Let old habits go

Dr. David McGarva writes:

When our cat came from the pound, she was terrified by the sound of vacuum cleaners. We didn’t know why. We never will. Probably some event when she was younger.

She doesn’t know either. Animals can’t remember events that happen to them. Remembering stories is called “episodic memory”, and it isn’t installed in most animal brains.

This is hard for humans to get our heads around, because it’s so different from the way our memories work. When something happens to a dog or a horse, all they take away is the takeaway (“I like Mary” or “humans with sticks are dangerous”). They don’t hold on to what happened. Because who needs a head full of stories and anger and resentment? That works for them: they know enough to stay safe. Most of the time that’s all you really need.

Slowly, Camilla learned to trust us. And one day, while she was sitting on the arm of a chair, I put my right hand on her back (where she likes it) and I turned on the vacuum with my left hand. She sat quietly. She was fine. She’s never been scared by a vacuum again.

It took less than five seconds. It’s lasted eleven years.

It should be that easy for everyone.

Mostly it’s not. Mostly, humans are too smart to let themselves relax like cats. Most of us have bought into the nineteenth-century story that the only way to edit your hangups is to spend years analyzing your childhood.

Yes, of course childhood affects who you grow up to be. One of the most important things we learned as kids was how to fit in to our surroundings. And many of us didn’t learn what to do when the surroundings change.

There’s no reason not to learn it now. No reason not to be the best adult you can. Your back story is only a back story: childhood is the first thirty minutes of your personal movie, and for sure it’s where you came from, but it’s not where the rest of your life happens.

Camilla’s not very bright, but she knew enough to outgrow a part of her kitten personality that wasn’t useful any more. It should be that easy for everyone. If we were as smart as cats, all we’d have to do would be to notice that vacuum cleaners have stopped being dangerous.

You’re as smart as a cat. A hundred times as smart, if you’re the kind of client I like to work with. And that’s the problem. What gets in our way is that humans love to over-complicate things. We tell ourselves stories. We make up explanations for things that don’t need to be explained.

Now, if you do know where your unwanted habit started, you can use that knowledge: it could be the only tool you need. If all you have is a guess that feels true, it’s fine to use that. Then the next time you meet that vacuum cleaner, just tell yourself this situation’s not the same as what happened before. If you have no idea where the habit started, that’s no problem. Just look inside and tell your younger self thanks for keeping me safe all these years, but now let me try it by myself for a while. And see what happens.

-David