I know about breaking an unhealthy habit. As a young adult I was a cigarette smoker. Most of my friends smoked. It wasn’t until I began preparing for a three-month bicycle trek that I considered that smoking might impede my pedaling stamina. I was highly motivated to quit smoking and, chewed on licorice sticks for several weeks to replace my desire for cigarettes. Once on the road, I was gratified by the freedom of deep breathing. After the trip I quickly fell back into the old comforting habit of a cigarette with morning coffee and smoking breaks with friends. I was also disgusted with myself for not resisting the smoking habit. I tried to figure out what got in the way: I had to acknowledge that I enjoyed the feeling of inhaling smoke even though the stale aftertaste disgusted me; I had to admit my attraction to social conformity – I liked to engage in a behavior with friends even though I knew that it was unhealthy for all of us. It was a cool thing to do. I thought the slight tilt of the head while exhaling a plume of smoke was glamorous and the way my mouth puckered was sexy. Once I understood the powerful attraction I had for smoking and after I nursed a friend through a miserable bronchitis, I found new determination to quit again. I quit several more times before I considered myself an “ex-smoker”.
RECOGNIZING YOUR UNHEALTHY HABIT
Oftentimes we are so attached to a behavior – like smoking, overeating, dieting, alcohol and substance use and others – that we can’t begin to imagine life without it. If something happens that disrupts our comfort, we do begin to imagine life without it. Changing an undesirable behavior is no easy feat. It begins with asking yourself: Is it really a problem?
Your answer may be:
Maybe, but it’s so overwhelming I can’t bear to think about it.
Probably. But I need external motivation because I’m just too weak to tackle it on my own
Yes, but I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll wait until I’m really feeling ready.
Yes, and I know I can’t tackle this on my own. But I don’t have the time and money to deal with it now.
This is a start. You’ve admitted that there’s a problem.
Don’t give up. Seeking help from a therapist can be the next step towards breaking that unhealthy habit. When I work with people who are struggling to change a behavior that interfere with their health, we begin by trying to understand the purpose it serves. Often the purpose resides outside of your awareness. You are drawn to the habit because it offers momentary comfort, it’s familiar, it enables you to avoid something you imagine is uncomfortable, and many other possibilities. We examine the comfort the behavior produces. What feels good about it? What does it remind you of?
PLANNING A HEALTHY HABIT
Once we have a deeper understanding of the habit, we begin to imagine how your life would be different without that habit. How would your life be different next month? How would it be different in five years?
What are some of the steps you would take to get there? Is your plan realistic? How would we know it’s working?
DON’T GIVE UP
Sometimes it works on the first try but often life situations return us to that unhealthy but familiar behavior to manage our stress. Before we try to erase that behavior again, it’s helpful to understand what happened. I like to think of “falling off the wagon” as an opportunity for deeper understanding and not as a sign of failure. It is only with that deeper understanding that we muster the courage and strength for change. Eventually our determination will lead us to win against that old, unhealthy habit.
Psychologists William Miller and Stephen Rollick have developed a model for motivating people to make positive behavior changes. Their work incorporates Carl Rogers’ client-centered psychotherapy in their comprehensive technique called “Motivational Interviewing.” I incorporate their approach in my work with people who are trying to change an unhealthy habit
For more information about motivating positive behavior changes, see:
Motivating Change: Tips for Health Care Professionals