How To Be More Self-Aware Of Your Knee-Jerk Bad Habits (Or: Poker + Depression Pasta)

Want to be more self-aware? Break some bad habits? It starts with actually realizing what your go-to bad habits are! Click through to find out how!


I’m at a bar in Alaska, nursing an eight-dollar screwdriver, when the bartender asks if she can change the tv channel. I’ve been absorbed in picking apart my cardboard coaster so, no, I don’t mind.

She surfs through the channels, skipping Fox News and a fishing show, till she finds what she wants: a live broadcast of a poker game.

I know less than nothing about poker. How many cards do you get? How much are those little plastic coin things worth? Why is it fun to watch a bunch of dudes play cards?

I pick at my coaster and half-listen while the announcer says “Now, that’s a common tell. We’ll have to see how this plays out.”

And my former English teacher ears perk up because TELL IS NOT A NOUN WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT???

So I do what anyone in 2017 does: I google “poker tell.”

In poker parlance, a ‘tell’ is a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that is claimed by some to give clues to that player’s assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable.”

There are huge listicles and even entire books devoted to spotting these tells.  Experts have written thousands of words about unconscious behavior changes that belie someone’s belief about their state of mind.

I thought about the ‘tells’ in my own life, the things I unconsciously do when I’m tired, frustrated, or unhappy.

I remembered grad school and how my roommate would joke about my “depression pasta” – the bowl of noodles, butter, and cheese I’d always eat when I was overwhelmed by juggling coursework and two jobs.

She’d come home and if she saw a bowl in the sink that had clearly contained noodles and cheese, she’d wander out into the living room, point at the bowl, and ask “Are you okay?”

I thought about my tendency to bury myself in busywork – answering emails, formatting photos – when I have a big, intimidating task on my plate. Any time I find myself checking (and rechecking) email, it’s usually because I’m avoiding something.

We’ve all got tells. Most of us have a specific set of things we do, eat, or say when we’re feeling overwhelmed – and we might be completely unaware of them.

Our voice gets high when we’re saying yes to something we’re uncomfortable with. We eat comfort food after every interaction with a specific friend. We fall down a Netflix hole anytime it’s rainy or overcast.

3 ways to Be More Self-Aware Of Your Knee-Jerk Bad Habits

Notice what you do when you’re overwhelmed or upset

I mean, obviously, right? AND YET.

When we’re in the midst of a terrible mood, it’s rare that we take the time to notice how we’re dealing with it. We’re often so busy trying to feel better, we don’t take time to step back and consider that maybe pizza rolls won’t solve this problem, Sarah?

We’re so busy self-medicating with social media, food, shopping, alcohol, or gossip we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.

Next time you’re feeling bad, allow your usual coping mechanisms to run their course. This time observe your behavior with objectivity, love, and curiosity. When you do this, try speaking about yourself to yourself in third person. It’s been proven to help control emotions!

“Hmmm, looks like Chris is avoiding returning that call by flipping through Instagram. Interesting!” “Ooop, there she goes making pasta she’s not hungry for because it’s dark and cold and she has the house to herself.” “Talking shit about a professional peer after getting a snarky client email. Interesting choice, Jesse!”

Ask someone close to you if they’ve noticed any go-to behaviors when you’re clearly unhappy

Did you know that only 15% of people are truly self-aware? That means most of us are completely unaware of our behavior and how it’s interpreted by those around us.

If you’re feeling brave/emotionally solvent, ask your partner, best friend, or roommate if they’ve noticed you doing specific things when you’re upset.

And, uh, be prepared to be surprised and/or hear things you didn’t necessarily want to hear.

For example, I recently learned that when Kenny (lovingly) calls me out and I’m uncomfortable because I know he’s right, my tells are:
a) tickling him
b) hiding inside my scarf
c) literally pulling a blanket over my head???

In summary, I am very cool and super fun to be married to.

When you find yourself doing these things, say to yourself “I’m [insert thing you’re doing] because I’m [how you feel]”

These tells matter because they’re unconscious. We’re not actively choosing to peruse Facebook when we’re feeling lonely. I’m not thinking “I feel exhausted from working too hard today and I know pizza rolls will make me feel better.”

If we can acknowledge our behavior and notice how it ties to our emotions, it’s easier to choose a different reaction.

You can say:
“I’m pawing through the sales rack at Target because I’m bored.”
“I’m binge watching Will & Grace because I’m sad about the state of the world and I want some escapism.”
“I’m eating this third piece of cake because I don’t know anyone at this party and I’m feeling socially anxious.”

Of course eating three slices of cake or buying a $23 sweater isn’t the end of the world! And you should absolutely do those things – if you really, actually want to do them.

But if those behaviors are your bad mood tells and you’d like to change them, it’s totally possible.
Once you notice how you cope with challenges, you can choose to cope differently. Click To Tweet

I want to hear from you! What are your ‘tells’? Are you aware of them? What ‘tells’ do you see in the people around you?

P.S. This is exactly the sort of thing we talk about in my free, private Facebook group Money & Happy. Click here to join us!

