Daniel Goleman: Are You Aware of Your Self-Defeating Habits?

“When I was little my father would yell at me and call me stupid when I made a mistake. I knew he loved me, but it left me feeling I had some deadly, hidden flaw,” the head of a successful family-owned business in southern Europe confided.

And, I heard from someone who works for that company president, that’s just what he does when he has to give negative feedback: he shouts, blames, and criticizes people. It leaves them feeling as he felt: incompetent.


Such self-defeating work habits often stem from our learning early in life, and are so deeply ingrained that we repeat them over and over, despite the sometimes obvious ways in which they do not work.

Now there’s a tool for changing those habits: bringing focus to our unconscious patterns. Call it focused mind whispering.

Mind whispering refers to our ability to tune into what are usually invisible emotional patterns; habitual ways we react that get triggered over and over. And, like that company president, they compel us to repeat self-defeating responses – reactions that our unconscious mind chooses instantly, without our having any choice in the matter.

These habits typically play out beyond the light of awareness. But intentionally focusing on those patterns lets us bring them into the light of awareness – and once we see the habit and its negative outcomes, we have the chance to change them for the better.


These negative habits are automatic responses dictated by circuitry focusing on the amygdala, the brain’s radar for threat. But research at UCLA finds that if we can name a feeling or habit – rather than just letting it go by on automatic – we lessen the strength of the amygdala response and activate a different set of circuitry, including the prefrontal cortex, where we can make better decisions.

Recognize the Trigger Source

Different states of mind make us more or less susceptible to triggering our bad habits. When we’re in an anxious mode, for instance, we’re most likely to eat that fattening bag of chips or cut off that other person. Recognizing how these states, or modes of being, take us over can help us track our habits better.

Follow these five simple steps to develop an awareness of your habits:

1) Familiarize yourself with the self-defeating habit. Get so you can recognize the routine as it starts, or begins to take over. This might be by noticing its typical thoughts or feelings, or how you start to act. You can also follow Paul Ekman’s simple suggestion: keep a journal of your triggers.

2) Be mindful. Monitor your behavior – thoughts, feelings, actions – from a neutral, “witness” awareness.

3) Remember the alternatives – think of a better way to handle the situation.

4) Choose something better – e.g., what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5) Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Shifting habits works better with a fuller understanding of the brain systems underlying both our habits and how mindfulness helps us manage the brain – and how to rewire.

The practice of mindfulness opens up the mental space that allows us to see our self-defeating habits as such rather than having them control what we say and do – and how we say it and do it – again and again and again.

[Listen to the free What is Mindfulness? podcast]

Again, once we have that mental skill in our inner toolkit, then we can start tracking the triggers for those habits, recognize them as they begin, and change course to a better response.

For this, a coach or therapist can be a great help, assisting us in the mindful tenacity such habit change requires. And if we persist, as research at Case Western’s business school finds, we can make changes for the better that will last for years.

Register for my workshop with Tara Bennett-Goleman, Mind Whispering and the Power of Focus: A New Map to Freedom from Emotional Habits October 16-18, 2015 at Omega in Rhineback, NY.

Additional Resources

Wired to Connect: Dialogues on Social Intelligence

 Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence

Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress

Working with Mindfulness

The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights