How to Break Your Bad Habits: Why you do what you do and how to change
Why do some people not eat the healthy things although they want to lose weight? Why don’t people exercise even though they know it feels great to do it? We all have some habits that aren’t consistent with our goals and values. Understanding why we do it might help us to finally change.
Often the reason why we keep our pattern is the secondary gain, or the advantage we get out of keeping the habit in the first place. For example, I have seen people with weight issues not lose the weight because the weight protected them from being visible, or attractive, especially with a history of sexual abuse. Another example is someone whose chronic anxiety was serving them by helping them feel in control. Sometimes people overwork themselves because they feel uncomfortable with feeling useless and feel their value or self worth is in their achievements.
“Bad” Choices serve us in some way but may be subconscious
Often the benefit we are getting out of our “bad” choices are subconscious and really take a lot of reflection. For example, it is easy to think that the benefit out of eating poorly despite wanting to lose weight is simply that it tastes good. However, look a bit deeper. How are the poor food choices really serving you? One of my patients said her comfort foods reminded her of family picnics and she made associations with food and the feeling of love and belonging. One man said that the most special times he had with his father were the times his father would take him out for chicken wings and pizza on special father and son outings. I can only imagine the strong love and connection associations he made with wings and pizza.
Subconscious secondary gains often go to the very heart of us
When examining the above examples, you can see that our “bad” choices go to the very heart of us – to our sense of safety, security, self worth, love, connection, and even our identity. I have often heard patients say that without their chronic illness, they wonder “then who would I be?”. Ultimately our choices serve us in some way.
Another insidious unconscious secondary benefit that I have heard is this, “If I really get healthy then I will have no excuses or distractions left - I will be left ultimately with the responsibility of my choices and failures and successes.” If this rings a chord with you, that’s great. Be honest. You are not alone. What if ultimately we are responsible for our choices and failures and successes, whether we make excuses or not? And what if that’s not so scary?
How to begin to make lasting changes
If we can see what the value is in our “bad” choices, perhaps we can begin to see other alternatives or options to satisfy those deep needs of validation, love, connection and safety. For example, rather than keeping the weight on in order to protect from being visible or attractive, could they get physically fit and take a self defense class, and get as strong as they could? This isn’t to say that taking a self defense class is adequate against physical or sexual abuse, but the point is putting weight on isn’t adequate either, and the goal is finding out alternative solutions of feeling safe that serve what you truly want.
If you are not sure what you are getting out of your destructive or defeating habits or choices, ask yourself – what am I getting out of this? If I were to never have this cigarette/overeating/workaholic pattern (fill in the blank), would I lose anything?
According to Rick Kirschner, ND, author of several bestselling books, he states, “Resolution occurs only when the purpose they originally served is identified and worked out in a more positive manner.” He further states that the desire for change will come. “When the negative person comes to despise his or her negativity, when the overweight person can no longer stand the burden, … when brokenhearted people cannot stop yearning for lasting love, these are subconscious signs and signals that the old attitudes and behaviors have outlived their usefulness. Most important, they indicate better resources, and better maps of reality are now available that can lead to healthier choices and lives…When the conscious mind sets the direction [of desired change] and the unconscious intentions rise to the surface and are dealt with creatively, then the subconscious is likely to follow along and create better and more satisfying results.”
1. Rick Kirschner, NDNR Naturopathic Doctor News & Review article, June 2012 Vol 8 (6)