Searching for how to change habits? Habits, however maladaptive, feel right to us after doing them for many years. Oftentimes people wonder why they continue to behave in ways they know are not healthy. This is due to the brains preference for habitual responses. Luckily human beings are quite adaptable and we can make changes that create more satisfying outcomes. The struggle in changing is that people often cling to the familiar.
Habits Are Good
Our brains are designed to create habits. This organ does this as a way of reducing the cost of having to think through things again and again. As we learn a task, say, brushing our teeth, the brain slowly recognizes the consistency of this effort and begins to move it over to habit. We can then brush our teeth with minimal conscious awareness.
This is good news. Having to think through things that are difficult each time they happen would waste a lot of our time. If we had to think through how to drive every time we got behind the wheel we would likely not want to go through that process very often. Instead we can drive for long stretches without having to think much about what we are doing. Habits are really helpful.
The issue is the habits that we don’t want to have. The reactivity in our relationships or the habit of telling white lies to save face are things that we want to change. These are developed much like brushing our teeth and driving a car. We do them so often that it becomes automatic. So how do we begin to change these habits?
Changing Our Beliefs
In his book, Change Your Habits, Change Your Life, author Tom Corley explains how our beliefs contribute to our bad habits:
“Our beliefs and emotions trigger habits. Negative beliefs and emotions trigger bad habits and positive beliefs and emotions trigger good habits. If you want to eliminate a bad habit, you need to eliminate the negative belief. In order to do this you must become aware of the negative emotions that trigger negative beliefs while they are occurring; then you must reprogram your belief system from negative to positive. This stops the ensuing bad habit in its tracks.” (Corley, 2016)
As Corley explains, the key to change is to become aware of the negative beliefs we have about ourselves and how this brings up negative emotions. Once we identify these we are able to shift towards changing how we perceive ourselves.
An example in my own life is the belief that I’m only loveable for what I do. This belief is not necessarily bad but it is limiting. I don’t believe myself to be valuable just for who I am. As a result of this belief some of the habits I have picked up is focusing my energy towards doing and working and away from relating. Instead of being in relationship with the people in my life, I have a strong habit of pushing myself towards accomplishments in order to prove to these people I’m worthy of their love.
As I have brought awareness to this limiting belief and started to build a more positive belief, “I’m loveable for who I am,” I have been able to focus more of my time on being with the people I care about and not habitually having to prove my worth by accomplishing tasks.
How to Change Habits? It’s All About Awareness
If you are in the beginning stages of wanting to change a habit it can seem daunting. For example, a habit that may come up is being defensive in relationships. Someone who has this habit may shutdown or get really upset whenever someone brings up a mistake this person made. Over time this person may have started to realize that their defensiveness is getting in the way of their relationships. They want to change but it may seem like a mountain to climb.
When we bring awareness to these habits we begin to notice how they arise in our minds and bodies. For example, when a person becomes defensive all kinds of things happen that can alert them to this way of reacting. They may feel angry and feel a tightening in their body. By bringing awareness to this experience a memory of how they were treated when they were younger may come up. This could help them then explorer how that experience led to some belief about themselves. Maybe they remember feeling really unsafe with a caretaker who didn’t help this person understand that it’s okay to make mistakes. The belief that came about was something like, “I’m unsafe when I make mistakes.”
Once the person realizes the belief they can then start to build a new belief like, “it’s okay to make mistakes.” Coming from this belief the person will no longer need to be defensive when someone brings up a misstep they have made.
Although it is challenging to change our habits it is not impossible. I personally see it every week working with my clients. Reactivity, emotionally shutting down, losing tempers or having panic attacks are all ways our nervous systems respond to certain stimulation. By bringing the power of awareness to how this happens in our experience we can make important changes to our lives.
If you know someone who is struggling to change their habits please reach out to me.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
Corley, Tom. (2016). Change Your Habits, Change Your Life: North Loop Books.