How To Break a Bad Habit

You may want to break a habit, but by now you have realized that willpower only takes you so far in overcoming bad habits. Why? You’re continually struggling with what you believe is real and what you believe is part of you. As long as you identify with your habit, there is little hope of change.

By habit I mean anything we do to dull emotions such as anxiety, worry, or fear. Commons habits could be excessive eating, drinking, sex, surfing on the internet, shopping, television watching, etc. Usually when the habit kicks in, it is an automatic and mindless reaction.

Because the habit is so familiar, many identify with their habits. They may believe: “I am somebody who drinks too much.” “I am somebody who eats too much.” Or, “I am somebody who shops too much,” etc.

This is a case of mistaken identity. By identifying ourselves with our habits, we continually measure and judge ourselves. The judgment only solidifies the habit.

What if we didn’t identify with our habits? What if the origin of the impulsive thought to indulge in a bad habit was from what Thomas Hora calls the “sea of mental garbage”?

Puzzled? You may be thinking of course the thought is mine. I just thought it. But did you? Did you really voluntarily think these thoughts? If you did think up the thought, you should be just as able to stop thinking the same thoughts.

Of course it is not easy at all. But there is a way out.

If you are finding it hard to release your thoughts, it is probably because you are resisting your thinking. When a thought to indulge in a bad habit comes, you may clench against it, because you believe that the thought has real power over you.

The power that the thought has over you is proportional to the resistance that you give it. Thoughts have you in their grip when you entertain them and resist them. The alternative is to allow them to pass like the passing clouds.

For example, I might be sitting down with a writing project. My writing goes best if I have a block of uninterrupted time. When I hit a snag in my writing, a thought may appear that I should check my email.

Now, lacking understanding, I may act on this thought instead of recognizing that thought for what it is. It is a thought that comes from “the sea of mental garbage.” The thought would have me believe that I can reduce the anxiety I am feeling by checking my email.

Of course checking my email may temporarily relieve my anxiety by shifting my attention, but very quickly there will be a rebound effect and my anxiety will increase. Why? I have dropped a project that is important to me and I’ve chosen to honor a thought that came from “the sea of mental garbage” rather than thoughts that come from the strength in me.

If you are following along so far, you may be wondering how is dropping a thought different from exercising willpower? With willpower, you are treating your thoughts as reality. Then you use your willpower to struggle mightily to resist these thoughts. This is almost impossible to maintain for long.

The approach I am suggesting does not involve resistance. It suggests instead beginning to undo a habit by gently understanding that you did not think up the thoughts that are driving you to indulge in the habit. Thus these thoughts are nothing you need to honor or resist. You are thus simply aware of the thoughts, and you drop them.

With simple non-judgmental awareness you are neither resisting your thinking nor indulging your thinking. When you try this, you just might find that the strength in you has space to appear. And when it does, the habit will lessen in severity or disappear.

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4 Responses to How To Break a Bad Habit

  1. fireshadow48 says:

    Wow. So very well said. I am familiar with the concept, but have never before heard it explained so well. I have gained a little more insight into a familiar concept. Thank you.

  2. Barry Brownstein says:

    Thank you for the very kind words. When I write these “inner-journey” posts I am drawing on a rich tradition of wisdom from many sources. They all point the same way and they offer much more than any mere technique.

  3. So very true- and I am guilty of such thought patterns. My persistent struggle however is around the idea of a thought that should be acknowledged as a thought and disregarded, and a desire. My meditation practice teaches that our desires are not our own- and that those desires come from the universe based on where we or where our attention is needed. I can clearly see that writing a paper and having the thought to check my email- is merely a thought meant to distract me from my work, a thought that gives in to the powerful Resistance. But what about a thought to call an ex-boyfriend, or to leave my work and go outside for a walk to clear my head? Thoughts or desires? I highly recommend the book The War of Art- talks about the very thing which you have written about. Thanks for the introduction to your site.

  4. Pressfield’s The War of Art is a wonderful book. You might enjoy his Legend of Bagger Vance too.

    I agree with you that the ego is very tricky and distinguishing its voice from that of your true Self is not always easy to do. That is where compassion comes in; compassion for our lack of understanding.

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