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How many times did you make such a decision: starting tomorrow, I will quit smoking, biting my nails, overeating, drinking coffee… or: I will start exercising, watch less television, be more organized… Typically, such decisions appear easy to put into practice, starting tomorrow, of course, just a little effort and attention needed.
Tomorrow comes and we start to feel stronger and stronger resistance to our decisions. Continuing old habits feels so comfortable and harmless, while new habits appear unpleasant, difficult or boring. Your body starts sending signals that something is missing, and your brain readily comes with excuses: just a little bit… it’s not THAT harmful, really… today can be the last day… I guess my body needs it when I feel such an urge for it…other people do it and it doesn’t seem to hurt them that much…I need some pleasure in my life… and you yield almost without noticing.
Sooner or later, we find our own nails amongst our teeth, or a cookie in our hand, or we open a video game that stopped being interesting quite a while ago.
Toxic habits and controlling emotions
Rational decisions and willpower are rarely enough to enable us to keep our decisions, except if the problem is relatively simple and recently created. If you have unsuccessfully tried to quit a bad habit several times, probably there is some deeper, unconscious motivation that needs some way to manifest itself. Similarly as if we try to suppress emotions, such needs will create stronger and stronger physical and mental pressure, until they finally break through. Then we might turn back to old habits, or develop new ones as a substitute. (Remember, for example, how many people quit smoking only to start overeating instead.) If we succeed in avoiding any of that, our unconscious needs might manifest themselves through auto-aggression, i.e. causing come kind of psychosomatic disorder.
Many habits, just as most addictions, are used as a way of controlling emotions, whether suppressing unpleasant emotions, or creating the pleasant ones. Notice, after you spend some time fighting the urge to continue with a toxic habit, do you start to experience emotions like anger, nervousness, anxiety, depression? Or maybe something is missing – pleasure, excitement, comfort, fun, relaxation, feeling of achievement (like with video games)?
To get rid of a bad habit, firstly you need to resolve those emotions, or find a different, healthier way to feel better. As a first step, when you feel the urge to return to a bad habit, instead of trying to control it rationally, close your eyes and focus on your emotions. Maybe some parts of you need just a little attention and comfort, or there is some chronic emotion that needs to be resolved? Or maybe you need to invest some time and effort to learn to create good feelings you want?
What are the benefits?
There might be other unconscious urges or benefits that need to be resolved besides specific problematic emotions. Consider, what might be the benefit of your toxic habit, which might not be obvious and conscious? Perhaps you try to distract yourself to avoid facing specific challenges or unpleasant tasks? Or do you punish yourself because of suppressed guilt or self-hatred? (This is common with anorexia and bulimia, for example.) Maybe your bad habit creates an illusion of control, while otherwise you would feel lost and insecure? Maybe there is a fear of a positive change: what if you lose current friends (or even intimate partner) who share your habit, what if you attract unwanted attention or envy… You will need to learn how to face such issues, or how to achieve those benefits in a different way.
Toxic habits might be a part of a family tradition and the way to feel close with a member or members of our family. This is something that people rarely consider. Sometimes you might feel an unconscious need to understand a family member better, or to express loyalty. Or perhaps, along with “inherited” anxiety, anger etc. we have accepted the traditional family ways of suppressing those feelings? Or do you maybe express some feelings that your parents were suppressing, like sexuality or anger? That might be the cause of obsessive behavior, for example internet porn addiction (although not necessarily the only cause).
All these emotional elements of the issue are the reason why the attempts to change a toxic habit rationally are often in vain. Many people hope that somebody or something else – a pill, or tea, or positive suggestions – can solve their problem. However, if the cause is not addressed, the results will be short-term and the person will soon return to the unwanted habit, or the emotional urges will find some other way to manifest themselves (through creating other kinds of issues). The only long-term solution is to resolve the cause of the problem.
