Nobody on earth is immune to less-than-ideal behaviors, and no two people have the exact same idea of what constitutes bad or toxic patterns. One person’s idea of a bad habit might be another person’s “lesser of two evils,” and vice versa. Some of us were raised in toxic patterns and have never lived any other way.
How do you identify a bad habit? When do you know a habit becomes something bad for you? The habits that health authorities have deemed unhealthy, like smoking or driving under the influence, are generally regarded as various levels of risky, unhealthy, dangerous, etc. But other habits, such as isolating when sad, an on-and-off relationship with that one person, people-pleasing, codependence, binge-watching television instead of getting fresh air, or working on self-improvement, can be a little murkier. Sometimes, these habits feel like the most you can do with your situation. Sometimes, they stem from a need to obtain closure or come to terms with a wound from your past. Sometimes, they are just the path of least resistance. They’re not inherently hurting you, even if they’re not supporting you in your goals.
Ultimately, a bad habit is anything that gets in the way of your ultimate vision for yourself. If you value close relationships and need the support of loved
ones when you are down, isolating yourself isn’t the best way to cope with feeling sad. If your goal is marriage and a family, but that one person isn’t ready to commit, then your pattern of returning to them/her/him isn’t serving you. The list goes on and on; sometimes, our habits are theoretically neutral behaviors, but their lack of ability to provide us with our ultimate health, happiness, and success makes them a negative force in our lives.
One of the most popular and replicated studies of this concept is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. In this experiment, children were given the choice between one small reward immediately or two small rewards if they waited. Depending on their preference, they were allowed to choose which treat they wanted; a marshmallow or a pretzel stick. The purpose of the study was to determine the impact of distraction and/or suppression upon one’s ability to wait for a reward, and it found that not seeing the offered reward while also distracting themselves was the most effective way for the children to succeed in holding out for the bigger reward. Disengaging from the objects of their desire allowed the children to avoid them.
Studies like these helped us understand how often we are driven by immediate gratification over delayed gratification. When something we want is right in front of us, we find it harder to resist.
The fact is that this is the same when you are engaging in your bad habits, whether it is procrastination or people-pleasing. If the opportunity to procrastinate or people-please is always in front of you, then there is an immediate reward when engaging in these habits that you promised yourself you would not be engaging in. Breaking your habits is difficult to do if you are required to be in these situations, responding to coworkers’ requests for help, for example, or being surrounded by distractions when attempting to complete a task.
How often do we start a new week, month, or year and set some grandiose goals for ourselves? Typically these goals are set at a time when our motivation is at its highest. The higher the motivation, the greater the goal. Often, we don’t keep up with our goals and regress back to our own patterns because the goal we’ve set for ourselves isn’t sustainable, and our methods of getting there aren’t incremental enough to pave the way for success. So we are disappointed in ourselves, choose a lofty goal, go at it full-tilt, can’t sustain our new upended lifestyle, and quit. Then, we try again, with the same results.
Our all-or-nothing thinking further exacerbates this stop-and-go, stop-and-go cycle. In our all-or-nothing thinking, the mind says, “If it is not going to be perfect, why bother?” as soon as we hit a roadblock. Rather than evaluating our goal, breaking it down into smaller goals, and approaching from a place of compassion and patience, we give up. This can happen when we are attempting to eliminate our bad habits; we “go cold turkey” when we should be looking at making healthy substitutions, reductions, and modifications. We take a leap that requires completely upending our entire lifestyle, rather than making one small, manageable change at a time.
It is hard to break a habit if all you are doing is pointing fingers at everything and everyone that played a role in it. The truth is that bad habits become hardest to combat when we are alone, without anyone there to witness us and keep us accountable.
It is human nature to desire emotional support from our loved ones, and there are many benefits to having accountability buddies in our corners. But our loved ones cannot be with us all the time, and they are not the voice in our heads. Recognizing our role in making change and the importance of keeping ourselves on track is far more beneficial than having a friend to text when we are struggling. Unfortunately, evaluating and naming our defects and taking responsibility for our actions can be unpleasant, so we tend to avoid it. This creates a situation in which we refuse to see our own part in toxic patterns, and therefore cannot avoid or undo them. Not being accountable to ourselves plays a major part in self-sabotage, and self-sabotage feeds our tendency to refuse to take accountability.
