Rewiring the “Run Awayyyy!” habit

December 8, 2013 – 9:46 pm

Be forewarned: this is another “think by typing” post. The topic is the recently (and painfully) re-identified pattern of “I Can Do It All By Myself”-ism (or rather, “Run Awayyy!”) that leads me to run away from the world instead of reaching out to it when I’m having trouble. It’s a strange vicious cycle; I thrive on community and do my best work in interaction with others, so this specific disorder-of-the-Mel  is really cutting me off from what I need most when I need it most.

Let me try framing this disorder as a bad habit that could be rewired. This framing comes from… well, I read fast enough that I will often “accidentally” read entire books while browsing the local library, and this happened with The Power of Habit a few weeks back. My jotted-down how-to notes read as follows:

  1. Identify the routine
  2. Experiment with rewards
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Have a plan

Let’s try that. We’ve already identified the routine – when something is going wrong, a Badness Combination (probably shame, stubbornness, and other things — this mix may be examined later) springs up in me and I run away, drop all communications, and actively avoid people related to that Something. (I do not avoid all human contact, only that which is related to the problem; if it’s school, I avoid my teachers etc.) Things grow increasingly late, and I become increasingly paralyzed by the idea that I need to make up for the lateness by making the thing Really Ridiculously Good in exponential proportion to the tardiness, creating a debt snowball I can’t outrun. Repeat until collapse or interruption.

I won’t get into this too far, but I am pretty sure some (if not all) of this comes from a deeply ingrained belief that I am not fundamentally worthy of existence in any sub-universe. I need to earn and prove my own justification for existing and breathing and belonging to a community and being loved and all this other basic stuff that all humans get by default. It’s as if my default state is “worthless” and I’ve managed to pull myself up from that state through my own bootstraps and tremendous effort, but am still always on the edge of falling back into being a piece of useless shit if I relax my guard and soften and slip even an instant. Therefore: PANIC WORK ALL THE TIME! Yes, I know it’s not true — it isn’t true for me, it isn’t true for any human being ever. And I’ve been working on rewiring this for a while. It’s a work in progress, and I’m proud of it, but it’s not done yet.

Anyhow. Experimenting with rewards. It’s a twisted way of looking at the situation, but what “reward” do I get for running away? The idea is that you’d keep the same reward when you’re rewiring your habit. This makes sense to me — most disorders are bad ways of searching for a good thing. Some possibilities for the Run Awayyy! habit:

  1. I (temporarily) avoid disappointing people I respect and admire. Honoring others and not troubling them unnecessarily is a good thing, but I’ve twisted it.
  2. I get to persist — there is a part of me that likes to tackle difficult problems and is stubborn about never giving up. Persistence is a good thing, but again, I’ve twisted it.
  3. I have control. Nobody’s going to take away my agency, tell me I shouldn’t do something, or insinuate I’m incapable of it. Disabled kids, girls, minorities, and physically awkward children get this all the time, and I grew up fitting all those criteria simultaneously (plus: intersectionality with sections of not-so-great Chinese culture! plus: etc. etc. etc.) so it’s no surprise I’ve swerved to avoid learned helplessness; I’ve just twisted in a negative way in the process. Self-efficacy and confidence are great, and their healthy versions are fantastic things in most of my life, but I have really twisted these into ugliness in this particular small corner.
  4. I get to keep belonging. As long as nobody knows how terrible a person I am, they won’t kick me out of community.

Huh. That’s a pretty good list. I might be missing stuff, but I can’t think of anything right now. So the rewards are really:

  1. showing respect for others, especially those I admire / am collaborating with
  2. the satisfaction of persistence
  3. agency
  4. community

Dang. For rewards like that, I’ll do just about anything. Now, I recognize the Run Awayyyy! problem actually works against these four in the long run… so we continue with the next step of rewiring.

