The new year is nearly upon us, and it is traditional at this time to look at what changes you want to make for the upcoming year. We very often choose bad habits as something we want to break.
We try to replace them with good habits, so we start diets, plan to stop smoking, and book that gym membership. We start out with good intentions, only to find a couple of weeks in, that our plans for a fresh start have fallen by the way-side, and we have returned to the same old bad habits.
The gym that was jam-packed just after new year is back to the usual crowd; the cake and chocolate is on the shelves of our cupboards again; and there is that familiar packet back on the side in the kitchen.
Why are habits so hard to break?
People tend to label habits as good or bad. In fact the strength of a habit has little to do with whether we think it's good or bad. The strength of a habit is in part dependent on how useful it is.
All habits perform some useful function, because if they didn't we wouldn't do them.
A habit is a short cut, it gets us to something we need quickly, easily, and importantly without having to think too much about it. Thinking takes effort. It's slow, cumbersome and unreliable.
A habit is quick, easy, and importantly gets what we need in a reliable and consistent way.
We also tend to assume that habits can be broken. Actually that isn't possible. Once we know how to do something, we almost never forget how to do it.
A habit is a particular pattern of connections in the brain, and are long lasting, because you never know when you might need it again. A habit in psychological terms is what is known as a conditioned response, and much of what we know about this comes from the work of B.F. Skinner.
So how do you go about changing a habit?
Rather than trying to break them, the best way to change habits is to work in harmony with them.
The first stage in changing any habit is to understand what the gain is. If we try to replace our habit with something that does not produce the same or a similar gain then our attempt at change will in all likelihood fail.
The question to ask yourself is, "How does my habit help me?"
A way to do this, is to get a pen and a piece of paper, and ask yourself this question. Then write down whatever comes to mind. When you are finished, see if there are any themes, or things that seem to stand out.
From your list, look at what you could do instead that would achieve the same thing in a less destructive way. For it to be successful it must,
For a new 'habit' to work it must have all the features of a habit. If it does, then over time it too will become a habit.
What could this look like in practice?
Say your habit is comfort eating. It might be that you are eating when you are stressed, and this helps to calm you down. The main function of this habit is therefore to calm you down. So to replace it, you might consider having a hot bath instead. How well will this work?
So a bath, while it has many features that could make it a good habit, loses out to the chocolate bar on how easy and available it is to do.
It's unlikely to completely replace chocolate bars as a source of comfort, but would be a good way of helping you to relax in certain circumstances.
Let's have a look at something else.
Self-soothing is simply stroking yourself in a way that is comforting. If you watch, people will often stroke parts of their bodies' without thinking about it. Mindfully rubbing some hand-cream into your hands is a way of self-soothing. So how might this work?
Using hand-cream is easy, quick, and readily available, and you can also make your old habit less available at the same time, so it's likely to work quite well. How it works in practice will depend on how well it fulfills your need for comfort.
How can counselling help?
Talking with someone can help you to better understand what it is that a habit is helping you to do.
My experience is that when I ask people this question, they will quite often reply "nothing, it's not helping me at all, it's making me feel awful"
When thinking about habits we often focus on how we feel afterwards, rather than on how we feel when we are doing them.
Counselling is way of helping you to focus on how you feel when you are using the habit, which is what is sustaining it. Talking to someone makes the process of working out how to cope with a habit, a richer and fuller process than doing it on your own.
Also, habits can become more noticeable and more of a problem because they are ways of coping with other things in our lives, and counselling can help you to understand and cope with these 'other things' better, so you need your habit less.
Title photo by GreenThumbsUp