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How Examining a Bad Habit Can Change Your Life

Looking deeper at our impossible-to-change habits may offer surprising insight.

Key points

  • A New Year's resolution if often a commitment to extinguish a negative behavior or habit.
  • Destructive habits may point to a maladaptive defense mechanism created in childhood to protect a person's sense of self.
  • A person who reflects on dysfunctional coping mechanism, and introspects, may remember the experiences in the past that led to its existence.
  • Understanding the troubling childhood experience and how it impacted the person may allow her to free herself from the bad habit.

New Year’s resolutions are an age-old tradition, yet the pledges themselves seem to quickly fly out the window. Although there are many understandable reasons for broken resolutions during the year, such as a change in priorities, stress, or the occurrence of an illness or injury, there is one possible cause that may lead a person to greater happiness and inner peace if taken seriously.

Often, resolutions originate from the wish to extinguish a bad habit. For example, a person wants to stop emotional eating, so he vows to eat responsibly. Perhaps an individual wishes to quelch impulsive spending, so she promises to stick to a budget. Maybe a person desires to get healthy, so she commits to giving up alcohol.

Although vices or bad habits are universal and fairly human, if they are chronic and nearly impossible to change, they may be a sign of childhood scars left untreated. These maladaptive coping mechanisms may have arisen out of a person’s need to protect his or her sense of self in their younger years. Three examples illustrate this concept.

Example 1:

Sally grows up with an attachment figure who is emotionally unavailable. As a kindergartner, Sally has trouble with her letters and numbers. One day after school, she tearfully seeks her mom out for support. Her mom scolds her for not working hard and threatens to take away her favorite stuffed animal if she does not improve quickly.

Now, additionally upset and ashamed, Sally retreats to her room to cry into her pillow. When her mom goes outside to garden, Sally creeps to the pantry and finds a box of doughnuts and cookies. She runs to her room and finds comfort in the sweet treats.

In this example, Sally desperately needs empathy from her attachment figure. This may sound like, “It hurts so much to feel like you cannot keep up. I get it. I feel the same way sometimes at work. Can I give you a hug, honey?”

After the empathy, the mom may gently ask Sally, “What would help?” Sally may ask her mom for assistance with her letters and numbers. Enthusiastically, Sally’s mom may agree and finds a way to create a game out of it. Sally feels like the world has been lifted off of her shoulders.

In the first scenario, Sally is traumatized by her mom’s unwillingness to understand her plight, so she copes with her emotional pain by eating. This makes sense because food may be the closest physical representation of empathy. It is warm, comforting, fortifying, and appealing.

Moving forward, Sally may utilize this coping mechanism, unconsciously, when her self-esteem is under duress. Yet, if Sally understands the roots of the maladaptive coping mechanism, and thus is able to gain empathy for herself, she may free herself from the compulsion to eat when she feels bad. Usually, bringing unconscious attachment trauma to a person’s conscious awareness allows him or her to recover.

Example 2:

Rick’s mother passes away when he is an infant. As a single parent, Rick’s father, Ben, feels the need to “make up” for Rick’s loss, so he works hard to provide Rick with the best that life has to offer. He buys Rick name-brand clothes, expensive athletic shoes, and top-of-the-line gadgets.

Although Rick is grateful for the provisions, he feels exceptionally lonely growing up. As a little guy, he longs for his dad to come home from work and spend time with him. Yet he rarely gets his wish.

As an adult, Rick finds himself spending an inordinate amount of money on cars, watches, and artwork. Although he makes a good living, he seems to always be on the cusp of financial oblivion. Rick recognizes that his spending habits may be destructive, but he cannot seem to stop himself.

In this situation, Rick may also be dealing with childhood attachment trauma. Rick feels invisible for most of his younger years, and it hurts. He longs to spend time with his father, but Ben was only able to show his love through gifts.

During adulthood, when Rick feels lonely, he instantly feels compelled to buy a large ticket item. It is almost a knee-jerk reaction—an escape and distraction from feeling alone. Although spending money seems to make him feel better, the relief is fleeting, and his habit continues.

Yet if Rick is able to engage in some serious self-reflection, he may realize that although he was the kid with everything, he never got what he really needed: closeness with his father. Understanding the impact that this deficit in emotional sustenance had on him may be painful, but fruitful. Having empathy for the young kiddo who just needed love and time may help him gain empathy for himself and quelch his unconscious defensive response.

Example 3:

As a child, Shelly has trouble focusing and concentrating at school. She frequently misplaces her homework and often completes her assignments but forgets to bring them to school.

Although she maintains straight A's, she continually struggles to recall directions for assignments and often feels extremely overwhelmed with small tasks. Her classmates often refer to her as “flighty.”

Shelly feels intense shame because she thinks there is something wrong with her. She views things as coming so easy for others but nearly impossible for her. Shelly’s mind often swims and falling asleep is a chronic issue.

As an adult, Shelly often arrives home from work and opens a bottle of wine. After a few glasses, she feels calm, and her mind seems to slow down. The wine helps her relax and she looks forward to a few glasses every night.

However, one night, her husband comments on the amount of alcohol she is consuming on a daily basis. Shelly wants to stop but is finding it very difficult. She wonders if she is an alcoholic.

There may be two underlying issues at play, unbeknownst to Shelly. First, Shelly may have undiagnosed attention deficit disorder. This may have gone undetected because she was a good student. The wine is a depressant and may help her slow down, just as her three cups of coffee in the morning rev her up. Shelly may be self-medicating.

Second, Shelly may be subconsciously attempting to escape the old feelings of inadequacy she felt as a child due to the continual negative feedback she received regarding her forgetfulness and disorganization. Although she is successful as an adult, occasionally, she is sometimes absent-minded at work, and she feels intense shame.

When Shelly engages in serious reflection, she realizes she may have incurred some damage to her self-esteem as a child due to her inattention. She also recognizes that she needs to process these events in order to understand herself better and enact self-forgiveness instead of beating herself up.

After some additional introspection, Shelly connects her past experiences as a child to the triggers she feels at work. She feels better and decides to continue to tackle the issue in counseling.

Often, a person worries that reflecting on the past may tempt him or her to use it as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility in the present. A person may fear that it will cause them to excuse or justify bad behavior.

Although this can be true for some, examining the past in order to gain understanding, self-awareness, and self-empathy is actually a great way for a person to fully take responsibility, and it may free him or her from an unconscious defense mechanism that is maladaptive. What's more, it may help a person stick to a New Year's resolution.

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