One way to train yourself to be more aware of your unhealthy automatic behaviors is by practicing mindfulness of some of the more mundane behaviors that we tend to do when we are “on autopilot.” Driving a car is one example (for those who have been driving for some time). Remember your driver’s test? When you first started driving, all of your actions were very intentional — you probably thought about checking the rear view mirror, thought about putting your hands in the right position on the steering wheel, thought about checking your blind side before switching lanes. After months and years of practice, however, driving has become automatic. You don’t think about all of the behaviors that go along with driving, you just do them, automatically.
Mindfulness can help make processes that happen automatically (i.e., without conscious choice) more intentional. For individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), some very problematic behaviors (e.g., self-harm, violence,impulsive behaviors) are so habitual that they become automatic. If you are struggling with any kind of automatic harmful behavior, mindfulness is an important skill to learn.
To start to train yourself to be more mindful of automatic behaviors, start with mindfulness of driving. Practice this exercise each time you drive for a week. If you do not drive, the same principles apply to any other automatic behavior — pick something that you do so often that it has become habitual and automatic (e.g., making coffee, taking a shower), and practice being mindful of each action that makes up that behavior.
Disclaimer: Remember, mindfulness is not about relaxing or tuning out, it is about being aware of your experiences. Please only attempt this exercise if you feel that you can engage in the exercise safely.
Start by approaching your car/truck with the intention of being mindful.
Notice each of the actions involved in starting the car: opening the door, sitting down, putting on your seatbelt, putting the keys in the ignition, turning the keys. Be aware of the sensations in your body throughout. Notice the feeling of sitting down, the feel of the cold metal key in your hand.
As you pull out of your parking space, notice the sensation of motion, and the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel. Expand your awareness so that you are really aware of all of the things in your field of vision. In your mind, label each of the steps of your behavior (e.g.,”I am checking my rear view mirror. There is nothing in the way, I am backing up”).
Continue practicing being aware of your experience of driving. If you notice that thoughts have pulled you away from the experience (e.g., you are thinking about something in the past or future), just gently shift your attention back to the experience of driving.
Each time you stop at a red light or stop sign, use that as a cue to come back to the experience of driving. Our minds very easily wander to other things when we are driving because it is a habitual behavior. Each time you are stopped, just remind yourself to come back to being aware of driving.
Continue to drive mindfully until you arrive at your destination.
Remember that each time you practice mindfulness, you should expect that your mind will wander. That is just a normal thing that human minds do. The goal of mindfulness is to come back to being aware of the experience over and over, not to be able to focus perfectly!
Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditations in Every Day Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994.