Bob Denny: Breaking the habit

Published: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 4:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 4:31 p.m.

Have you ever been disappointed with yourself because of bad habits like smoking, biting your nails, watching too much television, or drinking too much coffee or alcohol? Most of us have a habit we’d like to do away with.

You may have tried to stop the bad habit using will power, using commitment, punishing yourself or turning it over to others to nag or punish you. These methods really don’t work very well.

Don’t feel bad. Most of us haven’t learned the skills we need to change bad habits. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas I’ve picked up from 15 years of counseling with troubled youth, couples, and families.

First of all, decide to be responsible for your own behavior. Rather than trying to get others to fix it, take charge of your own behavior and your own life.

Be willing to try something new. Will power, commitment and self-punishment can cause negative feelings that will discourage you from dealing with the problem. Drop the old ways.

Replace inappropriate feelings, thoughts, and behaviors with better alternative feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Here’s the behavior modification formula: A >B >C. “A” causes “B” which causes “C.” “A” is the attitude that comes before the behavior. “B” is the behavior you want to change. “C” is the consequences that happen as a result of the behavior.

Let’s look at an example. You bite your fingernails. “A” is whatever attitudes or thoughts bring on the behavior. It might be nervousness, hunger, boredom, or frustration ... I don’t know. “B” is biting your nails. “C” is the consequences. What happens after you bite your nails? Have you diverted your attention from the situation that brought on the thoughts or attitudes? You may have relieved your nervousness or frustration by diverting your attention, or changing what you’re focusing on. Or you may have felt more in control of your own nails than the situation causing your negative feelings.

Change your thoughts. Stop thinking, “This is a bad habit. I’ll just force myself to stop doing it, and put up with the sacrifice, pain, shame and deprivation.” Think instead “This habit is not working for me. I choose to replace this bad habit with behaviors that are more appropriate, more positive, that will enhance my life rather than be a drain on it.”

Change your feelings, by changing your thinking and your attitudes. Exchange thinking “I’m a weak slave to this habit,” for “I’m a strong, in-control, positive person, who can change and become the wonderful person I was meant to be.” Other positive attitudes are: “I’m good, and I can change what I want to change.” Come up with some of your own positive attitudes or thoughts.

Choose an alternative behavior that replaces the unwanted behavior, meets the need causing that behavior, and that works better for you and feels better. You might select as an alternative behavior rubbing a lucky coin, taking a deep breath and relaxing, or choosing other more pleasant thoughts. Use whatever works for you.

Once you’ve tried the new behavior a few times instead of the unwanted behavior, if it fulfills the need and works for you, it will become a new replacement habit. You’ll find that you no longer need the old behavior. It will gradually go away, or as we say in counseling, it will “extinguish.” Take time to recognize this success. Reward yourself by giving yourself something pleasant, or doing something rewarding. A slice of key lime pie. A coffee break. Take yourself to a special lunch. Celebrate the success with a friend. This will not only strengthen the “consequences,” but as you reflect on your success and good feelings about yourself, your attitude will become more positive — the “A” in the formula — and you’ll further strengthen the new A >B >C.

Keep this new technique in mind, and use these skills on any other behaviors you’d rather replace with more satisfying, fulfilling, and improved habits.

Bob Denny is a licensed mental health therapist in Florida and teaches psychology and human growth and development at Florida Gateway College.

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