Get to the Root of Bad Habits to Change them For Good
I remember back in my twenties I was feeling a bit desperate to lose weight, I would think about it often and feel increasingly frustrated with my efforts. I would go through periods of working out for hours. I’d go on different fad diet, getting confused about all the conflicting information available. I would binge eat after a hard work out or a hectic day wanting a treat, but that only led to feelings of regret and deeper frustration.
I felt all over the place, ping ponging between attempts that never seemed to give me any traction. I didn’t think there was another way. I thought that this was just the way I was. I regularly felt resentment and frustration with others who seemed to have healthy eating habits down. Those people. They were like a different breed of humans or something. How’d they do it?
I’m happy to say that since those frustrating days I’ve learned some simple yet super impactful ways to break these ‘bad’ habits as I used to call them. What I’m excited to share are pieces of insight and practical steps that I can’t help but think to myself, “If I’d only knowing this before! I would have saved myself a lot of suffering.”
One of these game changing concepts is that behind every action I take, there is a need. If any need is not addressed in a healthy and long-term fulfilling way it will be far too easy to continue old habits, it doesn’t matter how much I tell myself I want to change.
This concept comes from a language of communication I feel grateful to learned about over the last few years called, Non-Violent Communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg.
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my life as a result of learning there is a need behind every action I take, is knowing how to take a situation that feels out of control and make it empowering and actionable. In knowing there is a need behind every action I take, when I feel an urge or an impulse to repeat a habit that has very short-term benefits, I can ask myself, “What am I needing in this moment?”
Other questions I can ask of my “bad” habits are: What need is this meeting for me? What am I getting out of doing this thing that is important for me?
The trick is to start to identify the needs behind our actions and start to focus on ways to meet them. The idea is to meet those needs in a way that doesn’t just feel good in the moment, but also leads to longer term happiness and a sense of satisfaction regarding our well-being and the general direction of our lives.
What often happens is that by default we painfully repeat old ways to meet needs without even realizing that’s what we’re doing. The bummer though, is that it’s often quite painful. It’s painful because the gains and relief are very short term, and our ability to see new possibilities is slim because we aren’t even fully sure why we’re doing it or how to stop. So the cycle continues – on and on.
I think we are never truly trying to hurt ourselves or sabotage our success. I believe that we really do have our best interests and happiness in mind, it’s just that sometimes we haven’t been taught how to get under the surface of our actions to see why we are doing them.
I want to clarify what I mean when we are taking about needs as well. It’s important to note that just as much as we have our tangible survival needs for things like food, shelter, money and sleep. We also have incredibly important, at times seemingly intangible needs for things like support, connection, appreciation, acknowledgement (any many more) that are a super vital part of living a happy and fulfilling life.
Let’s take my relationship with food for example. I have a need food to survive and be well, and when my eating habits went beyond survival to navigating feeling overstuffed and icky after a meal or continuing to choose meals or snacks that didn’t support my weight loss and health goals. What was I to do? Push harder against myself and try to force it or slow down and tune in?
If there is one thing that I learned (finally!), it’s that force often only leads to more resistance.
Have you ever experienced that inner battle like I did in much of my twenties?
“You must lose weight!”
“But I’m hungry.”
“Just try to go without. You can do it.”
Time passes, maybe five minutes, twenty-five, two hours… AND…
“Yeah, forget it… I want to eat.”
And there we go, back again to the same old habit.
Sometimes the way out of this is learning better eating habits, but, and the question becomes: What else am I hungry for besides food?
When we feel stuck, the way out is not to apply more pressure and push through, it’s in slowing down and tuning in. In getting curious about what needs food is meeting beyond the need for survival and sustenance.
For example, say I come home every evening and I’m pooped. I’ve worked hard, and I feel like I deserve a treat. I want to put my feet up and eat a delicious meal. What might be going on is that I have a need for pleasure and maybe without fulling realizing it, my need for pleasure feels dependent upon the delicious foods I’m able to enjoy.
A second game changing insight for me has been learning to separate the need from the strategy. Like in this example above, if I’m thinking (consciously or not!) that food is my only source of pleasure, of course I’m going to go for food. Our need for pleasure is super important, but I might not even know I’m doing it until I get curious about my habits.
When I can pinpoint specific needs that are calling for my attention, I can get curious about how to meet those needs in several ways. Eating rich delicious foods is only one strategy to meet my need for pleasure. If I can connect with multiple strategies to my need for pleasure – perhaps a warm bath or shower, connecting with friends or my partner, taking dance or stretch breaks – a sense of stress and urgency can be released and the “need” for food as my only source of pleasure can be lifted. This can be a huge relief if the foods I’m eating are delaying meeting my need for health, for example.
In this example, we can ask ourselves more regularly: What are some other strategies I could use to meet my need for pleasure? What other actions, activities, thoughts, experiences bring me pleasure that I can engage in?
If we struggling with overeating, or weight, or food in anyway asking questions like: What needs are these eating habits meeting for me? In addition to pleasure, some other common needs food can meet are comfort, ease, and convenience.
When we can identify needs behind our actions, then we can figure out which needs we want to use different and more expanded, long-term fulfilling strategies to accomplish.
So, the next time you feel like you are struggling with a habit that you can’t seem to stop, even though you know its not good for you, try the following steps:
1. Ask yourself what need does taking this action or having this thought meet for me? Act under the assumption that this action or habit is being done in your best interest: what are you getting out of it that feels good? (See if you can connect with a general need first.)
2. Once you’ve identified the need, start to brainstorm different strategies to meet that need. This can be done on paper or in your head. Though often as a writing exercise, it can help it stick even more and give you a reference and something tangible while creating new habits.
3. Without forcing yourself to stop the other habit, as an experiment start to try some of the strategies you’ve identified and incorporate them into your days and see if this helps to change your habits.
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