Anatomy of a Bad Habit

Written by  //  June 25, 2013  //  HEALTH & BEAUTY, WRITER ARCHIVES  //

By Dr. LaTrelle D. Jackson

Have you ever looked back and wondered how did I get to this point?  Perhaps you used to be very active and now you’ve picked up a few pounds from hanging out with the television and sofa too often.  Hear yourself interrupting others before they get a chance to finish their sentence to share your thoughts. Or, you would enjoy a glass of wine as an occasional indulgence, but lately it seems to be a regular part of your after-work evening transition.  These are examples of habits with possible negative consequences – also known as a bad habit. The insidious nature of a bad habit often allows it to go unnoticed until it is well entrenched in your daily routine.  The anatomy of a bad habit has a heart – an emotional center, a head – an unwise cognitive response to a need, and feet – the same way it walked into your life, it can walk out.  It is a real reaction to addressing one’s internal needs, desires, and challenges. The key is to first become aware of the factors that prompted the bad habit in the first place, then find alternatives to the behavior for sustained change.

The Epiphany
Many times, we have loved ones who bring things to our attention that could otherwise go unnoticed.  Comments from caring observations can serve as a wakeup call.  Saw you ran late today…did you turn off your alarm again?  Sorry to hear your back is hurting, did you fall asleep on your sofa again instead of going to bed? You have been stressed lately – haven’t started back smoking to cope have you? Clearly, “knowing” better doesn’t always translate into doing better with self-care.  Sometimes we fall short of good, healthy living practices due to time demands, exhaustion, or in order to fulfill unmet needs.  For example, do you know someone who has stomach issues if they eat too late at night?  Yet, that person may sneak in a late night snack when a craving hits (i.e., bad habit).  Interestingly, when the consequences of that action (i.e., heartburn) sharpen the sense of importance in following doctor’s orders, vows to never do it again can flow.  Was it really hunger that elicited the late-night-snack attack or something deeper – emotional concerns from earlier that day, the need for nurturance, or wanting physiological gratification (i.e., feeling replenished) before going to bed?  Taking a moment to reflect on the source of the bad habit can help to correct it and lead to long term healing.  Knowledge alone is not enough for true change, but it is a beginning. True bad habit change can occur when all parts come together – awareness of the problem, commitment to change, resources to make different choices, and reinforcement for new ‘good’ habits to form.

The Cure
Once you have taken stock of the key factors that led you to develop the habit and have committed to change, it is time to strategize ways to break it.  Following are three steps to break the bad habit cycle in your life.

1. Create a Support Team:  By enlisting help from friends and family, you create built in reinforcement for the desired change.  However, it is important to specify HOW you want support (i.e., observations, affirmations, a sound board).  This specific clarification will minimize the chance for hurt feelings or frustration and maximize the chance for feeling supported.

2. Track Progress:  Develop specific intervals to check on your progress.  Concrete goals that address bad habits like weight reduction (i.e., emotional eating) or improving communication (i.e., refraining from curse words) have clear criteria to note progress, such as the scale or frequency of appropriate word choices in a given week.  However, there are bad habits that have a more difficult-to-track course of change.  Examples would include trusting others before they prove worthy or engaging with partners physically before connecting intimately.  These bad habits wound the heart, as well as the spirit.  Establish customized goals for these self-care milestones just as you would any other goal with objective data.

3. Review Bad-Habit Alternatives: The new and improved life alternative you develop at this phase may not serve as well in the future.  Periodically, review your ‘substitute’ strategy for ongoing value assessment.  For example, chewing gum to help break your cigarette-smoking cycle may be helpful as a starter, but starting a walk program may be even more helpful to maintain progress once the physical benefits of healthier lungs kick in.

Analyzing your bad habit is a great way to learn more about yourself.  The issue causing the bad habit is calling for your attention. The beautiful thing about life is that we can discard aspects which are unfitting and reshape that part of us to become better individuals.  As long as we have breath, we have hope and the chance to create a better tomorrow.  Never let a past bad habit dictate your future.  Too many good ones are waiting for you to cultivate them.  So, get your heart, head, and feet in alignment for the ‘good’ habits ahead.

LaTrelle_JacksonLaTrelle D. Jackson, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinically-certified forensic counselor. Dr. Jackson is an associate professor in the School of Psychology and Counseling, and director of the Psychological Services Center at Regent University. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from The University of Georgia. Committed to integrated wellness, community empowerment, moral leadership, and culturally-sensitive education, Dr. Jackson has engaged in a variety of academic, business, political, and civic endeavors. In 2011, she was elected to the office of Secretary for the American Psychological Association, while retaining her position as Membership Chairperson. Currently, she serves as the Psychological Health Consultant for Esteem Magazine, an Atlanta, Georgia based firm. She can be contacted at for questions, comments, or concerns generated from the column.


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