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Harnessing Habits: How To Control Habits So They Don’t Control You

Riva Pomerantz

It starts as an occasional behavior, an annoying tendency. And suddenly, it’s a full-blown habit that you find yourself engaging in again, and again, and again. How do we free ourselves from the shackles of bad habit? Family First offers you a plethora of ideas and methods for ditching the behaviors you wish you’d never begun.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Miri’s got a little secret. Except it’s not such a secret because the moment you step into her house, you can smell the pile of dishes in the sink, stacked up since last Shabbos and growing.

Tzivia would surely wrinkle her nose at Miri’s dirty dishes habit. But let the conversation turn to nasty habits and she’ll blush as red as her bitten fingernail cuticles. It’s something she started in elementary school, and she still attacks those nail beds twenty years later.

They begin as small behaviors that initially serve a purpose, whether it’s relieving stress, giving comfort, overcoming awkwardness, or even facilitating efficiency. But somewhere, somehow, bad habits bite back. With time, old habits tend to outgrow their usefulness. The trouble is, by then they’ve become so ingrained it seems almost unfathomable to try to reverse them or to cultivate new, more age- or socially appropriate behaviors.

Dr. Mark Lovinger, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Beachwood, Ohio, and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Case-Western Reserve University School of Medicine, sums up the problem in a nutshell. “A behavior that may begin as a coping strategy or as reactive to an event can then can take on a life of its own and become a habit that is very difficult to break or give up.” 

Sometimes our habits are so intertwined with our personalities and daily behaviors that we’re not even aware that they’re doing us harm. The woman who munches your ear off while talking on the phone may do it so instinctively that she isn’t even aware that it bothers anyone.

But people do mind. Our bad habits can grate on the nerves of those around us, raising eyebrows, rattling nerves, and maybe even thwarting job or shidduch prospects. Take Dahlia, for example, an otherwise perfectly coiffed and very well-mannered thirty-something. Her bad habit is a bit difficult to ignore because before she can stop herself, Dahlia scrapes her teeth clean much to the consternation of the average onlooker. Avrumi drives his wife crazy by constantly drumming his fingers on the table, and Shalhevet cracks her knuckles.

More important than the reaction of others, our habits tend to bother us. Yehudis’ face is covered with red blotches; she just can’t stop picking her skin. Adina’s worst habit is evidenced by the bags under her eyes and her constant suppressed yawns — she’s habituated to go to sleep late, every night. Chava Miriam would look at everyone else’s confessed habits and sigh profoundly. Her biggest, seemingly insurmountable challenge is procrastination. She will push off her workload until the very last minute, then scramble to get things done, causing no small amount of stress. Shelly is a habitual hoarder; her home and garage are overflowing with evidence of the pack rat that seethes within.

Some habits are wonderful. Ariella has a habit of never going to bed before her kitchen is spic-and-span. Dini has cultivated a habit of walking around smiling, and Tovah rises early to daven Shacharis every morning before her family awakens.

The ability to develop habitual, instinctive behavior is a gift from HaKadosh Baruch Hu, intended to help us create routines that serve us well. Habitual behavior is blessedly unconscious — it happens without us focusing on it very much. The trouble is that this gift can be very easily misused.

Chazal talk extensively about the koach hahergel, the power of habit, which can be harnessed positively to bring us closer to serving Hashem or can backfire and dull our senses, putting us on autopilot and sapping our natural spiritual inspiration.

It is interesting to note that the word hergel contains the root regel, foot. Habits are formed by treading the same path time and time again, until a pattern is established. For a bad or dysfunctional habit, the analogy becomes particularly vivid: picture yourself walking through a soft dirt field. The first day your footsteps leave but a small imprint on the ground. Walk the same exact path tomorrow, and the imprint becomes a bit deeper. After a month of treading the same route, you’ll find yourself sunken in a deep furrow. That’s the essence of a bad habit — you’re mired, in something you’d love to get out of but don’t know how.

Whatever your affliction, the good news is this: bad habits can be conquered, and it’s easier than you may think. Especially now, as we approach the Yamim Noraim, we yearn to change our unflattering habits and replace them with behavior that is more in-line with the people we long to be. And we can! Here’s how.


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