How to overcome unhealthy habits and patterns in your life.
There are 3 basic steps to overcoming unhealthy habits and patterns. I will not define "unhealthy" but leave that up to you for discovery. However, on its foundation, "unhealthy" means anything that is causing damage to you or others around you. My disclaimer is that these are my ideas based on observation, not on scientific evidence or common psychology understandings.
Here are the 3 steps or phases:
The Pain must outweigh the Gain.
Willing to make a change.
A person must become self-aware that there is a problem. If we do not think something is a problem, then there is no incentive to change what we are doing, and we generally will not change. There is a lot of effort involved in changing our behavior. Therefore, if we are not convinced of its value, we will not expend the effort to change.
In this discussion, I will use an alcohol or drug addict example because there is usually a clear-cut understanding and agreement of the dysfunction and harm. 12-step programs seem to have the ability to help people overcome their struggles with addictions. You can visit any good 12-step meeting and listen to people talk about "bottoming out." It is a term that refers to them becoming self-aware that there was/is a problem, an unhealthy habit, and pattern. Before they hit bottom, they enjoyed their addiction even though most people around them realized it was a problem long before.
I will explain a bit more about bottoming out, which has to do with Pain versus Gain. For example, let us think about the person who has an alcohol addiction that negatively affects their relationships and health. This fictitious person grabs a bottle on the way home and either never arrives home or does not remember stumbling in and falling on the floor in a drunken stupor. Without going into relational dynamics, the Pain of their behavior does not outweigh whatever Gain or benefit they are getting out of the addiction. Not that the person is not experiencing adverse effects; they do. But there is no incentive to change until something occurs that enforces their knowledge that there is a problem.
Make no mistake, they know there is a problem; they are just not ready to do something about it.
We are all like that to some degree. There are attitudes, behaviors, and patterns that do not work well for the people in our lives and us. However, the cost of change seems more significant than the benefit of change, so we don't. For the addict, there is some benefitting reaction in their body and mind that keeps them in a behavioral spiral long after the cost escalates to a fairly high level. There is usually some kind of intervention in the form of a traumatic event that serves to help the addict realize their Pain is greater than their Gain and causes them to seek change. It could be a divorce, some type of accident, losing a job, etc. In any case, their Pain has escalated to a point where they finally realize they "might" need help. I use the word "might" because this is usually a back-and-forth decision. It is challenging to break an addiction, and most people fall back into their addictive behavior multiple times along the way.
I want to provide a quick word as to why I list being self-aware first before Pain vs. Gain. One might think that there is no self-awareness prior to the escalating Pain in life. Although it may 'seem' as though the person has no self-awareness of the issue until Pain outweighs Gain, this is not entirely true. There is awareness, however dim it may be. Our fictitious addict does have an awareness that there are undesired consequences of their addiction of choice. It is just that the consequences have not reached a level to outweigh the experiential benefits.
Also, as an aside, some people never reach the place where the Pain outweighs the Gain. They die in their addiction. I leave this as an impactful, stand-alone paragraph.
Finally, there is one more component necessary to change: our will and willingness to change. We can be aware that there is a problem, yet not change. We can be experiencing detrimental consequences and keep doing the same thing as if courting an abusive relationship. If we are not willing to make a change, we will not. There are probably exceptions where a person is hospitalized and comes out on the other side making changes. But, at some point, they became willing.
If you are struggling with any unhealthy behaviors and patterns in life and want to change but do not seem to be able to do it, there is hope. Many people successfully walk the same road of recovery. 12-step programs can help as well as counseling and medical consultation. Sometimes it takes a good old-fashioned intervention to get us where we need to be —kind of like trying to push a car over a speed bump.
Here is a key you may be interested in. I think it is possible to skip from self-aware to willing without experiencing an escalation in Pain. How so? By developing a lifestyle of self-awareness, we can become aware of unhealthy behaviors and patterns BEFORE they become huge, impacting issues in our life. I am reminded of a crack in our front sidewalk. I knew it was there, so I learned to avoid it. You see, I was busy with many other things in life, and it was simply an annoyance. Then one day, my friend visited, tripped on it, and fell and hurt himself. At that point, I knew it needed immediate attention. I had grown used to it and did not realize it had become so big. It was no longer just a tiny crack in the concrete. Giving attention to small things while still small can help avoid a lot of pain in life.
How do we practice self-awareness? Let me demonstrate with a couple of examples where we lose awareness. Have you ever been walking or driving and suddenly become aware that you don't remember how you got to where you are? Have you ever seen someone have a collision because they were looking at their phone or distracted in some way? We are living life without awareness. When I was a child, there were no cell phones, and people would actually greet and talk to each other — even strangers. We might be in a waiting room or on a bus, but there was much more openness to being aware of your surroundings because there was nothing else to do with yourself. Now we might as well tape a smartphone to each eye… but I digress. I am talking about practicing self-awareness.
Not only do we not have an awareness of our surroundings, but we also do not have an awareness of our self. We are busy filling our minds and our time with entertainment. Just go to any public venue like a park and watch people. How many are distracted with some device? We are not aware of ourselves locationally, subconsciously, or situationally.
Situational awareness is critical for military operations and especially when piloting an aircraft. A pilot needs to know at any point in time if the aircraft is climbing, descending, turning, etc., as well as location. It is not as critical when driving a car, but it is still essential to stay on the road and avoid obstacles (like other vehicles and pedestrians). Situational awareness is also crucial in our life. But there is not as immediate a consequence to losing it as when we pilot a vehicle. Therefore, it is easy to kind of let it go. However, like the cracked concrete on my front walkway that turned into an injury-causing hole, it can eventually cause problems.
Ok, I kind of went off the track there in answering the question; How do we practice self-awareness? The idea is to become mindful, or aware, of what is going on now. You may ask, "what should I become aware of?" To which I reply, "Yes, everything and nothing." At which point, you might want to turn off this channel. The idea of mindfulness is taking time to become aware of what is going on now. It is an awareness of what is going on situationally, mentally, and emotionally. Then determining if any issues need to be taken care of now before they escalate.
People usually are thinking about the past or the future. Very few are present in the current moment. For instance, I am listening to the radio or a podcast. I hear a phrase that reminds me of something I want to do, and for the next several minutes, my mind goes off thinking about that. I have no idea what was said on the broadcast. Have you ever been in an online meeting and been distracted doing something else? Do you have an inexorable desire to look at your phone during conversations or meetings? The mind gets bored very quickly because it can process information faster than it can come in.
So, the answer to the question is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness happens to be a big thing in society today and is beyond the scope of this discussion. There is a lot of training and information available. I only mention it because it helps you become self-aware of minor problems before they become big problems. It is not difficult to do, but it is costly. It will cost you your time, and it will challenge you. Challenge because if you are aware of something, then you have no deniability.
You can begin to practice mindfulness by simply taking time to stop what you are doing and think about what is going on right now. For instance, what situation are you in right now? Not what happened in the past or what could happen in the future as a result. Just the situation as it is. Then consider your emotional response to the crisis. Is your response based on your own emotional triggers and/or fears? Think about your response options. Take time to look around and see your environment. Take a moment to watch people. It can be more entertaining than your smartphone. Smell a flower. When you eat, take time to really taste the flavor. Feel the wonder as you breathe air.
It is simple, but it takes time. As you begin to practice this new habit to become self-aware, you will find that you begin to experience peace. You will know how to solve issues before they become critical. Your perspective will shift. You can overcome fear and regrets. Those are just a few of the benefits. It begins with a step of willingness to make a change.