Whether you want to stop biting your nails, quit smoking or even just start showing up early to events instead of late, the willingness to break ‘bad’ habits is admirable. But, as so many of us know too well, it can also be difficult.
For most of us, the idea of changing old habits feels impossible because they often feel beyond our control. That’s because habits are formed by a set of behaviors that are repeated over and over again. Once a habit is formed—whether it is good or bad—it can be hard to break because the behaviors that we repeat the most are ingrained into our neural pathways. Deeply ingrained behaviors (habits) are formed early in our life and are influenced by our early childhood experiences and environments.
But the good news is that—with repetition, practice, focus and commitment—new habits can be formed and maintained.
To form these new habits, you first need an understanding and awareness of the habit you want to break. This allows us to make lasting change, and can lead to insights about what emotional impact our habits have on ourselves and others, as well as in what environments we are most likely to practice these habits.
Once you have an understanding and awareness of these factors, here are some other tips to help you break old habits and develop new ones:
Habits are complex behaviors and require complex solutions, so focus on changing them one at a time.
For example, rather than saying, “Starting tomorrow, I’ll start exercising every day,” say “I’ll go to an exercise class on Wednesday.”
As you find success with each small goal, gradually increase them in an effort to meet your ultimate goal.
Seek to understand your habit
People want to change habits that are damaging—either emotionally or physically—to themselves or others. But these patterns persist, in part, because harmful behavior is rewarded in some way.
For example, procrastinating—in the short term—wards off the anxiety related to a task that requires your attention. Our brain immediately processes that reward of not feeling anxious. In order to break this habit, it requires the individual to develop the capacity to tolerate feeling a manageable amount of anxiety in order to learn that procrastinating actually causes a greater degree of anxiety in the long term.
Examine the context of your habit
Identify the situational and emotional triggers associated with the habit you want to change. This will help you with understanding the goal of your habit.
For example, many habits are formed as a means of coping with anxiety, anger or even boredom. Once you’re able to accurately identify the emotional needs the habit is trying to satisfy, you can then work on developing ways to satisfy your emotional needs with adaptive and healthy behaviors.
Regression is normal
It’s common to return to our old habits even when we’re working hard to change them. Learn to be compassionate with yourself when you make a mistake.
Seek professional help
Change is hard, especially when you’re working to change behaviors that have been a part of you for a long time.
Getting assistance from a professional can help with gaining a deeper understanding of the behavior you want to change and why the behavior originally developed.
Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.