This week, I received a message from a reader who feels confused about why they’re unable to use willpower to overcome an unhelpful behaviour.
Why is it so hard to banish a habit when we know it’s problematic? How are habitual patterns able to assert their power over us even when trying to reason against them?
More importantly, what can we do to effectively overcome repetitive behaviours that cause us the kind of suffering and problems that are entirely avoidable?
First of all, it’s helpful to realise that we’re creatures of habit who are driven by our desires, aversions and emotions. Our human ability to reason evolved later than our primitive drives. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Another thing to consider is that we are the sum of all our experiences, environments, influences and conditioning. These all come together to shape who we are, how we think, and how we behave.
Does that means that we have little control over how we conduct ourselves? Of course not. But what it does mean is that we can’t simply think away our habits – willpower is a finite source, and all it does is act as a suppressor rather than cure the issue at the root. Whatever we try to suppress will find ways to manifest itself, and often comes back stronger. This is partly why bad habits are difficult to wipe out.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called our habitual behaviours “repetitive compulsion”. We behave in certain ways, Freud believed, because of a drive to resolve an issue from our past. Bringing the problem to the forefront of our minds was, he thought, the way to solve it. However, he subsequently realised that being aware of an issue isn’t enough on its own to overcome it.
This is because, while unhelpful behaviours cause us problems over time, they often provide temporary relief from emotional distress. If that wasn’t the case, then people wouldn’t have addictions, for example, or engage in procrastination or frequently date the same type of people who turn out to be bad for their self-esteem.
For a time, however, these behaviours can make us feel good: they can validate who we are, give us comfort, or a sense of familiarity. It’s why we can justify having that drink or second piece of cake after a stressful day – we know it’s not the ideal option, but we recall that it helps us feel better in this moment, and that’s what matters.
In a nutshell, unhelpful behaviours are difficult to overcome because, as we recognise, while they’re bad for us, they also bring a degree of comfort and self-protection. This tension of conflict is why we’re unable to think our way to rein in such behaviours, because they don’t stem from the intellectual mind; rather, they’re emotional in nature.
So, what can be done to move beyond unhelpful habits and replace them with more beneficial behaviours? If the behaviour is one that causes a lot of frustration, guilt, anger or frustration, the first step is to find out what’s lying beneath the surface. What’s driving the behaviour? How deeply is it rooted within you? To find this out, speaking to a therapist can be helpful as they’re trained to get to the root of the issue, rather than simply addressing the symptoms. It can also be useful to gain a fresh perspective – oftentimes, we’re too close to our own problems to see any solution.
Another useful approach is to keep a daily journal, writing down your thoughts, feelings, interactions and what you did that day. The key here is to be completely open and non-judgmental towards yourself. Imagine you’re writing to a trusted friend about your day, knowing that no-one will see your entries but you. Journaling in this way – chronicling both your ups and downs – can bring into focus things about yourself that previously were outside your awareness.
Finally, although initially easier said than done, try to practise delaying whatever behaviour you’re contemplating when you’re emotionally distressed. For example, if your go-to habit is to reach for some chocolate, reach for a healthier alternative or drink a glass of water or cup of tea instead. It’s not that you can’t have the chocolate; rather, by delaying your habit, you’re training your mind to slowly undo and eventually break what has become an automatic response to stress. It takes a little time, but progress is key; you can’t transform behaviours immediately.
If you find yourself slipping up, keep in mind the non-judging element when working towards your goal. A lifetime of conditioned behaviours won’t go quietly – think of them as something to be chipped away at over time. When you do slip up, simply acknowledge it and start again. In time, you’ll find that you’ll become more and more disinclined from the behaviour until one day it has no power over you at all.