Everyone has a bad habit or two, and we usually know exactly what they are. So why is it so hard to get rid of them?
According to behavioral psychologists, all habits serve a purpose, whether they are good ones or bad ones.
It may not be immediately obvious what the benefits are of biting nails or leaving the toilet seat up after flushing. But if we look for them, the payoffs are there.
Many destructive behaviors, such as smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol or taking illegal drugs, may have the obvious effect of temporarily helping the body and our emotions feel better.
But even actions such as absent-mindedly picking one’s nose have effects at a subconscious level. They somehow make us feel safe in our routines.
When we try to break a habit, change is required, and with it comes a certain degree of stress and anxiety. Mind and body resist. They prefer the comfort of old behaviors, even ones that are counterproductive.
The solution, then, is to provide a viable and adequate replacement for the bad habit, something that fulfills the need or satisfies the deeper desire that motivates it.
Therapist Juliette Millien suggests that patients begin by thanking their bad habits. “That’s right,” she says, “thank them for having your back and serving a purpose over these years. Then tell them their shift is up; tour of duty is over!”
The next step is to create other habits that bring even deeper joy and peace, richer health and prosperity. When the subconscious “gets it,” that needs will be taken care of it, it can more easily drop bad behaviors.
An example of a potential replacement habit is doodling, occupying one’s hand and freeing the mind to express itself through a new repetitive action. It has proven effective in some individuals to end or compulsive knuckle cracking or drumming of fingers.
Similarly, chewing gum often makes a good substitute for pencil chewing, lip biting, teeth grinding, thumb sucking and other behaviors involving the mouth.
Dr. Phil Shapiro suggests using affirmations, too, such as “With will and thought, I conquer every bad habit, one at a time” and “With my expanded will power, I escape from bad habits.”
It is also important to recognize how easy it is to fall back into bad habits if motivation is not constantly present. Fully realizing the harm caused by a bad habit can be a powerful incentive for change.
As Dr. Shapiro says, “We must recognize that the pain of the bad habit is worse than the pain of healing. Cultivating good habits is difficult, but it is more difficult to maintain bad habits.”
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