I almost completely ignored her.
It was near the beginning of a very busy Wednesday. I had behind-the-scenes promotional work to do for True Companions, and two podcast interviews about the book to record in the afternoon. My wife had a full day at her office and a school board meeting in the evening. She reached out to me around mid-morning and asked if I could use an app on my phone to place a lunch order for her at a local Thai restaurant, which she would pick up herself. I glanced at the text preview on my lock screen and went back to work. Fortunately, I was saved from the kind of inaction I would later regret by a word that popped into my head. I’d explained the word to a client earlier in the week.
The word was “habituation.”
The dictionary defines habituation as “the reduction of psychological or behavioral response occurring when a specific stimulus occurs repeatedly.” For instance, let’s pretend that when I put on my blue jeans these days, they are for some reason quite a bit tighter and less comfortable than before the pandemic. Just pretending of course, a little creative license. Ahem. At any rate, when I put on my blue jeans first thing in the morning they feel constrictive. I’m aware of the fabric squeezing me in unpleasant ways. By the end of the day, I don’t notice them at all. Why? Because my nervous system is programmed to quit processing the data. It decides the discomfort isn’t a threat to me as an organism, so it withdraws cognitive resources from feeling the discomfort and opens up the channel for other inputs, other sensations, other feelings. We habituate to uncomfortable things.
We habituate to pleasurable things, as well.
My last sip of coffee in the morning never tastes as flavorful as the first. My taste buds have habituated. Put your favorite song on repeat all day. It won’t be as enjoyable to listen to by the end of day. In fact, you may discover that you’re tuning it out altogether. You’ve habituated to it. The scent of the first flowers of springtime can be intoxicating after the icy odorlessness of winter, but by the time your potted mums decorate your front porch in the autumn, you’ve moved on to noticing the sweet rot of fallen leaves. It’s inevitable: exposure to something safe always results in habituation.
We habituate to our companions, too.
They’re around more than anyone else. They occur repeatedly in our lives. The things that once tickled us about them become things we don’t even feel any more. The things that once got our attention have been filed away as safe and unimportant, and our nervous system redirects our attention to other concerns.
For instance, when your favorite person in the world asks you to do them the smallest of favors, to order her lunch—just a few minutes and a few taps on a device, just a few calories expended to get her the calories she needs for her day—and you barely even notice the request, let alone consider acting on her behalf. Twenty years ago, I would have fought my way into and out of hostile enemy territory to retrieve her some pad Thai with tofu and vegetables. Now, I’m habituated. Now, I save my attention for the fresh concerns being thrown at me all day. Is it any wonder we can feel abandoned and isolated at times in even our closest relationships. We’re wired to abandon each other, in these small ways.
Fortunately, we are also wired to reverse our habituation.
According to research by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, which I present in True Companions, the “priming of our fragility” can radically reorient us. It’s what happens when you let in the awareness that all of life—the whole hard and holy ride, everything you are traveling through and everyone who is traveling with you—is temporary. Impermanent. Transient. Fragile. The dictionary defines “prime” as “to prepare or make ready for a particular purpose or operation.” To prime our fragility, then, is to take something that most of us spend our lives ignoring out of fear and sadness—death, mortality, loss—and to put it to use to resensitize ourselves to our companions. To unhabituate, if you will. Carstensen says the inevitable effect of priming our fragility is to become more present to, more grateful for, and more loving toward our truest companions.
On a Wednesday morning, I let my fragility be primed.
It made my companion more beautiful than mums in the autumn.
And I ordered her some noodles.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.