A few years ago I had an experience that deeply changed how I understood my personal habits, both good and bad. Before then, I didn’t fully understand how a habit works. Now I think I do.
I was invited to beta-test an online pornography recovery program called RECLAiM Sexual Health. The program was developed with the help of neuroscientists who studied how substance addiction works. Many people don’t realize that watching pornography can create an actual chemical addiction, as powerful as heroin or other street drugs. A person who habitually watches pornography can become addicted to powerful neurochemicals that are released during sexual activity. RECLAIM’s developers sought to combat this addiction, using cutting-edge research on the brain’s ability to change its patterns.
My job as a beta-tester for the program was simply to go through and check for any “bugs.” But in the process, I realized that even though I didn’t struggle with pornography, the program’s method could help me. Though it is designed to heal a specific addiction, its principles could be applied to any bad habit — things as minor as nail-biting or a little excessive snacking, as well as more dangerous habits like smoking.
I know from experience how frustrating it can be to try to change something that has become habitual. If you have been struggling to overcome a bad habit, try following these steps.
Step 1. Claim your identity. You are a person with gifts, talents, and dignity. You have so much to offer. Internalize this truth so that you can live a life worthy of who you are.
Step 2. Face it. Trying to avoid the bad habit or white-knuckling it through the temptations only works for a while. Simple avoidance doesn’t usually produce long-term effects. Rather than running away, face it. Often when we are struggling with the urge to do something unhealthy, we begin to focus only on the perceived positives and we ignore the negatives. Therefore, ahead of time, put your logical brain in charge and look at the bigger picture. Identify the reasons why you want to break the habit in the first place. Maybe you feel ashamed and guilty afterwards. Maybe you want to be healthy and feel good about yourself, and watching too much TV or snacking on chips is getting in the way. Then critically examine the perceptions you have about the bad habit. Why do you choose it? What’s the benefit? If you like watching TV to unwind, could you take a walk instead? Once you’ve examined why you want to break the habit, and why you have the habit in the first place, remind yourself what the truth is and why you want things to change.
Step 3. Replace it. As I stated in an earlier post, it’s very difficult to decide not to do something. It’s easier to resolve to do something. To break a bad habit, replace it with a good one. Focus on adding something positive to your life rather than subtracting something negative. Many people turn to their bad habits or addictions as a way of coping, especially when they are feeling lonely or stressed. When this is the case, it’s especially important to find a way to resolve the feelings rather than turning to the bad habit.
Step 4. Connect. Addictions often isolate people, and bad habits work the same way. In Step 3, I noted that many people fall into bad habits when they lonely or stressed. As long as a person remains isolated from others, recovery will be limited. We are relational creatures and thrive when we have positive and healthy connections with others. So make forming those connections a priority in your life.
Everyone experiences challenges in life. Bad habits are just some of them. But we don’t have to accept them as permanent fixtures in our lives. Unhealthy thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors tend to limit and control us. By taking back control of bad habits, we make more room for good ones, and open the door to being truly ourselves, wholly alive, and free to experience the joys of life in their fullness.