Changing habits

Changing habits is fundamental to personal growth and development, but it's not always that easy. To make it stick you need to:

  • Change how you see your habits – they are there for a reason

  • Be kind to yourself

  • Investigate the beliefs underlying your habits

  • Understand the secondary gains to your habits

  • Change your beliefs as necessary (yes, this can be done!)

  • Learn good habits to replace the bad ones

  • Create structures that make it easy to practice your new habit(s) for a trial period

All growth involves change, and most of what we need to change is some kind of habit, whether a really obvious behavioural one like smoking, or a less obvious emotional one, like always discounting people you meet as potential friends or partners and staying lonely.

But you can't just read loads of books and websites, and go on and on to your friends about how you want your life to be, and expect things to miraculously change. This method – although extremely popular – just doesn't usually work very well. Believe me, I have tried it for years.

You have to change or remove the need for the habit, and your best chance of success is when you tackle it at each of these levels:

  • The subconscious, emotional level – changing what you believe, and consequently what you feel
  • The physical and habitual level – changing what you do and experience
  • The intellectual level – changing what you think.

So for example if you add together some means of talking with your subconscious (easier than it sounds), with starting up a new, replacement habit that you can embed strongly, plus decide to investigate and challenge your thinking about whatever habit you are working on, all those approaches will support each other and boost your progress.

Will power alone doesn't usually work. This is (partly) because this method of changing habits uses only the conscious mind - and the conscious mind is only working with less than 1% of what's going on at any one time! In order to really understand your habits, and to stop needing the ones that are out of date, you need to enlist the aid of your unconscious – or in other words, the one who is really running the show. To stand half a change of changing habits that have been with you for years, you really do need to be engaging the other 99% of your mind.

(That's why something like Allen Carr's Easyway to Stop Smoking is so effective, by the way – when you read that book he is speaking directly to your subconscious mind and altering your beliefs. Clever man).

Another reason will power doesn't work though is that often you're just not being very nice to yourself. You're telling yourself off, wagging the finger at yourself and beating yourself up, which can get pretty wearing.

(at this point I could just tell you to Stop That! - but that makes me no better than you so instead, I'll suggest something more constructive. You're welcome).

Evaluate your habits

The thing is, all your “bad” habits are there for a reason, and in the beginning, it was a good reason. Or at least your unconscious mind thought it was.

At some point you told your subconscious mind that you needed distracting from something unpleasant – usually something scary, or uncomfortable in some other way. Often, the thing you needed distracting from was a thought or belief you had about yourself that made you feel not so good. Your subconscious then obliged you, by selecting an activity to achieve this purpose of distraction - whether it was eating cakes, daydreaming, putting off doing your chores, repeatedly failing etc, procrastinating so you can avoid being less than perfect.... or whatever it was that seemed to work to distract you from what felt bad.

I have a confession to make. It has taken me weeks to get this page about changing habits up, and it has all been down to a complicated little cluster of emotional and belief habits I have, which togethter make up the very unhelpful habit of perfectionism.

Perfectionism doesn't always mean that you produce perfect work. It can mean that you don't produce anything at. In my case, it's because I'm telling myself all sort of unhelpful rubbish about how great, how comprehensive, how perfectly phrased my writing has to be.

I tell you, I am really living this website as I write it!

Often, your subconscious will just keep on running these programme for years, decades, whole lifetimes even. Sometimes it might mix it up a bit by changing the behaviour or adding new variations, so on top of your original sugar habit you now smoke, and have started to drink too much as well. The original purpose is likely still fundamentally the same though, even though it will also have had other layers added.

But over time what happens is that a habit that used to work – for example, flying off the handle every time someone disagrees with you (which was so satisfyingly effective when you were three! and you had your parents wrapped round your little finger!) - is not working out well for your life as an adult trying to relate to other adults, and to take care of children. It's killing the love in your relationship and jeapordising the integrity of your family.

When you were little - hard as it may be to remember now - your sense of self was just emerging, and having big people thwart your will probably felt genuinely life threatening. Anger is (or originally was) a healthy and natural means of setting your boundaries in order to survive.

This boy is clearly in touch with this primal drive!

(c) mdanys 2009

So it's time to change. But do it nicely, please.

Be Kind to Yourself.

By which I mean be kind to, and respectful of, your unconscious mind. It is a vast, unmeasurable ocean of knowledge and experience and is much, much bigger than you can imagine. And it's been looking out for you all your life and continues to do so - even if it might not seem like it right now, what with all those self-destructive habits it has you doing.

The problem is that despite its immense capacity, your unconscious mind is not as sophisticated as your conscious mind and can only work with what it knows. It only knows the information it receives, and while most of this comes from the outside world, the most crucial information is how you tell it to view the world.

There's a reason for every habit

So if you tell your subconscious at the age of five that social situations like parties are really unsettling because you don't know where your mum is or when you'll be back in your nice safe familiar home, your subconscious will find some way to distract you from that anxiety. It could be anything, from eating your way through everything on the party table, to becoming the rather manic life-and-soul, to repeatedly getting ill in advance so that you don't have to face parties any more.

Over time, if no new information tells your little self that you are safe in social situations (and that they can even be fun!) whatever behaviour your unconscious has decided on will become a habit, the purpose of which is to protect you from the feeling of unsafety. Underlying this will be some beliefs about parties, other people, being away from your home etc., that if changed, will change the need for the habit.

(Sometimes you need to know this reason, but actually a lot of the time you don't, you just need to accept that there was a reason. And actually, it doesn't even really matter whether you accept it or not – you just need to act as if you do accept it, and your subconscious will hear your communications and respond).

The key thing is that for every habit that no longer serves you, at one point there was a good reason. Rather than berate or blame your unconscious for this, be clear that it was doing it's best, and make an ally of it. Reassure it that its efforts are understood and appreciated. Do this during meditation, EFT tapping, self-hypnosis, or some of the DIY NLP processes.

Coming to understand and appreciate your unconscious in this way frees you up to get to the underlying beliefs that are preventing you from changing your habits. When you find a technique that suits you, and you are willing to hear whatever your subconscious is willing to let you know, no matter how bizarre or unrelated it may seem it can be surprisingly easy to get to your underlying beliefs so you can change those pesky habits of mind.

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