The key to developing healthy habits is zeroing in on shame

“Why don’t you slow down and look at it?” Michael Mugaku Zimmerman Roshi, teacher at Salt Lake City’s Two Arrows Zen center, asked me.

“It” was an urge I’d had that morning. The five-day Zen Buddhist retreat had pushed me to my caffeine addict edge. No phone, no books, no talking, no snacks. Just meditation, sleep, three meals a day, and a big steamy, pungent vat of coffee in the middle of the kitchen.

“When you get the urge, just pause,” he said. “See what happens.” So began my two-month journey to kick a caffeine habit a decade in the making.

Roshi’s suggestion wasn’t the typical “fight the urge.” He was recommending what the retreat was all about: slowing down and getting curious. Turns out, that’s all I needed.

The next morning after my usual cup, I sat and faced the big vat from across the room. Spoons clinked on the inner walls of mugs. A fresh pot of coffee gargled on the counter. Then a sort-of tunnel vision set in. Why not have another cup? What’s the big deal? I thought. My breath shortened. More thoughts came, but in a different voice: There he goes again. He shouldn’t be craving more coffee. He’s weak!

That was the turning point. I remembered what Roshi had said and realized that the voices were just thoughts. Curiosity appeared, about the thoughts. Then empathy, towards the part of me so anxious that more coffee seemed soothing. Then equanimity — another cup would be nice, but I didn’t really need one.

That’s the thing about shame, that second voice that judged me for wanting more coffee. Shame never works. If anything, it’s counterproductive to changing habits and starting new ones. It’s target is “I.” I, in my essence, am wrong. I am not living up to an expectation or standard, so I am bad, wrong, evil, unworthy.

Why should we even try to change if we’re unworthy? “Internalized feelings of inadequacy are a massive block to moving forward in a good and healthy way,” writes English literature professor Nora Samaran.

In fact, shame triggers the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that fear does. It activates our “fight, flight, or freeze” response, the body’s chemical and physical reaction to danger. It overloads our circuits right when we’d otherwise be able to choose how to act. “The experience of shame — feeling fundamentally deficient — is so excruciating that we will do whatever we can to avoid it,” writes meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach.

That first morning on retreat, I’d experienced a chain reaction. First, boredom. Then restlessness and an urge for more coffee. Then shame about the urge. Then, on autopilot, I poured another cup. Then again: boredom, restlessness, shame, and another cup.

But after talking with Roshi, slowing down, and watching the pattern play out inside of me, the reactions stopped. The urge faded, and I went for a walk in the Utah morning light.

Now, I didn’t give up caffeine for good right then and there. But that morning started me down a path of weaning myself using decaf and satisfying my urges with seltzer water. As James Clear has documented, stopping a habit or starting a healthy one is often easiest when broken down into continuous small improvements. “All big things come from small beginnings,” he writes. “The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision.”

Avoiding shame, I believe, is the most powerful “single, tiny decision” we can make. The hard part is, shame is everywhere. We inherited it from our parents, who shamed our “bad” behavior when were young. We soak it up from this culture that blames all issues, problems, and addictions on personal failings. We’re supposed to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, take care of ourselves, be perfect — despite systemic racism, patriarchy, and historic economic inequality.

But to really change, we have to internalize a different story about ourselves. One that says we are worthy, no matter what we’ve done in the past. “The truth is that you already are good enough,” writes Nora Samaran. “You always were. Your actions can be not good enough, and your essence remains good.”

I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out.

Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.