Confession: for the past year, I’ve been totally geeking out on habit-formation. And seriously, you want to read this, because what I’ve learned about habit-formation and how we create courageous habits ? The realizations have been game-changers in my life.

When we think of habit-formation, we usually think of how to stop doing something that isn’t so good for us, like downing a bottle of wine every night, or how to start doing something that is better for us, like exercise regularly. More flossing, more meditation. Less paying bills late, less losing entire nights to social media.

Four Game-Changing Realizations About Habits

Realization #1: Habit-formation goes much deeper than isolated actions. We talk about habits as isolated to-do list tasks, when in fact habits form much of how we behave in our daily lives. Habits inform how we think, how we respond to stressful situations, how we communicate.

Thinking: Your framing of a problem? Probably habitual. You’ve made it into a habit to either look on the bright side, or see everything as a challenge.

Responses: How you handle stress? Probably habitual. You turn to ice-cream and checking out or you turn to frustration and adrenal overload or you start trying to control everything in your path.

Communication: Tired of that same old argument with your partner? Your patterns of arguing are probably habitual. She/he does or says this, so you do or say that, and before you know it, you’re just acting out the same (habitual) patterns in an argument, playing your same roles.

Realization #2: Habits are trip-wired by cues that are often unconscious and somatic. Meaning, the cues that cause you to go into ice-cream and checking out when you’re stressed are often unconscious–you’re doing them without conscious, rational, logical thinking (if such thinking can be said to exist). Or that argument that you’ve had a million times with your partner? There’s a somatic–bodily–cue there, where you feel stress in your body and that cue trip-wires all the stuff that you say, next.

Realization #3: Habits run on a loop of cue-routine-reward. Again, we so often think of “creating good habits” as involving isolated incidents, so we don’t realize just how subtle the cues can be (see above: unconscious and somatic). And so often, cues involve feelings of anxiety or fear, routines involve the behaviors that are intended to get the fear to go away (e.g., checking out, or frustration, or trying to control things), and the reward is a lessening of anxiety.

Realization #4: Often, we don’t look beyond “lessening of anxiety.” That’s why so many “bad” habits perpetuate! In our desperation to get to a place where we don’t feel fear or self-doubt, we just do whatever the thing is that will get us to the “reward” of less anxiety. The largely unconscious and somatic cues of feeling stress in the body quickly morph into the largely unconscious behaviors of [checking out, over-work, trying to control everything] because then we’ll get that little hit of a reward. “Ah, I checked out for a bit, now I don’t feel so anxious” or “Ah, I threw down with some boundaries and now I feel much better.” That little hit of the “reward”, though? It’s just temporary.

Create Courageous Habits

So here’s a provocative question for you: What if your fear is just…a habit?

Rather than fear being this “thing that happens to you,” which is how fear, self-doubt, worry, anxiety, uncertainty, or lack of confidence often feel, what if…what if it’s just a habit?

And as I geeked out on habit-formation, I came to understand that this is exactly what’s going on.

When someone is stuck in fear, their fear has become a (negative) habit. They feel the cue of fear or lack of confidence or anxiety or insecurity–however the fear shows up. They respond to that cue with a particular routine: people-pleasing martyrdom, becoming a victim, sabotaging their own best efforts, or turning to perfectionism are the most common. Those routines reap rewards. Again, those rewards are temporary–the fear or worry always comes back, with this system–but there will be a lessening of stress when someone turns to their old, familiar fear routine.

To create courageous habits , we need to do something different: respond to the cues, differently.

Instead of responding to feelings of fear or anxiety with fear-based routines such as perfectionism or people-pleasing martyrdom, we need to respond to those fear-based routines with courageous habits.

What’s even better? To create courageous habits , the research is pretty clear that there are four steps that you need to take. Put together, these four steps create more psychological resilience, aka, “feeling more courageous in your life.”

I’ll be talking about these four steps, which I think of as the backbone to create courageous habits , in another post. For now, consider asking yourself: Where do you see the four realizations that I listed above, playing out in your life?