adding spiritual development into our sessions together. My practice differs from other life coaches because it is not only about growing up emotionally but also waking up spiritually.

Bill W. himself realized his need for more than AA offered. Years after the publication of the Big Book and the 12 x 12, Bill W. wrote a letter for the AA Grapevine called “Emotional Sobriety.” In it, he shares his own issues with spiritual and emotional growth. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our old, repetitive, self-defeating thoughts and stories.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.

He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. To help us in this task, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction. Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth. In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages. With their encouraging presence, I turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that continued to create obstacles to my own happiness and potential.

So I created this blog called After the 12 Steps and have been writing about how all of us can integrate current psychological theory, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Behavioral Activation, into our spiritual growth. Spiritual writer Ken Wilbur speaks of “enlightened neurotics” who have experienced deep spiritual awakening but remain as children emotionally. He argues that we need to mature both emotionally AND spiritually if we are to live richer, fuller, more meaningful lives.

If you are interested in expanding your own development beyond the 12 Steps, check out my previous post titled “What is Life Coaching?” It’s a companion piece to this one that describes the differences between traditional therapy/counseling and life coaching.

Please visit my webpage at if you would like to work one-on-one with me on an issue that is keeping you from living the life you would love.
My Best,
RJ Handley

Release yourself from anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” So it is true with me and probably with you as well. When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong. It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms. We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times. We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds. Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat, and before we can stop it we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking. And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel. Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

In my spiritual life coaching practice, I work with clients with anxiety and depression issues. One of my clients, who suffered from anxiety for decades, found almost immediate relief from this emotional hijacking in my use of Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).

In their book based on ACT, Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene apply the core practices of ACT to anxiety. They say, “The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain.”

Pain is an inevitable part of life. Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it. And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment. We were not only predator but also prey. What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad. So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety. One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it. When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance. Same with our anxious thoughts. When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that? By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind. Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders. Its domain is the past and the future. The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment. If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

2. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought. Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

3. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now. Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind. Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thought, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods. With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

I would love to hear your comments or to have you share your anxiety success stories.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

My Best,
RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach