“Curious things, habits; people themselves never knew they had them.”
— Agatha Christie, English mystery author
I had a friend once who had the curious habit of checking the security of every door and window in his house twice each evening before retiring to bed.
He would check each possible point of entry (as he referred to them) and then, dressed in his pajamas, make his rounds a second time, again checking each door, sill and sash.
When questioned about this behaviour, he denied there was anything unusual about it — it was simply a reasonable precaution.
I was told my friend’s habit had grown out of a home invasion some years prior. Fear of another break-in had made him hyper-vigilant about security.
Despite the legitimate origin of the ritual, the habit had become so powerful over time that he found himself mechanically checking doors and windows when staying in hotel rooms or overnight with friends and family. In a moment of honest reflection, he admitted how powerless he felt to control the compulsion. In his words, “This habit owns me.”
American theologian Nathanael Emmons once wrote, “Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” Recently, I read this verse entitled, Your Constant Companion. Penned by an anonymous writer, it speaks to the potency of deeply rooted habits.
“I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or your heaviest burden. I will push you onward or I will drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half of the things that you do, you might as well turn over to me and I will do them perfectly. I am easily managed; you must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done and after just a few lessons, I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great people and of all failures as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures. I am not a machine though I work with all of the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of man. You may run me for profit or run me for ruin. It makes no difference to me. Take me. Train me. Be firm with me and I will place the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you! Who am I? I am habit.”
Habits are the things we do with little or no conscious thought — formed as the result of repeated behaviour.
Habits are learned; they are not innate. Some habits are born out of our experience, while others still are learned from the actions of our masters — our parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, our own culture and ethnicity.
Good habits might be such things as a strong work ethic, good money management, goal-setting, positive self-talk, a kind and empathetic demeanour. Bad habits could be perpetual people-pleasing, gossiping and complaining, procrastination, a bad temper and addictions.
Habits become more automatic with each repetition and once mastered become the domain of our unrelenting subconscious mind. With habit as the vehicle and our powerful subconscious mind as driver, we are destined to arrive at the ultimate expression of the belief that spawned the habit in the first place.
As with my friend, the underlying belief was that his sense of security could again be violated if he didn’t remain vigilant. His obsessive compulsion to check and double-check every window and door became the expression of his fear-based thinking.
When it comes to automatic patterns of behaviour, here’s a question to ask: does this habit serve me (and those around me) in a positive way, propel me forward and make life better for all concerned? Does my habit help me build and sustain a healthy and positive sense of self?
It is generally agreed that 30 days is the amount of time required to engrain a new habit. For a new action or behaviour to take root, it should be performed consistently at least once a day for 30 days!
That said, there are five recognized methods to break an unwanted habit:
• Replacement of the old habit with a new habit: eating fruit instead of candy to satisfy a desire for sweets.
• Repetition of the behaviour until fatigue or another unpleasant response takes over: being forced to smoke cigarettes until nauseated so that repulsion replaces desire.
• Separating the individual from the stimulus that is prompting the habit: lessening a desire to drink by avoiding the bar.
• Gradual introduction of the stimulus that is provoking the behaviour: overcoming a child’s fear of adult dogs by giving the child a puppy.
• Punishment: often ineffective and emotionally damaging.
What habits would you like to break? What habits could you develop that would replace a bad habit?
Whatever technique you use to break a habit, you must be consistent in your reinforcement and repetition of the behaviour you would like to become the new habit.
Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, writes, “Repetition of the same thought or physical action develops into a habit which, repeated frequently enough, becomes an automatic reflex.”
Self-awareness is an invaluable component of making and breaking habits: you must become aware of the habits that do not serve you so as to bring them to the surface of conscious awareness and target them for breaking.
You must also decide what new habits you would like to incorporate into your life. Remember, action is the key to making positive change. Ponder those habits that “own you” and decide now to relinquish them once and for all.
Choose habits that support your growth and personal empowerment and decide to embrace them now.
Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca