The Reason Why Positive Habits Don’t Always Feel Good
By Sasha Feldman
After a pretty devastating break up with my girlfriend, and an acting career that started to stagnate, I began to feel more pain than I could handle. Before the break up, I was living a life filled with inconsistent habits: Netflix at eleven pm, waking up after noon, and watching the clock tick as I waited for some form of stimulation from the outside world, or at the very least a residual pay check from some show I did three years ago.
My days outside of the short employment I had as an actor, found themselves blurred together: constant social media usage, lots of sex and eating out, and the occasional cold shower or work out if I was feeling exceptionally “motivated.” Having a girlfriend gave me the excuse that I was fine, because my happy chemicals were keeping my head just above water. I had enough oxytocin from my girlfriend to keep me coming back for more, and the gigs I was getting provided me enough dopamine that I didn’t have to have a sit with myself to restore a crisis.
When the break up happened, I finally had to take a look at myself, and figure out what wasn’t working. A big realization for me was how my mind operated around habits. Aside from the logical reason why I needed to change my life, I also felt a constant anxiety and overwhelming pain that forced me to decide between taking a lot of pain killers, or to deal with my pain in a non-destructive way.
When I started to develop an itinerary of all the habits that I wanted to implement, the immediate feelings I had were of joy, and hope that I finally could be doing something better for myself. The first day was filled to the brim with positive habits. I started off with a meditation, some gratitude-journaling, a cold shower, a long run in the park, a lot of reading, and I finally turned off my social media for good. I felt pretty good. Not amazing, but pretty good. I did this for a few days, and could tell I was getting positive results.
ONE THING TO KEEP IN MIND is that unlike my many years of trying habits and failing, my approach this time was actually a pretty well thought-out approach. I realized that if I was going to keep these habits going, I needed a strong why. Without a why, its easy to just go back to your usual habits and programs. The other thing I realized is that it’s not about doing too much of the habit. I found that you can do many habits, but the problem is when you work on one habit for too long. You drain yourself out, and the next day you might find it difficult to push yourself to do that amount of work again. So I went really easy first, and some of the habits (like meditation) I did for only five minutes in the beginning.
So that was it. I did my habits. They were positive, and I was positive. At least that’s what I thought as I kept doing them... until I started feeling less and less positive about them. I would do a workout, and feel awful sometimes. Or I would not use social media, but read instead, and felt so alone and so afraid. My mind wanted something, but it wasn’t getting it, and I could feel the repercussions of it. Finally I did the thing you do when there is no hope left, I Google-searched, “why positive habits make you want to die.” I stumbled on an article called, “Good Habits Make you Feel like You’re Gonna Die” By Loretta Breuning. It was all about how our brains do everything out of a means to survive, even when it comes to habit forming. That doughnut we eat every day after work? Thats a habit built out of survival. The phone that’s in our face right after we wake up, while our eyes are still closed— that is all survival too. She explained, ”anything that chases away a bad feeling promotes survival from your mammal
So its pretty easy to see why we enjoy the bad habits that we do. In some logical way they help us cope with the world, or at least thats how our reptilian brain feels. So what does that have to do with good habits and why might we feel a little under the weather when we begin doing them? According to Breuning, since our bad habits are tied into our coping mechanisms for survival, changing these habits and forming new ones feels like a potential threat to the primal brain. It also feels super difficult and tedious at times because you’re basically building new pathways in your brain. “The electricity in your brain flows the way water flows through pipes, finding the path of least resistance,” Breuning wrote. “If you’ve built a nice big channel in your brain, electricity will go there. If you’ve found something that makes you feel good, it will light up when you feel threatened. To do something different, you have to build a new neural pathway first. That's hard to do because the old pathway is already there when you're feeling bad.”
Basically Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your brain might feel like you’re rebuilding a coliseum.
Positive habits didn’t feel good, and that was tough for me, but realizing that feeling bad was a sign that I was reworking my entire habitual program made me relax a little. Positive habits don’t always feel good, and that’s okay, so I kept doing them, even when I felt like dying, and even when I felt like there was no point. Then a cycle began where I started feeling good again, then go back to feeling bad, and on and on. It was a pattern that I began to take note of. Loretta wrote a book called “Habits of a Happy Brain” that I picked up after reading the article. When I read the book and subsequently met with her in person, I started to realize that part of the reason why sometimes we feel so good and then we feel bad right after has nothing to do with our personal selves, and everything to do with our survival system and the way humans developed as survivor creatures. We feel bad, because our brain is constantly scanning for more threats, and reabsorbing all the good things we do, because good things help us to keep living, but scanning bad things prevents us from dying. Once I realized that this was just the way humans are, a sense of acceptance began to take into effect, and I felt much better about persisting with my habits.
Now that I’ve been doing my habits for almost half a year, I can say that it does get better, and life gets so much easier. After I started building these outside habits, I started to also look inside myself, and see what habits I could change there as well. I wanted to find the root of the problems that I was facing, and change the habits I had in my thinking patterns. This one is new for me, so yeah, I still sometimes feel like a sabertooth tiger might rip off my arms at any moment— but that’s okay.
About Sasha Feldman
Sasha Feldman is an actor and truth seeker. He has worked on tv and film since 2012, in shows like Ray Donovan, Hawaii 5-0, and Sun Records. You can currently catch him on the Epix series Get Shorty on Netflix. Beyond his work as an actor, he yearns to connect with the world, and is an avid reader, “Wim Hoff breather”, and lover of cold showers and good habits.