In Defense of Bad Habits
Drake sat bone straight on the edge of the couch, eyes flitting between me and the bookshelf. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I know its not good for me to drink, it is such a bad habit,” he grumbled. The eye-flit of shame betrayed his self-contempt. The anger he cast on himself for the assumed wrongness of his behavior was palpable.
Drake is not alone. Almost everyone in my practice, including myself, has at some point in their efforts to shift habits of behavior, thinking, or feeling, said in frustration, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me” or something pretty close to it. We want it to be different, but something gets in the way, and we are left feeling scared, frustrated, disappointed, or downright angry with ourselves.
Bad habits get a bad rap. I understand the impulse to refer to a pattern of behavior as bad. You feel drenched in shame and judgment. You were sure you would do something different this time, and then, at the crucial moment, you didn’t. So, it must be wrong. And you must be bad. But a bad habit is only a bad one because we yearn for another to take its place. We yearn for habits that diminish our stress, increase profound joy, or boost productivity. We yearn to be better people free of suffering. To find those habits that bring the goods, though, we must honor our bad ones and the person we were when we learned to rely on them.
To defend a bad habit, or a reactive pattern, we need to look at what makes a habit a habit in the first place. Partly it is right there in the word. It’s not complicated. It’s habitual. It’s all the ways of doing and being that we have settled into. All the things we do that we don’t even think about.
Stemming from the Latin habitare “to live, dwell; stay, remain,” habits are all your routine inclinations that were forged in the fires that are your life. You learned them, at some point, to manage the experiences arising out of the complex set of unique circumstances you lived through. And some fires burn hotter than others, creating habits that are harder to break.
So differentiating a “bad” or “reactive” habit from a “choice” one is the first step. (Hint: choice habits are the more fulfilling ones we haven’t yet figured out how to settle into, but we practice working on every day. Think journaling or jogging.)
The hardest habits to break are not those made by conscious choice. We learn reactive patterns when we don’t have other options. Either when the developmental stage in which we learned it only allows for a limited scope of self-understanding, or the forces around us, whether familial or societal, do not invite us into ways of being that accommodate our unique complexity. Instead, these forces define who we should be without room for question.
Reactive habits are the knee-jerk patterns that our bodies fall into when we feel scared, threatened, demoralized, bored, or angry. When we feel out of control, or when the control doesn’t feel like ours to have.
In times of stress and threat, we all revert. That is the truth. When you fall back on a reactive habit, you are right in line with every other human on the face of this good earth, and even those up in space. Astronauts, however, being the elite performers that they are, go through intensive training to build habits of feeling-in-control. To maintain equilibrium under the intense stress of living aboard a tiny little space station floating in the vast expanse.
Astronauts train daily not to get sidetracked by “I’m fucked” thinking. “This blows, just forget it,” and “I knew I’d never get it right” are phrases that astronauts dare not utter. They spend years honing habits that function to preempt expectations and guard against surrender. Or at least to start with, “Okay, this doesn’t feel right, how do I make it better?” But we are not astronauts, and most of us lack the support and training to respond to stress in this way.
Okay, I’m not an astronaut, you say, but the metaphor still stands. With the right amount of valuing your needs and creating the focus to support the process, you can find your orbit and stop floating in that endless, unmoored, lonely space.
Great, but what about really bad habits. What about substance use or abuse? Self-harming? Aren’t these just plain bad? Don’t we need to stamp these out immediately?
Even these reactive habits — that on their face only serve to deaden or numb us — need to be honored. Even in their extreme, they are the ones that have allowed enough of a safe-haven to manage in a world that is so confusing and unjust to you, that escape seems to be the best option.
Reactive habits hold the imprint of the oppressive forces you faced at the time you learned them. They are the habits that have kept you “safe enough” to be alive here to read this.
Now don’t get it twisted. This is not an article In Defense of Brazenly Running Butt-Wild With The Same Old Shitty Coping Mechanism Running Your Whole Life.
If you do fall back on a reactive habit and the shame and self-hate waves come-a-crashing, let this be a reminder: you are coping as best as you know how. You want to shift to a more helpful choice. You are not a terrible person with bad habits. You — like all of us — deserve support to help figure out better ways of being. You are not alone.
This is an unprecedented moment characterized by deep suffering, loss, grief, sustained stress, and having to tolerate chronic not-knowing. Many, if not most of us, are experiencing regressive tendencies, and yes, we are engaging in some of our bad habits. Maybe all of them. We’re falling back on reactive patterns because this moment, plainly put, is really freaking scary.
Also, we are going to figure out new ways of being, while making room to grieve all the ways that have gotten us here. Some habits are practices we choose to spend time on honing every day. Again, think about your daily run, your meditation, writing, or your effort to cut back on sugar. We use these habits to make our lives look more like we want them to, not just how we are told they should look.
So in defense of honoring the habits, you are ready to shift, choose to forgive yourself first for falling back on them. Here are a few invitations for you to try out to build better ones:
- Identify a reactive habit you are ready to shift. Write its origin story. Include all the contextual details of what the person you were was managing at the time. Note the needs you think this habit was trying to meet and the pain it was trying to keep away.
- When you find yourself in a reactive habit, take a deep breath into your belly, imagine it reaching down past your gut into your toes, and in the release, give thanks. Imagine letting this old way of coping go, by honoring what it was trying to do, to make room for the new one.
- Make a list of 1–3 new habits you’d like to try getting into the rotation. If you fall back on a reactive one at the end of a stressful day, imagine different ways to slow down the choice points. For example, 10 pushups and a pint of water, or a walk around the block, before making the final decision.
- Track your moods and activities throughout the day, noting instances where your reactive habit was more likely to occur. Notice trends in activities and moods that trigger reactive habits more than others.
- If you find that your reactive habit is doing you serious harm, or you feel helpless in changing its influence on you, reach out to your local mental health provider for support.
When you honor your reactive habits in this way, you make room for different choices tomorrow. And those choices, once you settle into them, become the habits you’ve always longed for. So mark your trajectory, dear spacewalker of the terrain within, and get ready for take-off.