Ooh, guess what! The New Year is officially two months old! Feels like it’s been longer, doesn’t it? Especially with that damn Mercury Retrograde starting off month two with a bang. In the spirit of Retrograde, which is best spent reviewing old projects, I’ve been cleaning out some of my blog topics. I came across one that I had intended to do in January about fighting bad habits—namely that we shouldn’t.
By the way, how are all those New Year’s Resolutions holding up? Have you kept them? Messed up a few times but gotten back on track? Or have you given up entirely as we enter March?
Don’t worry; I’m not here to chastise you for failing or to try to motivate you to try harder.
I’m here to talk about the purpose of bad habits.
Yep! They have a purpose—a purpose that we each assign to them as we develop them. And I have a radical theory that we actually shouldn’t fight bad habits. Rather in order to truly overcome them, we have to understand what their purpose is in our lives. Like nightmares, they have a message to deliver, and they won’t go away until they deliver it.
I first developed this theory during one of the many times that I was trying to stop cutting. I’d had bad luck since I was a teen in forcing myself not to self-harm. Every time I resisted the urge to self-harm, the urge got stronger. Giving in just made it stronger too.
I know, I know, bad cycle…but I didn’t know how to break it! Part of me, I guess, really didn’t want to break it.
Then one day, someone actually praised my self-harm. Rather than admonishing me, “You have to promise me you’ll never do that again. EVER!”, she said that she was glad that I had done what I needed to survive. She thought my self-harm had been a good thing in my younger years because it had helped me cope with some pretty monstrous circumstances. Now that I knew that it wasn’t the best coping mechanism, I could develop new ones that nurtured me rather than harmed me.
When she said that, I felt pride. I realized that part of the reason that I was having such a hard time stopping my cutting was because, deep down, I didn’t see it as a negative thing. I saw it as a friend who had been there for me during my darkest times, preventing me from killing myself in the only way that I could think of. It was the means I used to keep myself together and grounded enough to function in an incredibly toxic world.
In a way, my bad habit had been my savior.
But I also knew that she was right. It was no longer a coping mechanism that I needed, and it was time to respectfully retire it.
Even if our survival skills have become impediments we would like to let go of because they have ceased to serve us, we can still love ourselves with them. In appreciation of our survival, we can be awed at how our resources brought us through, even when these resources were things like indifference, a wall of rage, a cold heart…We learn to embrace ourselves as humans with faults & problems. ~Beyond Survival by Maureen Brady
Since then, I have taken this approach whenever I need to replace a behavior with something else. Rather than trying to wrestle with the habit and, ultimately, with myself, I have a conversation with the habit. I sit with it in meditation and ask it what it has to teach me. What purpose does it serve? What need does it fulfill? What fears does it assuage? When I understand why I rely on that habit, I can address the needs that underlie it and find other ways of meeting those needs.
Ultimately, I don’t “quit” my “bad habits.” I make them unnecessary. As I develop new ways of addressing my needs, I don’t need them anymore. They fall out of my life naturally.
That’s not to say there isn’t a struggle, but the struggle becomes informed. I know why I’m struggling, and I can approach the struggle with compassion and self-care. I can befriend myself in my attempts to change rather than alienating myself.
In a world where advertisements are constantly trying to convince us to fight ourselves or erase ourselves in order to be “better,” it’s a revolutionary idea…but then again, isn’t love usually pretty revolutionary?
Perhaps sometimes it’s possible to overcome a habit we don’t like by sheer power of will, but ultimately, I think we damage ourselves when we do because we fail to take into account that our habits are doing something for us…something that our minds and bodies feel they need. Strong-arming our behavior into something else without trying to understand what motivates the behavior creates enmity with ourselves and, ultimately, heightens our chances of relapsing into the same habit or unconsciously replacing it with something equally destructive.
So if you’ve failed at your New Year’s Resolution, I want to congratulate you. This is your opportunity to turn a resolution into a revolution. Radical self-love. Radical self-respect. Radical change. We’re only two months into the year. It’s a perfect time to start a new pattern of resolutions!