What We Resist Persists

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Jennifer Guttman

Most of us struggle with habits that we would like to break. These habits negatively impact how we view ourselves and decrease our overall life satisfaction. The more we think about a habit we’re trying to break, the more we become preoccupied and angry with ourselves, which makes us more likely to continue to do it. 

Sometimes we resist breaking a habit because it serves a purpose for us, either emotionally or biologically. For example, you might have a habit that’s hard to break because it reduces stress, like a compulsive need to check social media. You might have a habit that’s hard to break because it’s tied to a biological response, like having a hard time getting enough sleep because of poor sleep hygiene.

Habits are hard to break even if they’re bad for us. Habits are routines and when a routine is challenged, our limbic system goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode by identifying the behaviour change as a threat. 

This motivates us to revert to the old behavior. Even if you’ve determined that the old behavior is bad for you, dopamine is released once you re-engage with the old habit, making the pre-determined bad behavior feel good. Here are five strategies to assist you in stopping bad habits that may be interfering with your overall sense of well-being:

Choose something to replace the habit. This requires planning ahead. For example, if you’ve decided that you want to break a habit of eating something sugary after most meals, choose an alternative with which to replace the sugary item. 

The substitute should be something that will feel like you’re still eating something sweet, but something that won’t result in you feeling bad about yourself. 

For example, you might try replacing ice cream with fruit and honey or chocolate chip cookies with a dark chocolate covered rice cake. In this way, you’re not avoiding desert, you’re replacing it with something to reduce the stress the bad habit is causing your sense of self-worth.

Cut out the triggers. Triggers can easily lead us to fall into bad habits. For example, if you feel you are compulsively checking social media, analyse what triggers result in this behavior. If seeing the app or notifications on your phone results in social media dives, consider removing the trigger. You can do this by deleting the app or silencing your phone for some period of time. This strategy improves feelings of self-control—making you in control of the behavior rather than the behavior in control of you.

Have a partner: If you’re disappointing yourself by falling short on your exercise goals, enlist a partner. 

Human beings are social by nature, and having someone to pair a challenging behavior with can help motivate you to combat a habit you’re trying to break, like not showing up for yourself when you make a plan to exercise. Over time, together you will build a new exercise habit that eventually will become a solo routine.

When you slip, don’t give up. If you’re struggling with a bad habit of staying up too late and not getting enough sleep, remind yourself that embedded bad habits are not easy to break. 

For example, even if you’re motivated to work on better sleep hygiene, there will be days or even a week where you might slip. Holidays, a lot of parties, or a vacation can pose challenges to your commitment. Don’t give up. Always assume you will take steps forward and back. Be a compassionate coach for yourself, not a critical one. Reinforce progress, not perfection. Visualize yourself succeeding. 

If you’ve recognised a bad habit of money mismanagement and you’re trying to get better at managing your finances, imagine a world in which you’ve succeeded at effectively dealing with your fiscal affairs. Visualise in detail what that would look like and how you would feel about yourself. Use that as motivation.

Resisting habits that inspire negative thoughts and self-talk is difficult. Just trying to power through is not going to have positive results, and there will be a high chance of you reverting to the habit you’re trying to break. If, however, you approach breaking the habit with intention and purpose, the odds will be in your favor of ridding yourself of the bad habit. 

Remember, change takes time. Be patient with yourself and don’t expect radical change immediately. With diligence and a lot of motivation change will come. A new behavior will replace the old.

-- Psychology Today

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