Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Myths About Changing Bad Habits (e.g. smoking, overeating, excessive drinking, substance use, pornography)

When people are hoping to live healthier, balanced lives, and let go of unhealthy habits, they will often encounter popular opinions-beliefs that may sound convincing but are actually counter-productive.  Here are some of the more popular myths about changing bad habits, why they’re not helpful, and more realistic beliefs that will increase the likelihood of successful change.

Changing bad habits is just a matter of willpower, and can be accomplished quickly if one had sufficient willpower.

A related belief is: for some people habit change is easy, for others its impossible because of lack of willpower. While there are people who seem to have an easier time breaking bad habits, they are in fact the rare exception. For most of  us, bad habits have been with us for a significant part of our lives, and we've learned to rely upon them to meet certain emotional and psychological need. The urge to engage in the habit at certain times has been conditioned in us over years or even decades. Willpower, while important, is not sufficient to manage these urges-cravings over the long-haul.  Long-term success, is more  likely to occur by understanding what needs are being met by the habit, and planning alternative ways of meeting these needs.

Relying solely on willpower sets one up for failure in another way. If you believe willpower is all it takes to succeed, when you encounter any of the inevitable difficulties or setbacks that can occur in your efforts to change, you could easily come to the conclusion that you don’t have what it takes and give up trying to change.

A more realistic belief is that success in changing bad habits is really a life-long process of understanding the important emotional-psychological needs being satisfied by the habit, learning what situations will trigger urges-cravings for the habit, and planning healthier, esteem-building alternatives that one can rely upon for the rest of one’s life.

Its best to “just do it, don’t delay”.

Because of  lack of confidence in being able to change long-standing habits, or fears of failing, sometimes people will get into the rut of procrastinating or putting off change efforts until “just the right time”, which never comes.  Others, becoming increasingly worried about the damaging effects of their habits, or perhaps feeling pressured by loved ones to change, will leap into change without sufficient preparation.  While understandable responses,  chronic procrastination and “just leaping in” ignore a crucial process in successful change efforts - the need to understand the benefits or needs the habit has provided, and be prepared for those high-risk situations when strong urges to engage in the habit will occur.  It is through careful preparation - paying close attention to, charting the habit, identifying high-risk times, planning alternative strategies, educating oneself about the long-term effects of the habit, planning a quit date, and  of particular importance, seeking support for change - that confidence is built and a realistic plan for sustained success is achieved.

In changing bad habits, no one can do it for you, you have to rely on yourself, support isn't necessary.

It’s understandable that people want to be self-reliant, and yes, no one can successfully make changes for you. But keeping change efforts to yourself continues one of the patterns that fuels the habit - hiding the extent of the problem to avoid feelings of shame or embarrassment, and to avoid the disappointment of others.  By keeping change goals a secret, you lose the positive peer pressure that occurs by going public with your goal.  You also lose opportunities to confide in trusted others about your struggles with your habit, and to get specific help or encouragement for your efforts to change.  I think a more helpful metaphor is to view changing bad habits like a boxing match with your bad habit;  no one can do the fighting for you, but it is really helpful to have trainers, coaches, first-aide people in your corner.

Lapses, setbacks in changing bad habits are signs that failure is inevitable.

This assumption seems to be associated with the belief that all it takes is willpower, and  lapses-setbacks reflect internal deficiencies weakness on the part of the person trying to change.  This belief ignore the fact that long-standing bad habits (smoking, overeating, pornography, substance abuse) have served some important emotional and psychological need , and that over time,  anyone will experience strong urges to engage in the habit in certain situations.  It is more helpful to realize that  external events or circumstances can and often do trigger the urge to use or engage in the habit.  Encountering strong urges to use or having a lapse indicate that one has encountered a situation he/she has not adequately prepared for or expected,  and further preparation or support is needed.

Spouses, family and loved ones of  the person with the bad habit have to be patient and understanding, and may have to get used to living with uncertainty, waiting for the shoe to drop - for the habit to create bigger problems.

Of course, family and friends want to be understanding, supportive of, and caring towards someone with a difficult habit, and don’t want to approach the person in a nagging, judgmental, or threatening manner. However, the view that loved ones should be unfailingly patient and tolerant  of the bad habit and of its effects on others is not always helpful.  For one thing, it neglects the fact that loved ones are frequently more aware, than the person with the habit, of certain aspects of the bad habit and the effect of the habit on the person and others. It is often the case that the person with the bad habit - living in denial of the seriousness of the problem - is unaware of the hurtful emotional, social, or  financial effects on those around him/her.  Being too patient and tolerant may protect the one with the habit from experiencing and taking responsibility for the damaging consequences of his/her habit.  That experience can be an important step in the process of moving from a person with a bad habit to a habit changer.

Another problem with just being patient and tolerant is that it can convey the message that the person with the habit is not capable of  changing or of taking responsibility for the habit.  This can inadvertently reinforce the sense of shame and helplessness the person already feels about himself and his habit.  An extreme example of this process is when family members hide or cover up the extent of the bad habit to protect the person with the habit (and themselves) from embarrassment or disapproval from others.

A final and more serious problem with the patient-tolerant approach is, especially in out-of-control or dangerous habits (for example, substance abuse, high-stakes gambling, sexual addictions), the safety and stability of the family or relationships can be jeopardized unless someone can take action and set limits to ensure safety.

A more helpful approach for family and friends would include:

  • To be direct and honest with the person about the harmful impact of the bad habit on the person himself and loved ones.
  • To be clear in communicating the hope the person will decide to work on changing the habit and the belief that he/she is capable.
  • To communicate a willingness to understand the struggles the person has with the habit.
  • To be willing to offer advice help, or information if the person with the habit is receptive.
  • To be prepared to set limits, take action if the habit jeopardizes the safety or health of loved ones.

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