Photo by Michał Kubalczyk on Unsplash

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  1. Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    Having my parents or my boyfriend point things out about me to me was and is really helpful in making me more self-aware – whether it’s about my good points or my bad points. We all have slanted viewpoints of ourselves, so it’s good to get a trusted person on the train!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  2. Anonymous

    I’m reading blogs when I feel emotionally drained and kind of anxious and lonely and tired – but well, yours really does have usefum stuff. Now to the question, what would actually help me to feel better – maybe put away the phone, do nothing, doodle, read a graphic novel, write a postcard…

    • Kamina

      I assume that was a typo for ‘useful’ above but I read it first as ‘usefun’. I think this is the perfect word to describe Yes and Yes. Sarah, your blog is full of usefun stuff.

  3. HEIDI

    I will check my phone in the middle of a movie or Netflix episode if what is on-screen makes me uncomfortable.

    • Shevaun Mckenzie Church

      SAME. I literally just realized this 2 days ago during an episode of ‘Big Little Lies’ when that fucking asshole vampire was beating the shit out of Nicole Kidman… again?

  4. Lacey

    “Productive Procrastination” is my biggest tell. When I’ve got a big, complicated, overwhelming, important project (which is actually the reason why I do what I do), I tend to work on anything other than the project because I’m nervous I’ll fail. Sometimes the procrastination is mild, like checking or sorting emails, but sometimes it’s rather intense, like deep cleaning.

    • kddomingue

      Yep, I do the same thing. If you come into my house to find me in the middle of pulling every single book off of the 16′ wide by 10′ high bookcase wall with rags and a bucket of water near by….well, I’m doing some serious “Productive Procrastination”! And my reasons are the same as yours. The thing I’m putting off is big and overwhelming and I’m scared I’m going to fail.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      YES. My house is never cleaner than when taxes are due 😉

  5. Angie Busch Alston

    “In summary, I am very cool and super fun to be married to.” Hahahahaha! I’m dying laughing. I think my husband would agree (sarcastically, of course) that, I too, am very cool and super fun to be married to. 🙂

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ha! We are Fun Wives! 😉

  6. Leslie

    My biggest tell is changing my hair. Whenever I feel out of control in a situation I tend to take it out on my hair by either having it cut a different way, dying it a different color, or both. That’s not to say I don’t do that when things are alright, it’s just my go to in tough situations. I’m more aware of it than I used to be and that has helped save both my hair and some money!

  7. Katharine

    Research. Omigosh, research. If I don’t want to be actually doing work, I will research the crap out of my life.

    Sometimes this research is related to the work I should be doing. Sometimes it is comparing the pros and cons of twenty different types of pillows on Amazon because I DO need to buy one so it feels life-productive even if it’s not work-productive. And sometimes it’s things like reading all about potty training or starting kindergarten even though my kid is barely one year old (wtf self?).

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I know people who do this!

  8. Anna

    This is timely stuff, Sarah. I recently started grad school and I realized that I check Facebook not because I’m bored, but because I’m stuck on a statistics problem/ don’t know what sentence should come next in my paper. The discomfort that comes from doing something intellectually hard makes me reach for an easy out.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I do this all the time! Noticing it is the first step!

  9. Kamina

    I know I’m not doing well if the house is messy or I need to nap during the middle of the day. If I look around and there are clothes piled up in my bedroom and I want to have a little lie down at 10am that’s like, alarm bells blaring.

    Also decision anxiety! That’s a huge tell of mine.

  10. Dressler Parsons

    Oh my gosh, ALL the time! Whenever a task comes up that I can’t confidently do on autopilot, I get a tiiiiny little pit of discomfort in my stomach and scroll through Instagram or Facebook while I low-key worry about buying a roll of fabric/clearing out a cluttered hallway/finishing up the first blog posts for my OWN DAMN BLOG that I’ve been wanting to start for TWO YEARS now. Your suggested mantra– i.e. “I am scrolling through Instagram because that hallway is SCARING me and I’m dreading clearing it out”–has been especially helpful this week in particular.

    I’d also like to throw in–sometimes, I need to listen and see if I need a break before continuing on. Like, “Okay, I just hardcore cleaned for a literal hour and a half. Maybe I’m NOW scrolling through IG because I need a little coffee break before I can contemplate my next Big Task.”

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      YES. That last bit is so important, too. The expectations I set for myself, my energy, and my productivity aren’t always realistic and I sometimes have to remind myself “You are not a robot! Sometimes you need a break!”

  11. Marsha (from

    100% going on any social media. And if I’ve blocked myself out of those sites, reading “Ask Polly” or watching trailers on youtube.

    Will keep an eye out for more. Thanks!

  12. Astrid

    I shop for clothes online (and buy stuff that’s way more expensive than I’d normally get) when I’m feeling anxious about something. I think it’s something to do with feeling like if I have this perfect skirt the other stuff will go well, how can bad things happen to someone with a skirt that nice? Did this just this morning to be perfectly honest, because it’s been a bad week in a bad month in a bad year and who knows maybe that second hand Helmut Lang dress really will make that awful labor dispute go away?

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