You make affirmations because you want something to improve. Then something happens, and your response or reaction is as though you never affirmed at all. What’s going on?

We sometimes have just a split-second to choose what we’re going to say (or do). If there’s a lot of emotion involved when triggered by what someone says or does, we may not respond quite the way we might have liked to. We may realize we’ve been triggered, but awareness of that and the opportunity to manage ourselves better takes a backseat (or leaves the room entirely) to how ego wants to react. Afterwards, we may feel disappointed in ourselves. We may know we could have handled ourselves better. We may question what we really believe, because as Joyce Meyer said, “What’s in our heart comes out of our mouth.” Now we’re in a quandary: do we mean what we affirm or don’t we?

This was my recent experience when someone asked me a question worded in a particular way about a topic that, I admit, is still a sore-spot with me. The question triggered my ego (which has an old tape loop playing about this), and what came out of my mouth was based on that. Within seconds, I felt disappointment in my response choices. My ego spewed words akin to the momentum of a boulder tumbling out of control down a hill: I couldn’t seem to stop myself from saying what I did, nor did my ego-aspect want me to. Once I stopped talking, I thought of all the things I could have said instead, words that would have been in alignment with what I affirm and actually believe. I “should” on myself about this one on and off the rest of the day.

My responses were inarguably contrary to what I believe and affirm when not triggered. I really didn’t want to create a match to the words I’d spoken, so I had to look at what had happened, because I don’t want it to happen again (it might happen again, but I want my self-adjusting attention on this).

While I pondered this, I read an article in the June 2013 issue of More magazine titled, “Change one small habit, change your life”, by Brian Alexander. “A-ha” moments came to me while reading the article about the challenge of habits or habitual behaviors, as this relates to why, after putting energy and effort into self-improvement, we can feel like it’s a “one step forward, two steps back” process at times, especially when triggered.

We are wired to form habits or habitual behaviors for the purpose of brain-energy conservation. Have you ever felt worn out from thinking long or hard about a something that challenged you? How often do you really want to have to think that hard? Do you want that much thought to be applied to, say, sweeping the porch? Have you ever done something like brush your teeth or fold laundry while your mind was focused on something else or just drifting from thought to thought? Isn’t it convenient not to have to use the same brain-energy to fold laundry as to balance a checkbook?

Many habits or habitual behaviors are what Alexander called “boilerplate templates”: actions we do frequently or repetitively. The brain would rather we have such templates or habits in place so it can conserve energy for reasoning and decision-making. We could consider habits or habitual behaviors the personal assistant that handles certain details so the executive part of our brain can reserve energy for matters that require more complex thought.

We’re easily swayed to form habitual behaviors by the brain through the reward system. The reward is a chemical response that either pleases us (like eating that piece of chocolate we crave) or relieves stress or anxiety (like eating that piece of chocolate we crave). Rewards are what we use to train animals, aren’t they? We give them a cue (a trigger) and they respond accordingly and receive their reward. Two-legged or four- or feathered: we all like rewards. And we tend to repeat what brings us desired rewards.

Our brains are wired to first and foremost keep us safe, alive, fed, and rested, which is our primary focus as youngsters and underlie our adult existence. Once these needs become easier to manage and maintain, the part of our brain that helps us look beyond basic needs becomes more active. We become aware of, or return our awareness to, the cause-and-effect factor regarding our past, present, and future experiences. This kind of thinking requires rationale or reasoning. And therein is the conflict for us: the choice between immediate reward (ego-based satisfaction) and rationale (contemplate consequences before we speak or act), which requires more brain-energy and can feel less satisfying to the ego-aspect that wants what it wants when it wants it.

There are times in our daily life when the reward we seek is relief from stress. Each person’s ability to manage his or her way through this reward vs. rationale maze is as individual as the person. This is why some people can change a habit or habitual behavior with seemingly little to no effort but it can be a real challenge for someone else, which makes criticizing anyone who is challenged in this way unjust. And because our triggers and stress-relief processes are unique to us, one habit we have may be easy to change but another one kicks us in the backside when we try to get rid of it, especially if it’s a stress-reliever we’ve relied on.

