• Shannon Murray


Changing Our Habit Energy and Why Listening to Our Emotions Is Not Always Helpful

Years ago, I would have said that above all else, we need to pay attention to our emotions.

In other words, if we are sad, we need to sit in that sadness, really feel it, and explore the source of our sadness; if we are angry, it is important to deal with the source of our anger; if we are depressed, we need to pay attention to our depressed feelings...

Now, after parenting a teenager and working with clients of varied ages and backgrounds, I have come to believe that listening to our emotions is NOT always best for our mental health. In fact, it is the opposite.

You might wonder how can I say this as a psychotherapist. Isn't that essentially in the job description - to get people more in touch with their feelings and emotions?

Of course - but what I have also come to appreciate and what I now try to help my clients understand is that our emotions don't always take us down the most helpful tracks.

Imagine the metaphor that our EMOTIONS are TRAINS passing through a train station. We are standing on the platform and throughout the day, multiple trains (emotions) come and go through our train station (our minds and our hearts). The doors on the trains always open and at any given time, we can get off and on whichever train we choose. (Of course it is not that simple but for the sake of the metaphor, let's say it is.)

So let's say we get fired from our job. Naturally, we have a reaction. For some of us, our automatic response is to immediately jump on the train (or react with an emotion) of Self-doubt. Once on board the Self-doubt train, we tell ourselves familiar stories that are full of self-doubt: of course we got fired, we aren't smart; other people are much smarter than we are; we didn't go to a good enough college; we made so many mistakes, it is a miracle we weren't fired earlier... We can think of many examples that validate all of our negative feelings.

We get more and more settled on board the Self-doubt train in our familiar seat with our familiar blanket and all of our old familiar stories so now, we don't just feel terrible about getting fired, but we ALSO feel terrible about all of the other negative things we have piled on top of ourselves. And depending on how long we stay on board, we are going to feel worse and worse and worse.

For most of us, we have certain trains that we get on most often. Buddhism calls this kind of behavior "habit energy". In other words, due to this habit energy, we automatically, without intention or thought, step off the platform and onto one of these familiar trains.

Some of us get on the Guilt train. We feel guilty so much of the time - guilt that we aren't a good enough parent; guilt about not being a worthy partner; guilt when we express what we need; guilt when we set boundaries. Guilt can be such a powerful emotion that it feels like a thick smoke layer that obscures many of the other trains from sight.

Some of us get on the Anger train because anger can trick us into thinking that we are strong when really, we feel vulnerable or sad. Some of us really are angry but we avoid the Anger train and instead, get on the Self-sabotage train where we turn our anger inward.

For those of us who struggle with addiction, we are even more likely to feel that we have no control over which trains we get on and off. Life can feel as if we are passed from train to train without any choice or intention.

Then what is the goal when we stand on the platform in our train station?

Our goal is to first PAUSE and BREATHE when a difficult or stressful event occurs.

Then, before we react, we try to NOTICE our bodies and our surroundings. We can do this by looking around and identifying 5 things we see, hear, smell, and physically feel as we take deep breaths.

As we are pausing and noticing, we then try to DECIPHER what feelings are old habit energies and old reactions and what feelings are more authentic in the present moment.

So when we get fired and stop ourselves from immediately jumping on the Self-doubt train, we give ourselves the time and space to see what other feelings come up besides the automatic knee-jerk self-doubt we are so used to feeling.

The new path we create for ourselves is that we are now standing on our platform with completely new eyes and when the Self-doubt train comes into the station, we can tell ourselves: that is not the train to board right now; my old habit energy that I am most familiar with is telling me to jump on that train but in actuality, right now I am feeling much more disappointed and hurt that my boss fired me. Disappointment and hurt are my authentic feelings in response to what is happening in this very moment.

You might ask, "Well, how is that any better? Those feelings don't feel good either!" and they may not but the point is not whether or not the feelings feel good or bad - the goal is that we allow ourselves to be authentic.


The moment when we choose a new train to board is the moment of growth and profound change because we give ourselves a gift of authenticity. What I mean by this is that feeling disappointed and hurt is an authentic response to being fired. If we get fired and automatically get on the Self-doubt train, chances are we tell ourselves old stories of how we aren't good enough and as a result, these old stories and beliefs often consume us and prevent us from honestly looking at the present situation because our minds are overloaded with negativity.

By contrast, when we step onto the Disappointed train, we are present for ourselves in a different way and we can honestly consider why we got fired. We can ask ourselves if we made mistakes? How could we have done better? We can examine if that job was a good fit for us or maybe we decide we would do better in a new job without that old job defining our worth.

Changing our habit energy and boarding new trains will be the hardest steps for all of us because psychologically, we repeat the familiar - even when the familiar feels worse.

Logically, it may seem counterintuitive but yet, we all do it! We resist getting on "new" or different trains but we have to learn to STOP ourselves with kindness and compassion for ourselves when our emotions try to pull us to even more negative places.

Our feelings are NOT helping us so we don't have to let them control us.

So many of my clients struggle with what I refer to as over-riding their positive thoughts and feelings. Yet, they rarely stop themselves from getting on board their negative trains.

This is where our work is: to pause, identify our authentic feeling, get on board the matching train, and eventually find our way to the positive trains so we can support ourselves and feel better.

What are the trains you find yourself most often riding? Is there any circumstance in your life where you know that if you picked a different train, the situation would be better?