After you have faced the emotional aspects of your bad habits and resolved them, you will still need to deal with physiological aspects. It might be a chemical addiction like with smoking or junk food, or a neurological automatism created by repetitive behavior. Once an automatism is created, your neurological system will try to keep it going for the purpose of preserving energy, so it might sabotage your intent of creating a new habit. You might feel like swimming against a stream, or you might notice your body starting to move according to the old routine almost without your conscious involvement.
Physiological aspects of a toxic habit might take less time to resolve, but sometimes might be more intense, like the effects of detoxification. It’s often more difficult to find even short-term relief for physiological than emotional component of a bad habit. Here is some advice to help you “fool your brain” and motivate yourself.
Tips and tricks
Write these tips down and keep them in an easily accessible place (or several places), where you can be easily reminded of them. It’s important to take time, close your eyes and check your feelings every time you feel an urge to follow your excuses and automated behavior. You might come up with some of your own helpful tricks, and to help you get started, I suggest the following:
1) Motivate yourself with the “carrot/stick system”. Imagine benefits and good feelings you will have if you succeed, as well as uncomfortable feelings and consequences if you yield to the temptation. Imagine long-term consequences – they are usually much more obvious. Imagine the feelings and consequences intensely, even exaggerate them if necessary.
2) Imagine your bad habits having an influence to somebody very important to you. Would you smoke if you were pregnant or had a little child around? Would you overeat or procrastinate if you knew your child would copy that behavior? Often we feel more motivated to avoid harming others than ourselves.
3) Overly hasty or long-term goals might create more intense frustration. Instead, focus on small steps. You might say to yourself: wait 15 minutes… and another 15… and again… then another day, and another… Such small steps are much more acceptable to our brain than a vision of multiple months and years without something we like and yearn for.
4) Notice if you’re the type of person who finds it easier to quit a habit immediately and completely, or gradually. Some people might be satisfied enough with, for example, only a little piece of chocolate of a few smokes, while others will be led into overcompensating if they yield even a little. Notice what works for you.
5) Notice if you actually enjoy your toxic habits? Many people say: actually I don’t like cigarettes or cookies that much after the first few smokes or bites, but once I start, I feel I have to finish it. Perhaps your mind habitually expects more pleasure from that behavior/ substance than it actually gets? Before you decide to indulge yourself, remember that you might experience much less pleasure than you hope for.
6) Don’t only focus on avoiding something; find what you can do instead! You need something to fill the void, otherwise the frustration will be much stronger. Can you, perhaps, drink tea instead of coffee, unsweetened fruit smoothie instead of ice-cream, chew gum instead of cigarettes or food, dance to your favorite music instead of starting a video game… these are some of the ways you might be able to calm your body down. What is important is not to use some new toxic habit in place of the old one.
7) Imagine that you have already done what you wanted to do: drank your coffee, smoked your cigarette, bitten off your nails… Notice if that decreases your tension and motivation to do this, or maybe even increases. If it helps, use it. If it only serves to increase temptation, avoid it. On the other hand, try to focus on experiencing and enhancing the pleasure you find in the new, healthy habits.
8) Declare your goals in public, in front of as many family members, friends and acquaintances as possible. The motivation to keep their good opinion of you might be stronger than the temptation.
9) Keep a diary and write down your daily efforts and success (or lack of it). That motivates us in a similar way as the previous tip, and it might also help you become conscious of all those moments classified as “this doesn’t count”.
10) Become conscious of your favorite excuses (just a little bit, it won’t hurt me, I deserved it after a hard work’s day…) and notice the moments when you start using them. Maybe it often happens in the similar time of day, or when you’re upset and stressed, or when you feel physiological need…? Speak them at loud, to become even more conscious of them. Consider how you can prepare for those excuses in advance and recognize them as a temptation.
11) Read books, articles or web-pages that motivate you and enhance your self-confidence. Some people find others’ words and experiences more trustworthy than their own – if this is true for you, use others’ words to motivate yourself!
Keep in mind that you will experience most difficulties in the beginning, especially considering physiological habit or addiction. However, you will probably feel much better already after two or three weeks. A couple of months later, you might find it difficult to imagine going back to old habits.