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How To Change A Habit

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

How To Change A Habit

If you're anything like me, you're constantly working on changing a behavior. I haven't reached enlightenment yet, so I'm in the habit of tinkering, trying to improve, seeking growth.

There are habits we try to add to our routines, and those we try to subtract. There are things we do for ourselves, and things we stop doing for the sake of ourselves. In my practice, I invite people to add things all the time. A cup of tea, a walk, meditation. I've gotten WAY more cautious about suggesting giving something up, because I know how hard it is, and I don't presume to understand the complex web of circumstances (social, economic, traumatic, familial, cultural) that contribute to the perpetuation of that behavior. I don't even claim to know whether someone else's habit is self-destructive or not. Giving up a habit is hard because it's there for a reason. It's a coping mechanism, which is medicine in its own right, and it deserves to be honored as such.

When You're Trying To Stop...

Honor Your Coping Mechanisms

Thank them for getting you this far. Ask them what role are you playing in my life? What need of mine are you meeting? When we stop shaming ourselves for certain behaviors, and allow ourselves to enjoy them freely, we release their power over us. They're no longer a forbidden fruit that gets confused with our virtue and our identity. They're just what they are: a morally neutral choice to make. When I'm aware that I'm checking social media because I want to distract myself from feeling profoundly sad, I'm empowered to make an informed choice.

How to change a habit
I've used this graphic from the Eclectic School of Herbal Medicine before, and I'm using it again, because it's that good.

Healing And Change Are Not Linear

You are free to remove that expectation. You're not "failing" or "moving backwards" if you're indulging in something you hope to stop. You're moving forwards in a very human way, and it's all part of the progress.

On Cold Turkey

Sometimes it's helpful to conduct a cold turkey experiment, to help you know where your relationship stands with a behavior. If you try cold turkey and can't follow through, try working in a moment-to-moment way next. Check in with yourself before engaging. Is this what I want/need right now? What are my options?

Sometimes we're more ready to let a behavior go than we realize, and a cold turkey experiment is just the nudge we need to break the habitual cycle and illuminate new possibilities. In those times we get a "that was way easier than I thought it would be!" experience. "I had no idea how little I needed that thing!"

This process may take years. Suddenly one day the cosmos align and something clicks in to place. Be patient, be kind to yourself, be grateful when it happens.

Work On Your Rat Park

You know that classic experiment in which Dr. Whatstheirface gave rats the option to drink drug water laced with opiates, amphetamines, or cocaine, or regular water, and they all consumed a huge amount of drugs? The study suggested that those substances were inherently very addictive. What wasn't taken into account was the fact that the rats were living in small cages, where they couldn't socialize with each other, couldn't get any exercise, and had no stimulation other than the drugs. Then Dr. Bruce K. Alexander repeated the experiment, but this time he put a bunch of rats together in large rat parks, where they could socialize and mate, play around and get exercise, and what do you know, they consumed A LOT less drug water. Addictions are more likely when our quality of life is low.

Leaving coping mechanisms behind is much easier when your rat park is improving. Some aspects of rat park will be in your control, others will not. Sometimes you just have to wait until your kid grows out of a difficult life phase, or moving to a new town is not in the cards right now. Luckily, you can always improve something about rat park by adding behaviors, like getting plenty of joyful movement. (Thank you Jen Stovall for teaching me about rat park and so much else about working with addiction).

How to change a habit

When You're Adding...

Pick One At A Time

Sometimes you're super motivated and energetic and one helpful habit doesn't feel like enough, and that's cool. But pick one priority to focus on above the rest. Implement it, expect yourself to forget or get stressed and leave it behind, and when it eventually becomes an effortless part of daily life, move on to the next addition.

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