Why you confuse what is habitual with safe

Train track through sunny forest glade - learn about changing your neural pathways with Sarah Tuckett Psychotherapy and Counselling North Brisbane

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Why you confuse what is habitual with safe

Very often you will confuse what is habitual to you with what is ‘safe’. It’s why you often choose the same flavour of ice cream instead of trying out a new one. It’s also the reason that you stick to beliefs and patterns of behaviour that sometimes don’t particularly serve you. Like repeatedly going out with the same kind of person, despite previous relationships not having been so crash hot. These things are habitual and therefore ‘safe’. Your brain is running through the same neural pathway, like a train track.  If you want to change these patterns, you can engage your sense of curiosity and utilise the neuroplasticity of your brain to change the train track.

Let me explain this via the metaphor of dreadful cello playing

This year I’ve taken up the cello. Initially, I rented a cheap beginner’s cello from a music shop. Beginners always sound terrible. I was expecting this.  But this poor cello had been mistreated by a heap of school children before me, and I/it sounded truly execrable. Over time, though, I got used to this cello.

A few months later I bought a beautiful gleaming new cello.  “Now I’m going to sound SO much better” I thought. To my dismay, I sounded terrible. Much worse than I did on the old rental. I’d gone backwards in my ability because I was dealing with a new instrument.

Almost immediately I had thoughts of longing to go back to the rental instrument because I knew it better. It was easier, it was habitual. It felt SAFE.

But another part of me knew I had to persevere and engage a sense of curiosity and hope.  I thought to myself “I wonder how much better some of those notes are going to sound on this new cello?”.  “I wonder how long it will take me to get back to the same level of (in)competency that I was at on the rental?”

Apparently, I’m either grimacing or laughing my head off when I play because it sounds so awful


Imagine how this plays out in your personal life

Imagine what would have happened if I’d chosen to follow those thoughts and go back to the ‘safe’ rental cello. But that’s exactly what we do in our personal lives. Time and time again you will go back to what is safe and known.  You will go out with the same type of guy because something about him is familiar to you.  You do the same things wondering why you get the same result.

Why does this happen?  Because a part of your brain is programmed to search for the habitual – the RAS.


Let me introduce you to your RAS

The RAS (Reticular Activating System) is the part of your brain that sorts information.  Your conscious brain can only focus on a handful of things at one time, so the RAS searches through incoming data into your brain, and filters out the unimportant, presenting you with only the stuff you want to focus on.

For example, if you were thinking about buying an electric car, your RAS might be on the lookout for electric recharging stations. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be something you’d normally notice.

The RAS will seek out evidence to validate your beliefs about yourself and the world around you. So if you have beliefs such as “I’m a terrible person. I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy of love”. Your RAS is going to search out and present you with evidence that supports this.


How do you break the pattern?

What if you could persevere just a little bit longer and create new neural pathways in the brain – a new habitual?  You can do this by engaging your sense of curiosity. By doing this you are asking your RAS to look out for alternative data:

I wonder how much easier this new car is going to be when I get used to it?

I wonder what awesome things I’m going to be able to do in my new job?

I wonder what it would be like to go out with someone who actually treats me with kindness? (Perish the thought!)

I wonder how AMAAAAAZING I’m going to be at the cello? (cough)

Engage your RAS to help you look for a new, more pleasurable normal

So, do not confuse the habitual with safe. It’s just habitual. Just know that it’s your RAS doing its job.  But you can task it to do a new job by engaging a sense of curiosity about the good things in life and persevere until this new route through your brain becomes the new normal.

Signature of Sarah Tuckett Psychotherapy and Counselling North Brisbane




P.S. I’m still truly terrible at the cello and I love it! (My neighbours, not so much)


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