Maybe you eat or drink too much, or maybe you find yourself yelling at your partner or the kids…”again”. You see it and feel like you just can’t stop. We’ve all got those habits that drive us crazy and then we feel like a failure because we don’t just dump our negative behaviours in the trash can.
So why is it so hard to change a habit that hurts or embarrasses us, maybe even gets between us and the ones we love? One of the biggest reasons is the way we view and approach the habit. In our annoyance and frustration we tend to see the “bad habit” as a weakness or a flaw, held in place by some deficit in our character. As though we were a broken calculator on which we hit the right keys and get the wrong answer. I’d like to suggest something different: that our actions represent effective approaches to real problems. They just aren’t fully developed yet.
One of the giants in counselling and psychotherapy was the great Milton Erickson who said, “Every behaviour is an attempt to solve some problem or to accomplish a legitimate goal.” Another leader in psychotherapy is Robert Shaw, who said, “People generally believe they have a problem, when in fact, what they have is a solution to an earlier problem.”
So maybe a “bad habit” started out as a good idea.
A solution may solve the problem it was created for while also causing unwanted side effects. For instance, you may have a habit of getting angry too often. Perhaps this originally solved the problem of not knowing how to get heard or to get what you wanted. Now you may feel more heard, get your way more often, and have new difficulties which have arisen out of the solution of getting angry.
So our solutions need to be updated and improved over and over. That’s what we do in life. We solve problems. Your present difficult behaviour isn’t so much wrong as just ready for the next adjustment. The pain or difficulty you feels is a call to adjust your course. When you find yourself tenaciously hanging on to a difficult habit, rather than condemning and fighting with yourself, ask yourself a question.
“What is the difficulty to which this is the solution?” If you’re overeating, ask yourself what need you’re trying to feed. The emphasis here is on really listening to the answer. Give yourself some credit; try to understand what problem this solves or what legitimate goal would account for what your doing. Then, rather than struggling against yourself, in an unending tug of war, work with yourself.
Recognize the need that makes your habit hang in there, and listen to what’s valid and legitimate in it. Next, see how you can elaborate and improve the solution to take care of that need without costing you so much. For example, if anger is a problem for you, ask what purpose it’s serving. If you weren’t being angry, what would you have to do instead? Trust? Be vulnerable? Accept that you have limited control? Stand up for yourself sooner? Have you ruled out some of these alternatives?
The most important thing to do here is to focus more on what’s happening with you, than on what someone else is doing. Awareness is everything. Try seeing the so-called problem as problem solving behaviour still under construction. Explore why you choose anger over something else and what this cost you?
Even if you don’t change a thing, it’s more constructive to be on your own side; but you’ll actually stand a much better chance of success. We don’t need to feel bad about ourselves to motivate the next step; in fact it’s counterproductive. When we try to change a habit by dismissing what makes us so attached to it, just try to bulldoze past our feelings, we often fail. Regardless of these tendencies, online addiction counselling has been proven to help in a lot of circumstances.
If you drink to feel confident and relaxed, asking yourself to stop might sound like saying, “Give up confidence and relaxation.” Maybe ask instead how to enjoy the most confidence and relaxation at the least cost. We tend not to accept advice or solutions which don’t take our concerns seriously (even unconscious concerns).
You might say at this point, “But I can’t see any possible use for this totally destructive, or even life-threatening behaviour.” Sometimes our habits today can look unreasonable because they were not born in this time, in these circumstances. Some of our basic ways of dealing with life, we started when we were young. When we’re small, it can be hard living by someone else’s rules, especially when that person may not seem to be listening or taking us seriously.
Having an angry outburst might have looked like the only way to get our concerns considered when you were four years old. Or maybe getting depressed or trying to comfort yourself with food brought on support from others that you did not (at this time) know how to get otherwise. As we go through life, we come up with a strategy to deal with whatever comes up. The problem is that our strategies tend to get carried forward, without getting updated and elaborated as circumstances change, as we learn and develop. They become a habit. In the back of our mind, the habit seems valuable and necessary because it helped us out when we really didn’t know what else to do, and even now it serves a purpose.
The key point to realize is that you’re effective, capable, whole and complete with or without the habits. They are all just strategies being used in an effort to make things work. This view works like observing the behaviour of a friend whom you trust and care about. When their actions seem crazy, you probably give them some credit and look for what would account for the behaviour. Give yourself the same kind of credit, and you can work on that habit without a blindfold of self-criticism making it more difficult to bring about change.