Biography of a Habit

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The following post is an excerpt from my new course "Rewiring Your Brain for Effortless Habit Change." The course will be available in a month, and you can pre-register by signing up here. The course is only $250--12 sessions (or $1800) worth of lessons for a fraction of the price. 

Read on to learn more about the anatomy of a habit!

Every habit has a good intention.

I always begin with this when I work with clients. What does this mean? 

A habit is born out of a need for efficiency or relief. Think about it: you are anxious and start biting your nails. It relieves some stress, so you begin to do it more often. Soon, you’re doing it a lot. So much, in fact, your brain can no longer distinguish between the behavior (nail-biting) and the anticipated reward (relief from stress).

The story behind your habit disappears. And when you lose your story, your habit takes on a life of its own.

Like unexamined trauma, it takes on enormous power through anonymity. An untethered habit is an independent agent. By shedding its origin story, it loses its anchor to your consciousness, making it really, really hard to break.

Just as unimaginable trauma exerts mystery and power, a habit with no tangible origin takes on its own power. We start to view it as something that just happens--the result of powerful, mysterious forces or wicked whims of a merciless deity. And we lose our free will over it. 

This is why surrendering habits involves, well, surrender. When you lose your power to the habit,  you cannot overcome it with free will. Think about it: you may really want to surrender your habit, but you simply can't. You will not magically gain the ability to change your habit out of free will.

The process of changing a habit entails (1) disempowering it by identifying its origin story, (2) determining its relationship to reality (does biting your nails really calm you?) and (3) calling upon a source of power (internal or external) that is greater than your will.

No, I do not necessarily mean the G-word. This can be your inherent personal power, the power of nature or the universe, or the help of another.

But let's go back to the start. First, you have to return and remember.

The power of remembrance is that it makes it challenging to continue acting upon immoral or unhelpful urges; by shedding light on the nature of the habit, you make it less appealing. 

Just as we say "never again" in response to tragic world events, so you say "never again" to the story of your habit.

However, memories, as we know, are malleable.

Research suggests that every time we revisit a memory, we re-create it. 

So does this mean you can't access the story of your habit?

No, it means that there are multiple stories you need to consider; the narratives you made up are just as important as the truth because they bolster your commitment to the habit. Your brain and body don't know the difference between the truth and your imagination. The made-up narrative clues you in as to which judgments and beliefs you have attached to your habit.

So what is a story? How do we find it?

A story is a pattern. We make patterns to make meaning of the barrage of stimuli that assaults us every day. we weave disparate events together to make meaning of our experience.

Similarly, we tell stories because our stories tell us who we are. And we have a need to know who we are, to be reminded and reassured that we are important at all. 

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. There is an initiating moment, a period of rising intensity,a climax, and a resolution.

Stories often feature judgments and interpretations; without interpretations, we would not be able to fill in the existing gaps in our stories. We need judgments to determine the value of events in our stories.

An example of a story about a habit: I started smoking cigarettes when I was thirteen because I saw my mom do it. I kept going because it helped with my stress and got me through graduate school. Then I started coughing and having trouble working out. Now I'm overweight. I think I will die from smoking, and I can't forgive myself for that.

From  this example, you can see that there are several ways habits differ from reality:

  • A story is causal: when things happen in succession, there is causality. But the real 
  • A story contains a moral structure: there are good and bad events
  • A story forcibly neglects all contradicting events and stimuli.
  • Finding those stimuli is important to rediscovering  the truth behind the story 
  • Remember these criteria (or I will remind you) as we go

Let's examine the science.
What happens in your brain when you tell a story? Let’s read a passage from neuroscientist Robert Burton’s paper.

Let’s begin with an utterly simple example of a story, offered by E. M. Forster in his classic book on writing, Aspects of the Novel: “The king died and then the queen died.” It is nearly impossible to read this juxtaposition of events without wondering why the queen died. Even with a minimum of description, the construction of the sentence makes us guess at a pattern. Why would the author mention both events in the same sentence if he didn’t mean to imply a causal relationship?

Once a relationship has been suggested, we feel obliged to come up with an explanation. This makes us turn to what we know, to our storehouse of facts. It is general knowledge that a spouse can die of grief. Did the queen then die of heartbreak? This possibility draws on the science of human behavior, which competes with other, more traditional narratives. For instance, a high school student studying Hamlet might read the story as a microsynopsis of the play..

The pleasurable feeling that our explanation is the right one—ranging from a modest sense of familiarity to the mighty and sublime “a-ha!”—is meted out by the same reward system in the brain integral to drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. The reward system extends from the limbic area of the brain, vital to the expression of emotion, to the prefrontal cortex, critical to executive thought. Though still imperfectly understood, it is generally thought that the reward system plays a central role in promoting and reinforcing learning. Key to the system, and found primarily within its brain cells, is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that carries and modulates signals among brain cells. Studies consistently show that feeling rewarded is accompanied by a rise in dopamine levels.


So….a story is a habit. Memory is a habit. And it works the same way as a habit; you get a reward from telling it, and it feels good.

Therefore, part of dismantling that story is examining the trigger and reward of the story itself; what makes you tell it? What does it confirm for you?

To trace the narrative of a habit, find the elements of the story. Begin with the original story--the first one you ever told.

When you smoked that cigarette at thirteen, what was the story you told yourself to enable that behavior?

What about the one you told at 18 when you ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung?

What about the story you tell yourself now? How has it changed from the original?

Only when you trace the biography of your habit can you witness the truth and free yourself from the mysterious power it holds over you.

For more Habit Transformation tips, sign up for my newsletter or reach out at [email protected]. I am always happy to give tips and suggestions--or merely listen (for free, duh). 

Peace, love, and personal growth,

Camille Louise




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