Let’s face it. We all have some habits we could (or should) do without. From something as small as nail biting to something as agonizing as a drinking or eating problem, sometimes it can seem like a life without this awful habit is far beyond reach.
You go a week without and, just as you’re feeling proud of yourself, you cave in.
How can you shake this once and for all?
See the Big Picture
How often have you found yourself bound and determined to make a change – say, exercising five times a week, quitting drinking, or losing ten pounds – only to slide into temptation and flop a week later?
The reason is because the couch, the cocktail, or the cookies were never the real problem in the first place. Rather than that moment of weakness being the beginning of the failure, it is the end.
Let’s say your New Year’s resolution is to lose ten pounds. You’ve been an emotional eater all your life, but this is the year you make the change. You have your calorie tracking app, got brand new running shoes, and joined that cardio class that promises to melt fat like butter.
It’s mid-January. You’ve completely revamped your diet, gotten your bum off the couch, and have politely declined all invitations to your favorite pasta-laden dinners.
Then it happens. Your boyfriend says something stupid and unkind. Work sets you off. You get an unexpectedly large bill. Before you realize what’s going on, you’re knee-deep in your second bowl of chicken alfredo.
How did this happen again?
The problem is that you’re treating the surface issue – the eating itself – and not the deeper issue – why you emotionally eat in the first place. The thoughts, temptations, and emotions you resist before the dams break down, no matter what vice you’re fighting, are where the war is won or lost – not when you finally cave in to the bad habit.
My Experience with Bad Habits
Perhaps I can help demonstrate this with a story from my own life.
When I was younger, I was a video game addict. While I was a high-achieving student, any time not spent completing schoolwork was sworn to video games. On weekends, I could easily wake up at 6:30 am and not set my controller down until 10:00 pm, just before bed. And while that number would (barely) dwindle into adolescence and early adulthood, I still found myself playing over 20 hours of video games every week. It’s how I unwound at the end of the day, spent time with friends, and bonded with my boyfriends through the years. Every time I uninstalled games, I still somehow found myself, controller in hand, throwing away hours of my life every week – time that could have been spent learning a new language, starting a new hobby, getting my side hustle on, or starting my blog.
I was agonized. Why did I keep finding myself stuck in this web?
I never tackled the real issue head-on.
The truth was that the video games were never the problem – they helped soothe the problem.
From the time I was 10 to the time I was about 21, I had a severe health problem that was threatening my life, there were financial problems in my family, it seemed that my parents were on the brink of divorce, and I was air-locked in fear over my post-high school life path. Reality at the time was confusing, scary, and, at times, downright heartbreaking. In short, real life sucked. But for the few hours that I spent drooling in front of the monitor, I was a daring monster-killer, a brave space-faring soldier, or the long-awaited legendary dragon-slayer.
Video games gave me everything I wasn’t giving myself (or otherwise experiencing) in real life – adventure, a clear sense of purpose, direction, love and connection, and the sense that I was in control – that I was able to affect the story in a way that matters instead of being the helpless peon I felt I was.
While I didn’t see it at the time, I was using video games to change a feeling. Certain things would trigger all-day time-wasting gaming sessions. I began to realize that when I felt low and self-critical, I turned on the games. When I felt heartbroken over my parents’ fighting, I’d drown out the noise (and pain) with the games’ stories. When I felt disgusting and embarrassed over my sickly body, I’d get lost in my characters’ love stories to avoid my messy real-life entanglements.
Having this realization was a true light bulb moment for me. I immediately uninstalled every game I had and vowed to never play again.
That worked – for a while.
Nearly 6 months later, my then-boyfriend’s mother, who lived with us, succumbed to her long-standing cancer and I miscarried on a sudden but much-desired pregnancy – within five days of each other.
Suddenly, I found myself racking up hours on the same old games. Once again, I was not addressing the emotions at their root.
Tackling the Issue Head-On
At this point I may have been at one of (if not the) worst times of my life. I’d had my first two true experiences with death within a week of each other and quickly realized that I could not continue on my destructive addiction. I not only wanted to, I needed to. I needed to face the reality of my own loss and, more importantly, be my boyfriend’s best advocate as he wrestled with the death of his mother (he was only 21 at the time).
It was time.
I had to finally deal with the real reason for my destructive habits.
I needed to finally deal with my fear, my self-image, my lust for adventure, and my aching need for purpose and direction.
With time, I learned to deeply, truly love my sickly body as I healed from my disease process. I dug deep and discovered my purpose – even though it may seem crazy to the outside world. I forced myself to take on increasingly terrifying adventures until I no longer felt bound by fear (more on this in an upcoming post – my decision to become a vagabond). And most importantly, I fell deeply and truly in love with myself.
Then the most miraculous thing happened – I no longer had to wrestle with my video game addiction because there was no longer any need for it. Because the deep, core needs that video games provided were satisfied elsewhere – and in a healthier, widely better way – they no longer had any draw. There simply was no more room in my life for it.
How You Can End Your Destructive Habits Once and For All
Wasting time on video games is certainly a low-level bad habit to have, but it hardly matters the severity of the addiction if it’s impacting your life. And, as with my case, the only way to say goodbye for good is to address it at the root.
Here I hope to show you the exact strategy that I used to crush my bad habits forever. The most important thing going in is to know that these bad habits took time to build and are going to take a bit of time to get rid of too. But you are 100% capable of doing it. It might be rough. You might slip up here and there. But it can be done.
