Changing Habits: Steps to Make It Last

Last week I started the topic of changing habits, and how our unique mix of instinct and emotional reflection can make such changes challenging for us. This is a general topic that goes far beyond the scope of diabetes, but there’s no denying that living with diabetes means living wisely with our habits. Our daily habits become our trending patterns, and our trending patterns become our permanent health — true for all people, but particularly true for those of us with diabetes.

The main point I stressed last week is that our behaviors are often more “instinctual” than we think they are. When I say “instinctual,” what I’m really talking about is a motivation that lives deeper than our conscious thoughts, and usually deeper than even our emotional states. Unfortunately, we are trained to look at our conscious thoughts and our emotional states for clues as to why we do the things we do. We ask ourselves questions along the lines of, “Do I (fill in harmful habit here) because I’m angry at (fill in biographical detail here)?” These are the kinds of questions I often explored with clients when I was working as a therapist. And there’s nothing wrong with such questions. They might even lead to some progress. But after a while I started to lose a bit of faith in the efficacy of that kind of questioning.

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What I saw was that the behaviors were usually satisfying more subconscious drives than that line of questioning would yield. So instead of trying to pinpoint the biographical moment that might have inspired a certain behavioral pattern, I started to see that a better place to start was to pinpoint what basic human need that behavior was satisfying. The “why,” “when,” and “how” part of the puzzle could come later. The best first step was to identify the simple, basic need being met by the behavior.

If we apply this to our own lives and habits, it can give us steps that might help shift some of those long-standing, stubborn behaviors we want to change.

First step: identify the need
The first step sounds simple and often requires more focus than you think it will. The first step is to identify the subconscious, or instinctual need that a behavior is satisfying. So say you always grab one or two more cookies than you know makes sense, or always find yourself with that second helping of pasta even though the first plate was plenty. On an emotional level, you might say “I’m eating to feel happy,” or perhaps “I’m eating to distract myself from feeling worried.” And this might be 100% true, but we’re trying to go a little deeper here.

Going deeper is something familiar to those with a contemplative practice like meditation, yoga, tai chi, etc. For others, this will be a new idea. But the steps to identify the deeper need aren’t complicated. Take a moment. Find a quiet place to sit. Calm yourself. Breathe fully and tune inwards. Notice your breath. Quiet your mind — particularly the part that is analyzing the question. Now, simply replay a recent time when you followed that habit. Replay it, see it. And now, notice your physical response. Many people notice a tightening of the chest, or a sinking feeling in the stomach. Maybe a feeling of being choked up. This is all very subtle, but available if the mind is quieted. Notice the physical feelings, and just experience them.

Once you experience those physical feelings, sit with them for a minute and turn your focus to them. Don’t try to label them right away, but instead just let your mind put a kind of “soft focus” on them. Soon a clearer picture will start forming, and you’ll identify what’s happening internally. That tightening of the chest might mean the instinctual need you’re satisfying is a sense of security — after all, food represents our very ability to survive. Maybe you feel the sensation of grasping and you see that you’re eating to fend off loneliness and isolation, and going deeper you see that you’re fending off fear.

Step two: sit with it
Once you have identified the need, sit with it for a little while. Take some quiet time to reflect on it, why it’s so strong for you, and what other things you might be doing to fill that need in your life. Don’t beat yourself up for the “bad” habits you’ve developed around that need, just reflect on the role that need plays in your life. And don’t feel like that need is wrong — I’ve always felt that we all have a certain set of basic instinctual needs that are always with us; our job is to find the healthiest routes to satisfying them, not to “get away” from them.

I always encouraged clients to maintain a contemplative practice, and that is still true. Daily meditation brings us to this state frequently enough that we start to have a conscious relationship with this part of ourselves, and we can start to work much more skillfully with our needs, and therefore our habits. So if you don’t have any kind of contemplative practice, and you have habits you really hope to change, think about establishing one. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, and other traditions all offer this opportunity to come in closer contact.

Step three — step “forever”: replace and return
The last step never ends, but that’s OK. Once you’ve identified the need, and developed the practice to identify it and make it a conscious part of yourself, you can find new avenues for meeting that need. The need for security, for instance, won’t go away. But if you know the need, and if you’ve spent time making friends with it, understanding it, and making it a conscious part of your daily life, you can start to CHOOSE how you meet it. You might realize that getting your household finances in order does more to fend off overeating than you could have ever imagined. Why? Because you are actively monitoring and taking charge of your financial security — the most basic element of real security in the modern world.

Now, bad habits have a knack for returning. And just because you’ve identified a root cause and found more positive ways to meet underlying needs doesn’t mean the old habits can’t come back. They can, and they often do under stress. And so you have to continue to return to your practice, return to that practice that brings you back to yourself, back to your subconscious. Once you lose touch with this, everything can fall apart pretty quickly. But if you’re consistent with your practice, you’ll see that even when you fall off for a little while, you’re able to catch yourself and get back to healthier choices.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently approved two medicines in a new cholesterol-lowering drug class. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.