the mischievous monster in your head


Roald Dahl’ first children’s book was The Gremlins.

The term gremlin refers to an imaginary mischievous sprite lurking in the electrics. World War II pilots coined the phrase when their engines, mechanics or electronics developed unexpected faults. In Dahl’s book, written in the 1940s, the gremlins’ motivation for sabotaging aircraft is revenge for the destruction of their forest home, which was razed to make way for an aircraft factory.

As human beings, neurons in our brains fire electrical impulses. This is how we think.

Often however, we have glitches in our own electrics; our thinking engines. For many of us, annoying little programmes have infiltrated our thinking process. This unwanted code, this inner voice, runs despite our wishes. The inner voice becomes a habit. It becomes something we routinely tell ourselves, in our heads. This self talk sabotages us. Derails us. Causes us to detour or to crash land. Often these little subroutines of code take the form of “I can’t…”, “I shouldn’t…”, “If only…”, “I’m not good enough to….”. They are self judgements and limiting beliefs.

The familiar friends of these little inner voices, the ones who speak up most regularly, become our gremlins. Mischievous little sprites lurking in our thinking.

In Roald Dahl’s book, the gremlins are persuaded to change their habits and are retrained to repair aircraft rather than sabotage them.

Maybe we need a gremlin retraining school?



the balance of both?

change routine balance
A change is as good as a rest, so the saying goes. But we are creatures of habit, so says another familiar saying.

So which?

Most of us like to experience something new from time to time. Something different. The first time experience is life affirming. It is growth. It is learning. It brings excitement. Anticipation. We holiday in new locations, learn a new skill, see a new band live, buy a new outfit, change our job. Change injects adrenaline. Gives us a buzz. We seek it to bring interest, to force movement, to drive personal growth.

Yet we also like routine. We like the familiar. Something predictable. Solid. Grounded. There is great joy in revisiting a memorable place again, enjoying a favourite meal, wearing that familiar shirt, replaying that special album track. In fact routine structures our lives. We rise at the same hour, dress, shower and breakfast in the familiar sequence. We travel to work the same route at the same time. Regular meetings. Story time, bath time, bed time.

Change and consistency. New and familiar. Spontaneity and routine.

Maybe we are creatures of contrast? Maybe that’s the habit?

what’s your worst bad habit?

bad habit chewing pencil
From childhood we are alerted to the dark path of the bad habit.

Don’t suck your thumb
Don’t bite your nails
Don’t twirl your hair
Don’t fidget, sit still
Don’t pick your nose…

Of course in these examples it is the parent speaking, the adult. They have decided this behaviour is ‘bad’. For many, this is because they were conditioned as children to believe these habits were bad, by their own parents, by ‘society’. It is as if we have passed the judgement ‘bad’ down through the generations.

But what is a habit? Convention might say a habit is a practice, a manner, a behaviour that has become a pattern. A pattern that is hard to give up. Change requires the exercising of that thing we call ‘will power’.

I have spoken before here about behaviour being purposeful, having a structure. Trigger, behaviour, reward.

Those childhood habits I have mentioned might share similar triggers … a sense of worry, anxiety, restlessness, feeling exposed, alone, needing comfort? They might also share a reward? They all seem to have a property of physical connection to ourselves, be it thumb, hair, fidgety bottom, fingers, nose. Maybe a form of comfort from connecting to our own bodies?

So why bad?

One definition of a bad habit is one that has the potential to be detrimental to our physical or mental health.

Convention in the adult world might list such things as smoking, eating too much fast food, gambling, drinking too much, late night snacking as bad habits. Again, maybe it is society that creates this assessment, this valuation of bad? Not just invented though, not just handed down in stories and tales from elders, we have researched the medical implications of smoking, drinking, over-eating. We have hard evidence. We know.

Take a smoker. They know it is harmful, yet they persist. Why? Lack of will power? Maybe. Maybe that’s just another way of saying the reward is too important to me?

I was once in a training, where we were asked to list the benefits or rewards from smoking. Many were social – an opportunity to socialise, connect with like-minded people. Some described it as relaxing. We listed over forty benefits, from a room of sixty people, only a quarter of whom smoked. But one delegate offered a very powerful benefit. They described how it helped them remember their father – who had died of lung cancer. An odd behaviour at a logical level? But, that’s a very powerful reward. I suggest it might trump will power every time.

So paying attention to the triggers and rewards, might be useful here? It is these that drive the habit. The rewards can be well hidden, logically hard to rationalise and so hard to unearth. Seeking them out can be tricky. Be persistently curious. Keep asking ‘what do I get from behaving like this?’ Finding another way to get that reward will help you change the habit.

Maybe we need to talk not so much of ‘bad habits’, but more of ‘rewarded habits’?

So, what IS your worst bad habit?

Not because society labels it bad, but because it carries a reward you very much want or need. Your most rewarded habit? And, if you would like to change the habit or behaviour, how might you get that reward another way?