Isolate the cue. What triggers this habit? I am not sure yet, and need to do more experimentation and data analysis to find out. It could be a number of possible things:

  1. A deadline passing?
  2. Me noticing a deadline, mentally calculating work remaining, and realizing there may be a problem?
  3. Someone else commenting “are you sure you’re ok with project X?” or some other threat to my self-confidence?
  4. A period of (unrelated, possibly accidental) time without sufficient interactions with people I like and care about / am cared-about by? (I want to write about this more later, but I think I really am an extrovert who simply happened to be deaf and able to sort of hobble along in stubborn isolation that got mistaken for introversion.)
  5. Physical or mental exhaustion?
  6. Realizing I’ve just blown a too-long stretch of unstructured time with frivolous ideas when I had intended to be productive, causing #1 or #2?

Once I have figured out my trigger(s), the next step is to have a plan to rewire the habit. When I know what sets me off, I can find a way to execute an alternative habit that results in the same reward. For instance, I could…

  1. Stop and contact (in-person, email, whatever) the people I am working with and that I respect, letting them know there is a situation. If necessary, let them know (perhaps ahead of time) that I am (awkwardly!) trying to break a Running Awayyy! habit — that way I need not be coherent when I let them know during the time of panic, I only need to say “I think this habit is starting to fire and I am inarticulate about why please help me interrupt it please PLEASE.”
  2. Stop and contact someone who is not connected to the situation, but who knows that I am trying to break this habit; have an actual conversation with them and get them to help me do #1.
  3. Spend a guilt-free period of time in a public place (library, coffee shop, etc.) full of people I like; realize that I need “people exposure” the same way I need water, sunlight, etc.

Obviously this needs more refinement and rewiring into one much-shorter, clear (flowchart-able) routine I can follow even in a panic. As a parallel thought, there are several stages of behavior-rewiring that I read once somewhere (from another book I have forgotten, so [[citation needed]]) that have worked as a good model in the past.

  1. Be aware of the old behavior as you’re doing it. You’re not trying to stop it, you’re just trying to notice it so that the habit you are breaking is a conscious action rather than an unconscious one. Once you’ve got that down consistently, move to…
  2. Stop the old behavior. This may be in the middle of doing it at first; eventually you get to the point where you can cut yourself off and do nothing instead of the old behavior for a moment, then you…
  3. Add the new behavior. Now you’re noticing the trigger, stopping before you do the old behavior, and then very deliberately adding in the new behavior.
  4. Make the new (presumably desired) behavior automatic.

So… yes. I’m actively working on this — mostly identifying the trigger right now and using those experiments to test my plan. Now if I trigger Run Awayyy! and notice it, that’s a GOOD thing — it’s data! And it’ll get better. I’ll keep working. It makes me smile a little, this writing-straight with crooked lines. It is still hard, but it is work worth doing.

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  1. 3 Responses to “Rewiring the “Run Awayyyy!” habit”

  2. Wow, feels like this post sums up a lot of the reasons I contacted you in the first place. Already been a year and a half, somehow. Sheesh.

    We should get back in touch sometime. Maybe winter break is a good time for that.

    By Grant on Dec 10, 2013

  3. Ahh good old existential guilt!

    I too flipped through ‘The Power of Habit’! I did so at the book store and felt too guilty to read it all without paying for it… :p

    My first impression of the book is that it takes a subset of lessons from Karen Pryor’s “Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training” (essentially applied Behavioral Psychology ala B.F. Skinner) but caters more to human trainers than dog trainers. [I imagine dogs training people with clickers and starbucks cofees... hehe...]

    Your techniques for behavior rewiring look similar to a Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
    Cognitive Restructuring Worksheet. [Which is similar to Karen Pryor's chapter on replacing an undesired behavior with a new incompatible one].

    Anyway, always nice to meet a fellow navel gazer. Seems like Grant may feel similarly! ;p

    sys.exit(0)

    By John on Dec 21, 2013

  4. Two recommendations:
    http://behaviormodel.org/
    http://tinyhabits.com/

    By Jodi Schneider on Jan 26, 2014

What do you think?