Very often people diagnose themselves with having an 'addictive personality', which is a complete myth. We tend to underestimate how dependent we are on our habits and the comfort they give us, even if it's just because they're all we've known. This leaves us making choices on how to relieve stress, anxiety or boredom whilst in a state of physical and/or psychological withdrawal. We are therefore likely to replace habits with other equally effective coping mechanisms. In the short term these tend not to be healthier things like exercise and meditation because we think these require commitment and perseverance to become 'fun'. Frankly, it can be daunting thinking about how to overcome addiction on your own. When changing any habit, find a short term replacement you genuinely enjoy. At least for the first few weeks, while you get some time under your belt, plan some enjoyable ways to distract from cravings. Personally I like to book a karaoke booth for one and sing my heart out for 2 hours until the urgency to return to old habits has passed!
How to stop bad habits and addictions
If you want to gain insight into why you are engaging in and how to change a bad habit, don't focus on what is wrong with your behaviour, rather what's right with it. These could be habits of thinking or eating or everyday wellness issues that plague you – but don't worry, there are steps you can take to mentally prepare you in breaking bad habits. By identifying how the habit is serving you, you can take a more compassionate and less punitive approach to uncovering what your current needs are. For example if you use alcohol to ease social anxiety, perhaps it's time to reflect on your strengths, work on self-esteem and challenge negative internal dialogue leftover from teenage years. If shopping helps you feel less bored, perhaps it's time to consider old passions and explore new hobbies. As Dr. Gabor Mate, leading addictions expert says, "....if you want to understand addiction, you can’t look at what’s wrong with the addiction, you have to look at what’s right about it. In other words, what is the person getting from the addiction? What are they getting that otherwise they don’t have?".
Far too often we’re told what’s wrong with us and what we’re doing. This makes us feel disempowered, flawed and more likely to want to engage in self-sabotaging behaviour. By taking a more understanding approach and appreciating how effective our habits are or have been at serving us, we can start to feel more in control, self-aware and compassionate towards ourselves.
Celebrate and punctuate your journey of change by acknowledging and noting down each goal attained. The more and more you move away from the negative aspects of your unwanted habits, the more you are likely to fall into a 'complacency trap' and forget how far you've come by normalising and minimising the changes that have now become part of your life. Very often we only know to celebrate with the behaviour we're trying to stop engaging in! Make a note of what it will look like when you've reached your short term goals and decide how you will celebrate in new and fulfilling ways. Instead you may be at risk of not letting your achievements serve to increase your self-esteem and sense of capacity.
How to stick to your goals and stay motivated
Make sure your goals are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound). In the short term, it's more effective from a motivational standpoint to increase your sense of achievement and self-efficacy by achieving the goals you've said you'll achieve as opposed to making big and often unrealistic changes. The more confidence you have in your abilities and resolve, the more likely you are to make your goals more ambitious. That's why things like Stoptober are useful for example. By taking this approach of short term 'sobriety sampling', we can focus on achieving a short term goal and be spurred on by our increased confidence. By the time this is achieved we'll be in an entirely different mind space and able to be more ambitious for ourselves. Plus it's scary to think we can never return to our habit of choice. Taking Alcoholics Anonymous' 'Just for Today' approach can really help with this. Wake up every day and decide, 'just for today, I will....'
Act like you've already achieved your goal. So often we put our lives on hold and wait to be kinder to ourselves or more brave when we've arrived at an elusive place of perfection. Assume you've already arrived and start living that way! Very often when my clients are trying to lose weight, I ask them to think about someone they imagine is healthy, confident and fit. What do they eat? How do they dress, sit, and engage with the world? Without exception, their response is the answer to what they need to start doing straight away to get there. Call it 'fake it till you make it', 'law of attraction' or whatever you like – it works! One client kept relapsing onto old habits after a few days because she kept thinking she didn't have enough 'time under her belt' to keep it up, and that she wouldn't have much to lose by giving up and starting again on Monday. What helped her was to imagine she was already one year in to making a change and act as though she didn't want to undo her months of hard work. Basically it's whatever works for you to stay on track and treating yourself kindly. Even if you don’t change a single thing about yourself ever again, you are good enough and you have arrived.
Remember, don’t overhaul everything all at once! Very often people decide to make massive changes in various areas of their lives and give up many habits at once, in a bid to become a ‘whole new person.’ Taking an 'all or nothing' approach can sometimes serve to be counter-intuitive because the last thing we need, especially in early days of change, is to feel we’ve failed. Change one thing at a time and let the confidence you’ve gained from one area feed your ambition and resolve in a new one. People who stay motivated long term understand that their motivation will constantly fluctuate. They know that they can go from feeling they have all the will power in the world to ‘falling off the wagon’ in a matter of seconds. Learning the self-awareness of mind and body to overcome high risk situations and triggers is a transferrable skill we can use for subsequent habit-changes.
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