Have you ever had a bad habit that you just couldn’t get rid of? Unwanted habits can eat away at us like nothing else. And that’s why there’s a huge industry built on helping people defeat their overeating habits, sugar habits, smoking habits and more. But what exactly is a habit, anyway? Where do they come from, why are they here, and is there a simple approach that can empower us to release unwanted habits for good? Check out this unique video from IPEtv, where Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, shares some fascinating distinctions about the habit-changing process that can make a big difference.
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Here is a transcript of this week’s video:
Have you ever had a bad habit that you just couldn’t get rid of? There’s a huge industry built on helping people defeat their overeating habits, sugar habits, smoking habits and more. But what exactly is a habit, anyway? Where do they come from, why are they here, and is there a simple approach that can empower us to release unwanted habits for good?
Habits, by definition, are thoughts or activities that we repeat again and again.
Some habits are the kind that we enact consciously – like taking a walk every day – while others express themselves in an automatic and unconscious fashion – like mindlessly overeating. We’re going to pay special attention here to the second kind of habit, the ones that have a strange power to linger on, despite our best efforts to fight them off.
Here’s a basic psycho-biological fact about habits: the mind is, by nature, habitual. Each of us has an inborn, habit-forming process that is designed to help us with one of the most important tasks of survival – learning.
Have you ever watched a small child playing peek-a-boo? It seems like they can keep going forever, laughing each time their parent’s face reappears. That’s because peek-a-boo is more than just a game; it’s a way for children to learn what psychologists call “object constancy.” Children want to see the face return from seeming oblivion over and over because the nervous system is programmed at the most basic level to learn important information by repeating it.
The process of habituating, of repeating something over and over, also serves another psychological purpose – to move us toward that which brings pleasure and away from that which brings pain. The learning process is naturally pleasurable, so we will instinctively repeat any behavior that provides us with more knowledge and control of our environment.
Unfortunately, this process of repetition of pleasure is easily distorted. For example, at some point we might have come home from school or work after a distressing day, had some ice cream, and felt better almost immediately. The mind then quietly recorded, “feel bad, eat ice cream, feel good.” On the next downer of a day, the mind automatically repeats this useful behavior, and an ice cream habit is born.
Habits, those we want to keep and/or those we want to lose.
We can divide habits into 2 categories: those we want to keep because they are helpful to us, and those we want to let go of because they get in the way of our greater happiness. A “bad” habit is just a behavior that we repeat automatically, that drains our energy, has harmful repercussions on the body or emotions, and goes against what we most want for ourselves.
Negative habits usually have some immediate positive or pleasurable benefits, but these benefits are short-lived and may have damaging consequences. For example, smoking a cigarette gives people the immediate benefit of calmness and emotional security. Over time, an increased amount of cigarette smoking is needed to provide the same effect, and if this habit it repeated often enough, shortness of breath, congestion, and lung disease may result.
The human challenge here, is this: the part of the mind that automatically replays, “feel bad, smoke cigarette, feel good” is not the part of us that can evaluate the true usefulness of this habit. Without self-reflection and awareness, our mechanical nature will dominate.
So, if negative habits are automatically self-repeating, the simple ingredient which must always be present to work with any unwanted habit is this: consciousness.
Consciousness and Awareness
Consciousness here means awareness, wakefulness, presence. It means we pay attention to what we are doing. This is easier said than done, and yet, there’s no magic pill that eradicates an unwanted habit. Dynamic Eating Psychology suggests life is compelling us to wake up, moment by moment, in response to our unwanted habits.
Instead of the common strategy of fighting against a habit such as overeating and blaming ourselves when we fail to eradicate it, we can start to wake ourselves up and ask the question: “Is this what I wish to choose in this moment?” Even if we ask ourselves this question and choose in the moment to continue eating, we’ve actually “exercised” our choosing muscle, and made it stronger. The next time, when faced with the same choice, our ability to choose becomes stronger, and even more compassionate.
Facing our unwanted habitual thoughts, or health draining eating habits, or any habit that limits our life force and self-expression – is an act of self-evolution. Life calls us, through our personal challenges, to grow. It’s not about fighting self, hating self, hating the habit, or attacking our own weaknesses. It’s about cultivating an awakened, loving heart, and gently guiding ourselves back home.
I hope this was helpful.