When times are challenging or extremely stressful, the desire for reward tends to outweigh the desire to be rational because our desire to relieve stress, painful emotions, or pain becomes paramount to that part of our brain activated first, to ensure our survival. Little thought is given to cause and effect during stressful or painful times—we want relief as quickly as possible. This is a survival mechanism that kicks into gear, akin to why your body demands sleep when you need to heal from an illness or injury.

There is also something researchers call depletion. It’s the result of trying to maintain self-control in a manner that denies rewards. This is why when you diet inappropriately, meaning a diet not appropriate for your personal chemistry or one of the starvation-type diets, nearly all you can think about are foods you’re denying yourself. You feel so deprived, that your ability to focus well goes off kilter. Once again, the part of your brain assigned to basic survival kicks into high gear: it wants to relieve stress caused by denial.

Depletion can also be the result of not saying all that the ego really wants to say when triggered. And, if ego does speak out, but still does not get the desired result, this is also a form of depletion and is why any of us speak repetitively about unresolved matters. That we might find a more constructive way to express ourselves with integrity for all involved in an effort to resolve an issue often isn’t a concern of the ego that feels threatened or criticized; so it experiences denial of what it craves, which is to feel safe, accepted, and satisfied.

Depletion keeps us craving whatever we perceive the reward to be, which makes changing a habit or habitual behavior quite challenging. However, sometimes what we crave is inappropriate; so it’s not as much a matter of satisfying the craving as it is exchanging an inappropriate reward for a more appropriate one.

Let’s revisit why we want to pay attention to what we say. We want a particular reward, say, an easier experience of life, so we seek to align with appropriate beliefs and to use words that support the beliefs and desired results. But if we’re triggered in a way that causes us stress, anxiety, or anger, the old habit of seeking immediate relief gets activated, and the reward of self-management gets shoved to the side. Words, including ones in opposition to what we’ve chosen to and do believe, can escape from us. And what can really make this more difficult is if we don’t realize we’re in this trigger-to-reward (or relief) loop, as I was initially unaware of in the personal example I shared. As with any tape loop, it repeats unless or until it’s stopped somehow.

We can go at all of this from a direction that researchers have discovered really does make a difference: Appreciation. Deliberately connecting with feelings of appreciation, gratitude, thankfulness—call it what you will—relieves stress and anxiety, not just when triggered, but before, so that we aren’t so easily triggered as we once were. Appreciation practiced daily, as often as needed or chosen, can actually ease our trigger-response, which is after all, a habitual behavior.

The article made a case-in-point about this regarding a woman who had so many stress-provoking moments in her life each day that she became used to (think depletion) reacting as though everything, including small matters, was a catastrophe. She got herself out of this loop by choosing something to appreciate or feel gratitude about every day, especially when triggered. Can you see how all of this would influence Law of Attraction?

Alexander wrote, “Self-awareness, self-monitoring and will power are all key to busting out of a bad habit and forging a new one.” There is a school of thought, though, that says will power really doesn’t work, that success is more about our Why and whether or not the reward from a new behavior motivates us more than the “reward” the old behavior provided. But, we can put self-awareness, self-monitoring, self-adjustment, and appreciation into practice, which creates small wins for us. Small wins lead us to the desired habits and results we’ve chosen.

The next time you catch yourself saying something contrary to what you really believe and affirm, go ahead and stop yourself. Put the brakes on that runaway train. You might even say aloud to whomever you’re with that what you just said is an old program and no longer what you really believe; then state what it is you really do believe. Do this to alter the energy you’re transmitting and to halt the unhelpful loop, as well as to reduce the energy of that particular trigger for a future time. It’s a good practice; one you’ll appreciate.

Practice makes progress.
© Joyce Shafer

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Author's Bio: 

Joyce Shafer is a Life Empowerment Coach dedicated to helping people feel, be, and live their true inner power. She’s author of “I Don’t Want to be Your Guru” and other books/ebooks, and publishes a free weekly online newsletter that offers empowering articles and free downloads. See all that’s offered by Joyce and on her site at