It is hard to break a habit if all you are doing is pointing fingers at everything and everyone that played a role in it. The truth is that bad habits become hardest to combat when we are alone, without anyonethere to witness us and keep us accountable. It is human nature to desire emotional support from our loved ones, and there are many benefits to having accountability buddies in our corners. But our loved ones cannot be with us all the time, and they are not the voice in our heads. Recognizing our role in making change and the importance of keeping ourselves on track is far more beneficial than having a friend to text when we are struggling. Unfortunately, evaluating and naming our defects and taking responsibility for our actions can be unpleasant, so we tend to avoid it. This creates a situation in which we refuse to see our own part in toxic patterns, and therefore cannot avoid or undo them. Not being accountable to ourselves plays a major part in self-sabotage, and self-sabotage feeds our tendency to refuse to take accountability.
We often think we have to turn our back on things that no longer serve us well. While this is true, where I suggest you start facing your bad habits. This will allow you the opportunity to get real with yourself about what your patterns are. Get to know them not because you need to be any more friendly and/or familiar with them than you have been, but to understand them. Figure out what triggers your bad habits. Is it a certain chain of events? A time of year? A series of mishaps? Are any of them predictable: after family visits, when you’re pulling too much overtime at work, when your kids are running from activity to activity, and you have to get them there? Through therapy like our practice here in Woodland Hills, explore how you have come to develop these toxic patterns. How do they manifest in your life? Do you think about them when they are not plaguing you? Can you visualize your life without them? Where did you pick them up? How do you feel about forgiving yourself for them?
When analyzing your bad habits and their repercussions, try to be as honest with yourself as possible. This may mean that you pretend for a while that you are studying a character in a film or novel and not yourself. As long as you eventually take ownership of these attributes, it’s alright to find a creative way there.
Think about the last thing you worked on that was motivated by negative emotions: how did it go? My guess is that it probably did not go very well overall. When we think about fear as a driving force, we can be tempted to view it as a great motivator. All that adrenaline, all that determination to escape whatever negative situation we are in, has to count for something, right? In actuality, fear is a great short-term kickstart: running away from danger, avoiding getting too close to the edge of the cliff, making sure the pot we’re about to touch isn’t too hot. These are all short-term issues in which fear is and should be a factor.
But change is not a short-term action. The goal is to create sustainable habits because change takes time. Worrying about the negative is not going to be half as inspirational and/or pleasant as focusing on the potential positives. Approaching your behavior change from the stance of affirming your values is an excellent way to stay moving in the right direction because your values are not a temporary rush of adrenaline or gut feeling. They are your internal compass, with years of affirmative data regarding how you feel about yourself when you stick to them. When you create a goal based on achieving your highest potential, motivated by your ultimate moral code, it is much easier to feel strong, optimistic and empowered. Whatever your toxic habit is, there is a guaranteed alternative healthy one that aligns much better with your values. Tapping into that creates the headspace needed to stay the course of adjusting your toxic behaviors and habits.
Take inventory of your values; where do you see opportunities to live in alignment with them in your day-to-day life? Which values rank the highest, and why? Understanding why you prioritize what you prioritize is a great way to keep your eyes on the prize.
When you are learning to change your habits and patterns, be prepared to find that you won’t experience linear progress. This doesn’t mean that you purposefully and intentionally slip back
to your unhealthy habits. This is about staying self-compassionate when you are going through your trial-and-error. A failure to plan for hiccups is a plan to fail at your goal, whether because you run out of patience, run out of belief in yourself, or run out of time. Or sometimes, you will even run out of all three.
Recently, there has been some paid advertising on a popular social media account that shares a quote from Tony Robbins. In this ad, he is quoted saying, “It is not about reaching your goals, it is about who you become as you work towards reaching your goals.” I love this quote because it highlights the struggle many people have when working toward their goals. When we are trying to challenge and change the habits and patterns that are no longer serving as well, we become too focused on measuring our progress. We are too focused on tallying up and tracking the number of times we met our goal. We forget that it is about building skills such as perseverance, creativity, patience, and curiosity, as we change our habits that matter the most.
Making room for setbacks makes room to learn and grow and helps circumvent the all-or-nothing thinking that often derails our progress entirely.
Toxic patterns are like any habit in our lives: they are often formed subconsciously and become familiar passengers along for the ride with it. Even when they show up and turn our lives upside down, we can find ourselves clinging to them because we know them; we find comfort in their predictability. It can feel overwhelming to think about changing our ways and trying something new, especially if we cannot remember a time in our lives without these bad habits. People may have even told us that we wouldn’t be able to change our ways, or that we didn’t deserve to.
The best way to prove to ourselves that we can is to begin and to try. In small steps and with great self-compassion, we can unpack these tendencies and begin to set them free. Even small progress will allow for better peace of mind. And remember, as you evolve, so will your behaviors. Life is a series of changes, which means that you can revisit, re-analyze and re-evaluate all your behaviors and patterns at any time.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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