Break Free From Bad Habits


We all have bad habits, yet when we think about what a habit is, it’s essentially a well rehearsed pattern of behaviour that we repeat time and time again, until the point it becomes second nature - we don’t even need to think about it, it becomes unconscious, meaning we aren’t consciously doing the activity; we are operating from a more subliminal and automatic state.

The first step in breaking free from a bad habit, of course, is to become aware of it.  In this sense, it is good consider the metaphor of someone wanting to get better at public speaking, in that the way they naturally speak will be riddled with bad habits, that the speaker is unaware of.  For instance, they might say the word “um” a lot, or clear their throat, or sway from one leg to another - yet they’ll most likely be unaware of these things.

The first step, therefore, when it comes to being a better speaker is to become aware of those habits, and the best way to do that is to be recorded and then watch the playback to see what you do.  

Unfortunately, in life, we don’t always have such a clear and objective mirror to observe our behaviour from.  Therefore, we need to look at the feedback life gives us. For instance, if you have the bad habit within a relationship of being emotionally unavailable, and the feedback from your past few partners has been that they don’t really feel a connection to you - this is feedback that there’s a bad habit that’s preventing you from getting to where you want to be.

The challenge, however, comes when bad habits turn into addictions.

Many people suffer with addictions and these come in many varieties.  There’s a reason why associations like Alcoholics Anonymous are so popular in the modern culture, in that they often provide supportive friendships without alcohol being a cornerstone of their social group.

An addictive behaviour is something slightly more intense, intoxicating and destructive than a bad habit.  For instance, you could have a bad habit of using pornography to relieve stress and provide a feeling of relief - but, the point it changes into an addiction is when this bad habit starts taking over your life and causes problems.

Similarly, you might have the bad habit of gambling on the lottery each week, or having a glass of wine, before bed - yet, as there’s an element of moderation about these activities, it wouldn’t be seen as an addiction.  An addiction is something that tends to take over you, and your life, to the point you feel you “have to” do something in order to “cope”.

The reason people engage in addictive bad habits tend to involve a feeling of temporary relief, where they experience a detachment from circumstances or feelings they would prefer not feel.

This provides temporary relief, but the relief tends to be short lasting.  Unfortunately, in this sense, the majority of addictive habits prioritize short term pleasure for long term pain - meaning these bad habits can be very damaging to the individual, people they care about, and society at large.

The majority of bad habits related to addiction are formed as a result of people trying to cope with a situation, or their feelings about a situation -- it’s a way to get emotional relief.

People will use whatever vehicle they choose as a way to get out of pain, in a similar way to how paracetamol temporarily blocks and distracts the pain you feel from a headache - it masks the pain.  It doesn’t mean the headache has gone, or that the root cause of the headache has been resolved - the pain is still there.

If the brain links pleasure to a particular stimuli, no matter how much you know it’s not the best strategy, then it will steer you in the direction of that vehicle - when you are needing to change your state, or forget about things for a moment.

Whenever the brain associates something with pleasure, even if it’s something you consciously understand as being “bad for you” - your brain will prompt you to engage in this behaviour; which is why people talk so much about ‘willpower’ when it comes to breaking an addiction as you are basically having to fight off the impulsive sensations being triggered by your brain to act in this habitual way… as it associates “relief of pain” with that habit, even if it is destructive.

Let’s now take a look at the one main thing you need to do when looking to overcome bad habits and addictions.


If you have an addiction, then it means your brain links more pleasure than pain to a particular activity.

You therefore need to change the association, and start linking pain rather than pleasure with the addictive behaviour.  In a nutshell, to break free from bad habits, you must first change your association.

A great metaphor for this is to think about how we get hung-up on people that reject us within a romantic relationship.  We want to move on, but for some reason, our heart just won’t let us.

Well, in fact, it’s not your heart - it’s your head, and unfortunately when it comes to things like ex-partners, your brain is often locked into its past association, where that person is associated with huge amount of pleasure.  Even though they might be putting you through all sorts of pain, your brain still associates them with the cuddles and the fun times -- therefore, until your brain catches up, or you condition a new association, meaning you start to associate this person with more PAIN than PLEASURE, your brain will keep telling you to go to that person as a source of pleasure -- when, in fact, that’s just a bad habit, because that person is no longer causing you pleasure, they are causing you pain.

In this sense, the key to breaking free from any bad habit, is to change the association of that vehicle -- associating pain with the bad habit and pleasure with a more rewarding habit that you would like to build.


Amanda SheaComment