“For years, I used anger to intimidate others so I could feel powerful. I didn’t make that discovery until after I was fired, and it took a while for me to understand that my need for power was an attempt to dispel a hidden sense of inadequacy. The crux was this: although I began to see the anger didn’t benefit me anymore – indeed, was the very reason I was let ‘go’ – my sense of inadequacy deepened because I could not bring my anger under control. It had grooved itself into a habitual Attitude.”
Habits begin when intense reactions – such as anger – chemically flood brain neurons. The chemical changes produce electrical impulses which enable connections with other neurons. This surge or ‘synapse’ is the first faint mark; the initial biological linking chain or path in the brain which we term ‘learning’. Similar situations or behaviours causing the same reaction(s) will permanently cement the synapse chain, allowing you or me or Ted to say: “I learned how to ….”
Once a pathway is laid down, it cannot be erased; meaning that if Ted was going to change his habit, he would have to construct a new, more favourable, and much stronger synaptic network overtop the old one.
“I had no idea my Attitude was habitual; or that a habit was formulated using a cue, routine and reward system until after reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits, years later . That being said, during the months that followed the job loss, I was particularly short-tempered and testy; I tried to remain calm, but the best I could do was to grit my teeth or quietly fume.
At that point, I still wanted; needed; had an overwhelming desire for the reward part of the habit. The reward was two-fold; 1) I felt powerful before and during a blowup, and 2) the only time I could feel peaceful was in its aftermath.
I finally ‘got hold’ of the anger the day I found ‘the’ hole in my favourite sweater just as I was getting ready to go for a walk. I shoved my arms into it, and forced myself outside. As my feet kicked at the fall leaves, as I irately fingered the hole, I fumed. My wife had promised to sew it weeks ago. But instead of my usual attempt to work myself up even further by imagining her line of defense, I found myself actually ‘listening’ to what she would say without the need to retort.
It was the first time I’d ever let myself really hear and see things from someone else’s perspective. By the time I got home, every vestige of anger was gone, and I was full of the kind of peace no blowup had ever or could ever provide.”
The mind arrives at decisions and determines behaviour based on the blindingly-fast pathways our neurons have carved in the brain. Some paths display marvelous perspectives; others: dead-end wailing walls. Known as ‘Attitudes’, they show us how we approach events, situations, other people and ourselves. Indelibly fixed in our minds, the conduits they follow fill our minds with either peace or poison.
“Although that all happened years ago, I still find the process of stepping into someone else’s shoes as absorbing, and often as startling as I did that fall day. I suppose you could say I finally managed to get a really big Attitude.”