Why bad habits resist change

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Why bad habits resist change - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

It is normal to encounter a certain amount of resistance when we try to make changes in our lives. Almost everyone has at least a few failed New Year’s resolutions under his or her belt. We’ve all experienced the slow slide back into old habits – the gradual unwinding of what seemed like a solid resolve to finally make a positive change.

Why does this happen? Perhaps more importantly, what can be done to overcome this resistance?

“Bad” habits serve a purpose. They have a hidden function. As much as you may hate your propensity to overeat or your habit of procrastinating when something important needs to be done, you engage in these behaviors for a reason. Until we identify how bad habits serve us, we are powerless to change them.

I used to be a smoker. Like most people, I started smoking as a teenager, nabbing my mom’s cigarettes when she wasn’t looking until I was old enough to buy them for myself. I tried to quit many times throughout my twenties. Then, like magic, two months after my thirtieth birthday I stopped smoking and never looked back. When people ask me how I quit, my reply is “I was ready.” And that’s the truth. I was finally ready to stop smoking.

For a long time, cigarettes were like my constant companion. Even if we discount the substantial contribution of physical addiction, I could always turn to cigarettes when I was stressed, anxious, sad, or lonely. I had developed a relationship with smoking that I was unable to give up. Of course, cigarettes are lousy conversationalists, and they poisoned my body with every puff. Over time, I came to realize that the harm was a part of the draw. It kept things in balance. In fact, when I think about the relationships I was having during that period of my life, they all included an element of harm. Each was in some way unhealthy for me. Why should my relationship with smoking as a source of support have been any different?

Through therapy and personal growth I gradually developed a different relationship with myself – one that more strongly valued my own health. I learned to take care of myself physically and emotionally in ways that did not also have harm built into them. I finally reached a point where I was tired of “supportive” relationships that lacked support. I got tired of breathing poison as though it were air. When I reached that place, I stopped smoking.

The key to any behavioral change is recognizing how the behavior or habit we are trying to change serves us. How is it useful? In the words of a colleague, how does it “make perfect sense?” Smoking made “perfect sense” for me. I hated it, but a part of me needed it to keep the system balanced. As long as we are in the dark about how we need the bad habit, we will not be able to get rid of it.

People, like any dynamic system, achieve homeostasis (balance) and then resist change. Any long-standing habit or behavior persists precisely because it contributes to the overall balance of the system inside of you. The system may defy logic. Smoking makes absolutely no sense when looked at logically. The same goes for overeating, procrastination, or any other unhealthy habit or behavior. But by looking at these aspects of our lives through the lens of, “how is this useful to some part of me?” we can begin to identify how the habit or behavior contributes to the balance of the system. Only then can we become empowered to make changes that will last. Talking to a therapist can help.


The only proper way to eliminate bad habits is to replace them with good ones.”

– Jerome Hines

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