Why Is It So Easy to Slip Back into Bad Habits?
Fortunately we can get back on track more quickly than we think.
Posted Nov 03, 2015
A train track runs right behind the office where I have my clinical practice, which is probably why I think a lot about trains. Several times a day I see them out my window, zipping toward or away from Philadelphia. It's not hard to draw an analogy between these parallel tracks and the paths of our lives.
Most of us have a sense of the path we want to be on and the path we try to avoid. If you're trying to lose weight there’s a path toward your goal and a path away from it. In drug addiction we choose our addiction or freedom from it. When we're working through extreme anxiety, the choice is between running from fears and facing them. Training in mindfulness encourages awareness and intention, which can counteract mindless stumbling through our lives.
So the task for any of us is to choose the track we want to be on and avoid the track that takes us in the wrong direction.
When we’ve spent a long time heading in one direction, it’s easy to forget that the other track is there. How many of us have had a good run—with a diet, an exercise program, our sobriety—and start feeling like we’re “home free”? We might tell ourselves things like:
- There’s no way I could go back to my old behavior. If we’ve been on the right path for a while, it’s easy to have the impression that we’ve traveled hundreds of miles from the “bad place” and we’re now immune from going back.
- I can bend the rules and still be OK. After all, we might say, there’s so much distance between me and the behaviors I left behind, I can safely dabble in them again. I can have one beer, even though in reality I’ve never been able to drink in moderation. Or maybe a little extra hand washing won’t bring back my OCD. I can smoke a cigarette here and there and not become a pack-a-day smoker again.
- I’m a different person than I was back then. With a new perspective on our struggles, we might believe that we’re no longer capable of getting entangled in our old ways. Since we’ve turned things around, we’re immune to our past problems.
There’s some truth to the feeling that practicing new habits makes us less likely to fall into old ones. Once we’ve gone through the initial withdrawal—whether it’s from nicotine, alcohol, excessive TV, or sugar—it’s easier to keep away from our addiction. We start to enjoy the freedom from self-destructive habits, which reinforces the healthier behaviors.
At the same time, making the right choices isn't a once-and-for-all decision because—to extend the metaphor—life is what happens on the train. In truth there are no stations, no destinations where we ever "arrive." That's why "There is no peace ... that lives within us constantly and never leaves us. There is only the peace that must be won again and again, each new day of our lives... " (H. Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund).
We need to be mindful that it can be remarkably easy to fall back into discarded habits. We imagine that we’ve traveled so far from the things we left behind, when in reality the wrong track is always running alongside the right one. If we get on it we’re quickly zooming along in the wrong direction. Before we know it we can be doing things we swore we never would and wondering how we got so lost again. As the Alcoholics Anonymous adage goes, “You pick up where you left off.”
There are strategies we can use to stay on the right track:
- Be mindful of urges. Simply noticing when we’re craving things that aren’t good for us can be helpful. It may not take away the craving, but it will provide the space we need to make good choices.
- Pay attention to subtle behaviors that suggest a return to old ways. It could be flirting with danger, like the ex-smoker joining coworkers for their smoke breaks, saying he "just needs some air." Or we might start skipping behaviors that keep us well, like finding excuses not to go to AA meetings. These actions might not announce a full-blown return to the wrong track, but they're warning signs.
- Notice “permission-giving” thoughts that can lure us into making an ill-advised U-turn. These thoughts might be things like “I can keep ice cream in the freezer without binging on it,” when realistically I know that if I buy a half-gallon I’ll finish it the same night.
- Beware enablers who don’t understand the risk involved in certain behaviors. Friends who say things like, “You don’t really have a drinking problem—if you did you wouldn’t have been able to go this long without a drink!” or, “But you’re so fun when you drink!” probably don’t understand the nature of addiction.
The good news is that the right track is always available to us, too.
When we've been on the wrong track for a while it might feel like we’ve traveled so far from the place we meant to be. Maybe I’ve been intending to stay present with mindful awareness, and I realize that I’ve been doing the opposite for days or weeks. We might imagine that we'll have to slog our way back to the “station,” miles and miles from here, and get on a different train. We can wonder if it's even worth it to switch tracks, not knowing if we have the strength to get "all the way back." It's easy to fall into a "what-the-hell" syndrome where we fail a lot because we've failed a little. "I've already messed up my diet—may as well finish the box of cookies."
In reality we can simply step onto the other track. It’s always right there.