3 Steps to Break Bad Habits

Have you seen the movie Inside Out? The movie is about how emotions can hijack us and how one particular emotion can be the leader – leading to bad choices and habits. I always thought the movie was pretty spot on with emotions, especially how one emotion overrides other emotions instead of working together as a team.

Come to find out, this children’s movie, Inside Out, was spot on, being created with neuroscientists. Using neuroscience from the movie, and in real life, you can consciously take over the hijacked the emotion that leads you to bad habits, like biting your nails, complaining, anxiety, or smoking.


WHAT? Yes. #truth anxiety can be a bad habit.

Nerdy Stuff

It’s all in the mind. Per this sciency article, they say we have more than one “person” inside our head.

Like the movie, think of it as a particular emotion.

This particular person/emotion is trying to lead the pack – which might not be in our best interest.

If you become aware that you are participating in the bad habit, you can use specific steps to replace the bad habit with another more healthy habit.

Self-talk for bad habits

When you are aware, you need to question this “person” in your head. Because it is NOT you per se, it’s more effective to use second person language.

Examples of second person, in case you forgot (yes, I had to look it up! haha)

  • You (Hey You)
  • Your name (for me, “Hey Danielle”)
  • The name of the emotion (Hey anxiety)

Call this other person out, the one leading the pack. Then continue using self-talk to find out what they are trying to accomplish and what is the underlying fear. Yes, you can go deeper than “anxiety”.

Key point: When asking yourself/them questions do not judge the answers. Be kind to you/them on what is said and approach this with curiosity.

Example time.

Example 1

  • If I caught myself complaining, I would say (in my head or out loud), “Danielle, what are trying to protect me from by complaining?”
  • Listen to the answer, then thank yourself for protecting you. Then go deeper with, “Danielle, what are you fearing?”
  • Then LISTEN. What is your body, heart, or mind telling you?

More in-depth example 2:

  • I caught myself getting anxious, I would say, “Alright anxiety, what are you trying to protect me from by being anxious?”
  • The response in my head might be “people are going to make fun of you!”
  • I would say back, “thank you anxiety for protecting me, but why does this matter?”.
  • The response back is, “remember in 9th grade when X happened and then they all laughed at you – and they were pointing fingers and, gosh, it was awful, don’t you remember?! I won’t let that happen again!”
  • I would say back, “ahh, yes, I remember. I was in High School with people that didn’t care about me and they were all immature. Now, I’m at work, and yes, perhaps employees won’t care about me, and yes, perhaps some coworkers are immature still, but now, I have something of value to add. If I don’t share the company might suffer. If I don’t share then we can’t grow. It’s unlikely this group of people will laugh at me. I would like to give this a shot, anxiety, can you step aside so I can do that?”

You can use this with smoking, complaining, anxiety, fighting, stress, overwhelm, etc – really any bad habit or choice or feeling.

If you bring compassion and curiosity, like an adult to a child, without judging or arguing with yourself, then you can HEAR what is behind the worry, or fear, and work on overcoming the fear.

Bad habit begone, by allowing new habit to thrive. I know this trick works, as I have used it in coaching before. The sciency article calls the people in your head the “manager”, the “firefighter”, and the “inner child” – I may, or may not, continue to refer to them as Joy, Anger, Fear, and Sadness … with little Danielle.

The 3 steps to break bad habits:

  • stay calm
  • bring curiosity and compassion to yourself, to find what you are trying to protect yourself from and what is the underlying fear
  • work on overcoming the fear

As you might have heard, it is best to replace one habit for another instead of “cold turkey” stopping an undesirable habit. With the above work example of speaking to the team, replacing the habit of sitting in the background with nothing to add with volunteering to add your opinion.

Say with complaining, the old habit would be to complain about it being cold in the room, and the new habit would be to request a blanket or raise the temperature.

With smoking, the old habit would be to smoke when upset and the new habit would be to complete 25 jumping jacks. If oral fixation is what you are seeking then suck on a peppermint. If using your fingers is what you are seeking then journal or color.

Regarding fears, you might want help from a friend, a coach, or if it’s traumatic/deep, then to work on it with a therapist.

If you know anyone that can benefit from breaking a bad habit, please share this post.

If this really connected with you, subscribe to the newsletter below and as a bonus, get some sleep help!


Blog Originally Published on Jan 2, 2018, updated October 1, 2018.