Step 1 – Observe Your Triggers
For the next week, observe when you feel tempted towards your vice. Are there certain people, events, emotions, or places (online or offline) that make it seem easy to say “yes”? What about them makes that habit so easy? Is it a conscious decision, or an unconscious or ritualized process?
Don’t go through this process in the spirit of judgement; this exercise is not to “rub your nose in it” or encourage you to feel down on yourself. Rather, look at this from the detached perspective of a researcher. It doesn’t matter what data you find; your job is just to collect it.
I suggest collecting the following information any time you have even a minor but serious desire to engage in your bad habit:
- The time and date
- What is going on around you
- Your circumstances – what you were coming from doing and what you were about to do
- Any important people who were around you
- 2 emotions you were feeling
- What you were consciously thinking – “I should go do ___”, “I really want ____”, “I wish I could ___”
- Anything else you suspect will be relevant
- Did you indulge in your bad habit? Is there any one thing that, if it changed, might have made you decide otherwise in retrospect?
Understanding your triggers alone will not resolve the issue, and the underlying cause right now isn’t important. Collect as much data as you can, because the next step is when we will make sense of it.
Step 2 – Understand Why Those Are Triggers
By now you might have a good record of instances where you either felt tempted to or engaged in your vice. Now that you have a non-judgemental bird’s-eye view of your triggers, it’s time to dive deep.
Can you see that, underneath every decision (or desire) to take part in that bad habit, you were probably trying to soothe some emotion? Do you have feelings of unworthiness, and disrespect yourself to enforce that? Do you feel lonely and eat to comfort yourself? Deeply analyze the details of your writing from step one and try to trace back a common thread.
Oftentimes, we still operate as adults based on rules that we learned as a kid. Whether spoken or unsaid, these rules have taught us everything – even our attitudes. And while they are extremely subtle, they can limit us in powerful ways as an adult. Some of these negative “rules” are the real culprit and fuel our bad habits. Some of them might be:
- It’s not okay to be angry. If I’m angry, it’s not okay express it.
- I will never have money. Whatever I earn has to be spent before it gets taken away.
- It’s my job to help other people. If they have a problem, it is my job to make it better for them. I’d be a bad friend/daughter/girlfriend if I didn’t give (until it hurts).
- All the good (wo)men are taken. I must have a relationship with this (wo)man, because at least it’s better than being alone. I couldn’t stand being alone. What if I never find “The One”?
- I’m anxious, and I can’t bear to be anxious. Chocolate/pasta/wine will help me feel less anxious.
None of these are true. Chances are that you have these or other unwritten rules that are secretly pulling the strings in your bad habits.
For me, I subconsciously thought that it was not okay to experience my emotions head-on – that I would not be able to handle the rawness of it and would go insane. I had not yet realized that emotions are just that – they will not and cannot hurt you and have no implicit meaning. You do not have to do anything, think anything, or in any other way react to the emotion if you don’t want to. Who runs the show anyway – me or my emotions?
Once I came to this extremely powerful understanding, my bad habits were no longer necessary. My emotions were no longer so powerful that I needed something to keep them at bay. Now, that’s not to say that the emotions themselves weren’t powerful – I felt at times like I was completely hallow, like my soul had surely left my body. I just no longer needed to do something about it. I could sit with my emotions, realizing that they are not fires to be snuffed out.
Are you being bossed around by your emotions? Are there certain rules you need to rewrite that are holding you hostage? Why did you learn that – and why do you still play by those rules?
Step 3 – Replacement
Now you’ve understood what your unhealthy habit is and have some insight into the deeper reasons why you engage in it. But don’t make the same mistake I did the first time and think that just dropping it will be that easy.
Remember, that bad habit serves some sort of purpose in your life and that, even if you understand the why, you still can’t go without serving that need.
There will be times where you’re tempted and if you don’t have a go-to replacement, you will very likely struggle to come out on top.
People who have successfully quit smoking can attest that you cannot simply not smoke. Whether it’s nerves, awkwardness, or the simple void left behind, you can’t just not go on smoke breaks, not puff while gabbing with the other smokers, and not have that after-meal cigarette. Pair the awkwardness of adjusting to a new routine with the very real physical withdrawals, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
The winning solution? Replace the old habit with a new, healthier one that serves the same need.
My mother used to be a rather regular smoker. Knowing that she smoked to ease her nerves, she promised to quit cold turkey and at every smoke break at work, she’d go on a light walk. Walking not only gave her a quick endorphin boost, easing her nerves like smoking once did, but also helped her lose some stubborn weight, gave her greater confidence, and gave her some much-needed alone time away from her coworkers. Quitting cigarettes was easy this time because she had a much, much more rewarding replacement.
Likewise, I found it easy to put down the video games once I addressed the real desire in a more constructive way. I wanted adventure so I started belly dancing, dragon boating, and spending weekends out. I wanted a meaningful story so I discovered my life’s purpose and made one for myself. Why would I settle for a fantasy when my real life is a dream?
Look at your work from step 2. What needs are driving your vices? Are there any rules from your past that are dictating those? Plan 2-3 different, healthier ways you might be able to satisfy those needs.
Keep in mind that you will be able to change this. It may take some time, you may have a few oopsies, and you may get frustrated along the way. But please be gentle on yourself. I’m proud of you, and I hope you’re proud of you too.