A Consideration of Mixed Feelings, Or . . .

Habit change has an upside and a downside.

Posted Oct 04, 2009

Q: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: One. But the light bulb really has to want to change.

That's a joke. But, as we know, many jokes have some truth in them, though definitely not the Bavarian Cream Pie Joke.

If you are going to change yourself, you have to want to change. But, hold on a second, doesn't everybody want to change for the better? I mean, who doesn't want to be more physically fit, a better friend or spouse, and more productive at work? Seriously, there are people who are happy with their fat, flabby, socially awkward, lazy selves?

Well, in a way, yes.

I don't mean to say that people are overjoyed that they can't fit into half of their jeans or that their social networks are shrinking. Yet, it's one thing to be displeased by one's current state, and it is quite another to resolve to do something about it.

That's because there are usually upsides to our bad habits. The overeater gets to experience the joys of fatty and sugary foods. The couch potato gets to watch that Three's Company where Jack gets high on tranquilizers:

And so on.

In other words, our bad habits often give us yummy immediate payoffs. Many good habits tend to give us long term payoffs ... like longevity.

In psychology we have a fancy word for mixed feelings. We call it ambivalence. When you have mixed feelings about someone or something, whether it is a habit, your significant other, or the second Darren on Bewitched, you are ambivalent.

Ambivalence is a fundamentally important concept in psychology. I say this not just because I study ambivalence (which I do). It is important because it makes me, as a professor and a human being, think about the world in a way that many do not. I see that most things in life have an upside and a downside. Changing a bad habit into a good one, I am sure you would agree, is a good idea. Yet, if you were to be completely honest with yourself, you would realize that it is not entirely a good idea. There are things about your bad habit that you like and that you may not be ready to give up.

So, what to do? How do you make yourself totally ready to change? How do you get rid of your ambivalence, or at least tone it down a little? Stay tuned for the next post for an answer. Meanwhile, as a useful exercise, think of a habit that you want to change and then think of all the reasons you don't want to change it. Think of the benefits that you enjoy because of your bad habit. You might find this hard to do. It requires a great deal of honesty. But, remember that light bulb that had the misfortune to be hanging in the therapist's office. If you are going to change, you have to really want to change. And a good first step is to come to an understanding of what you need to give up.

For more writing by yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.