Discovering the habit you didn’t know you needed

These are often life defining moments, when we stop long enough to reflect on what we’re doing and find ways to get behind ourselves a little more. One of my mentors told me many times over, “you’re fine the way and you need to grow”. The point being we have to take care to do this growing work from a place of acceptance so that we don’t end up fighting ourselves tooth and nail in the service of ‘goals’. If you’re like me with roots in western culture, then you are probably well acquainted with the habit of pushing, controlling and trying to make things happen. When it comes to our personal development, this mode of being can only take us so far. Its often more receptivity we need, to listen in and move with the language of intuition. 

As habits go, I imagine the underlying question for most of us is how we can feel better, be more productive and bring more of ourselves to everyday life. Its certainly a big question and not one that could be addressed in one article.   What I want to explore here is how to find the habits that are likely to contribute to this project in unexpected ways, and especially the ones that are hidden from view. 

A short story to lay the foundation for the case of the hidden habit. Take Ami for instance, she is driven by connection. She loves to network and be part of groups. Although not always easy, navigating the dynamics within group space comes naturally to her. Recently, she was on a team building day and one of the exercises she took part in was to stand in sequence from most to least experienced person in the company. Her manager made a mistake and had her stand out of place before a lessor experienced person. She immediately felt something off in her gut. It was visceral rather than intellectual, a ‘felt sense’ as philosopher Eugene Gendlin termed it. The problem is we often miss this felt sense that we can only experience in the body, and this has untold consequences because the body can guide us in ways the mind cannot. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk wrote a New York best seller called ‘the body keeps score’, the essence of which explains how the body never lies and that understanding the language of the body is key to unlocking our potential. Not so for the mind. We can get caught up in all kinds of stories that have little bearing on reality. That doesn’t mean we need to reject the mind, mind has a magnificence of its own. Just that mind and body together will always lead us in more informed ways so that our actions reflect more of who we are. Back to the story, Ami asserted herself with the manager that wrongly placed her and moved to her correct place. She immediately noticed a sense of calm return to her body. Towards the end of the line, she noticed that her friend Tanya was also out of place but wasn’t standing for  her place. Tanya was unable to read and act on the cues that her body would have been sending her, that would have likely led her to a similar action as Ami. 

This is the function of social intelligence and its instinctive, meaning we are not moved from our heads but rather from the gut. Ami was more connected to this intelligence, she knew it in her body and followed the sensations that accompanied the instinct. When she stood out of her place she experienced unease and only when she returned to the right sequence did she feel ok again. In contrast, Tanya was not used to navigating the discomfort that ensues when navigating group dynamics like these. You may have to stretch your imagination to feel into the possible effects of each outcome. Part of our survival depends on being able to read and navigate these kinds of social cues. Those who are connected to this intelligence are able to contribute to the groups they are part of in more meaningful ways and earn status that in itself is a kind of currency. 

Although instinctual energy is not something that shows up in the mind, we can still bring perspective to it to see how it is working in us. Think about when you are thirsty, you know it in the body. You feel the thirst and reach for a glass of water. This is another example of our instincts in action, and we have three broad categories of instinctual energy. One only needs to look to nature for confirmation as these instincts have evolved over millions of years to shape the nervous system that we know today.  These intelligence’s function to keep us safe and thriving in the world. At a basic level, they are as follows: 

1. Self preservation (SP) – immediate needs, money, nutrition, general health and wellbeing 

2. Sexual / creative (SX) – need for one to one connection , creation, transmission and recreation 

3. Social (SO) – safety in the group, tuned into well being of the group. what is our role or contribution to the group 

The key point here is that we need all three instincts in balance and for most of us there is a significant gap between the leading and lagging instinct. As the theory goes, which is connected to the Enneagram typology system, these instincts are stacked from a dominant to weakest. In my case, I am SP leading, followed by SX and SO lagging. That means some of the most effective work I have done on myself has been in the realm of the social instinct. And this certainly wasn’t always obvious to me. In fact for most of my life, I did my personal work, guess where! more in my leading instinct. I focused on diet, health, money and all things self-preservation. The really interesting point is working on the weaker is good for all three as well as our emotional and psychological health.

As we develop from childhood we tend to grow more dominant in one instinct and weaker in another. To maxmise gains in the practice of habits building, we do well to pay attention to our weaker instinct. Say for instance you are self preservation dominant, that means you would be the kind of person that is naturally more attuned to things like diet, health and wellbeing. One can often tell a SP dominant person when you enter their home. You might feel a sense of calm as you enter their home, many plants for instance and resources like light and air that resource us.   For this kind of person building habits around health and wellness or even care around money may not be the ground that needs the most immediate attention. That’s not to say that people who lead with SP shouldn’t work on habits in this area but the question for me is, what is most pressing baring in mind that strengthening the weaker instinct tends to bring balance to the others all on its own. I am SP leading and my social has mostly tended to be the lagging instinct. Like I said, I leaned into SP when the going got tough in my life. 

My wife in contrast is a very different kettle of fish. We are actually exactly opposite in our instinctual stack so that I end up being the one nagging her to fill up her water bottle and she is on my case to better prepare for social engagements. Just the other day for instance we had people over and we sat in the lounge for the duration of the evening. Being social, she said to me the next day that she had a niggle to move us to the kitchen. She felt it would have been more conducive for the group. This hadn’t crossed my mind at all but when I listened to her I understood exactly what she meant. It was a similar to the feeling I get when I know I didn’t eat well, and feel the effects of it the next day.   Its a perfect illustration of different things going on for us and neither being more right, just different strengths. 

Because we understand this map of instincts, it gives us the opportunity to language what would otherwise be invisible to us. We can both (gently) call each other out when our focus is other than where it should be. On a relationship level this can be a game changer because its a very common reason why we miss each other. We often expect people, especially the ones we care about to see the world from our vantage point and we are often worlds apart. 

What to do then? how to find the habit hiding from view. Reflect on your instinctual stack. if you are SP like I am you will most likely thrive in habits that move you to deeper levels of health and wellbeing. But that’s not necessarily going to be the most productive way of focusing your energy. If you are like me than developing the social instinct may not occur to you at all. Now you are in the field of the hidden habit. Well what could you do in order to develop socially could be a powerful question to ask yourself. If you are like my wife, you would be someone who would likely hugely benefit from exercising the SP instinct and could think through the kinds of habits that would support you in this space. Maybe you are someone with a lower Sexual / creative instinct. This is often called one to one, people who thrive in the juice of intimate connection and the intensity of creative energy. 

Simple steps to follow – 

  1. Identify your instinctual stack. 
  2. Experiment with habits  in your weakest instinct.
  3. Review and adjust as you go.  






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