Whether you want to lose weight, stop drinking, give up cigarettes, or leave a relationship that doesn’t bring you joy, the key is to understand what you’re gaining by continuing your self-sabotaging behavior – and find other ways to acquire the same things.
My friend Shelly learned that lesson recently. She had struggled nearly all her life to break her addiction to unhealthy eating. Although she was able to quit her cocaine habit nearly 30 years ago, she found that managing her compulsive eating was an even greater challenge.
Habits surrounding food are especially hard to break because you can’t quit cold turkey, the way you can with a drug. You have to transform your whole relationship to food, as Shelly discovered.
After trying every diet she came across, it finally occurred to her that dieting wasn’t the solution. Instead, she needed to understand why she ate the way she did.
One exercise was especially helpful to her. She wrote down what she was feeling just before she got the urge to overeat, binge, or consume junk food. Then she listed the needs she might be trying to fill with food. And finally, she figured out ways to meet those needs in ways other than eating.
Through the notes she kept, she discovered that she often ate because she needed to feel safe. So she found other ways to increase her sense of security. She turned to calming rituals like listening to a favorite song, lighting candles, and practicing deep-breathing exercises.
Another time she turned to unhealthy eating, she realized, was when she felt the need to be nurtured, soothed, and cared for. When the urge to mindlessly gorge on potato chips overcame her, she learned to take care of herself in other ways – with long bubble baths, hot-stone massages, or yoga classes.
On other occasions, she found that she ate compulsively because she was bored, restless, and at loose ends. When she experienced those emotions, she looked for different avenues to feel more alive and engaged. She searched the Internet for classes she could take. She signed up for workshops and retreats. She planned getaways with her family and friends. Sometimes she rented movies, attended plays, or scoured the library for books on new subjects. Often she called a friend to talk, laugh, and perhaps suggest a hike, bike ride, or road trip. If all else failed, she turned on wild music, sang at the top of her voice, and danced her heart out.
The same principle works no matter what habit you want to overturn. You’ll have little luck quitting anything unless you find something to replace it. Fill the space it leaves with an alternative that’s satisfying, nourishing, and healthy. Pretty soon, you’ll be automatically doing that healthy thing rather than the old self-destructive routine.
If you want to quit smoking, for example, identify your triggers. When are you most likely to smoke? After a meal? When you first wake up? For each trigger, jot down what you’ll do at that specific time instead of smoking. For instance, if you feel you must smoke after a meal, consider taking a walk or chewing gum instead. If you usually need a cigarette first thing in the morning, try exercising rather than smoking.
The important thing is to replace each cigarette (or whatever it is you want to give up) with something that will fulfill that same craving. Take it step by step, doing one small thing differently each day. Eventually those tiny shifts will evolve into profound change.
Remember that it took a long time to solidify your habits. So transforming them won’t happen overnight. But it will happen if you have the will, perseverance, and knowledge.
That fact is proven over and over again in my new book Waking Up Happy: A Handbook Of Change With Memoirs Of Recovery and Hope (WakingUpHappyBook.com). In Waking Up Happy, I tell my own story and the stories of over 30 others who have recovered from addictions, harmful habits, toxic relationships, and intolerable situations. I provide many exercises and strategies that have helped us make changes when we weren’t happy with our lives. We all found that lives of joy, fulfillment, and productivity were within our reach, simply by making one small change every day.
What ideas have you found helpful in breaking your bad habits? What could you do today to start yourself on a new road? Share your ideas, insights, and discoveries on the Waking Up Happy website (WakingUpHappyBook.com). I’d love to hear your thoughts.