— Steven Sondheim
When I was a teenager, when you could still smoke in restaurants, I studied acting at a Summer Stock program with the soon to be famous actress Mary McDonnell. I worshipped her and thought she was the sexiest, wisest, most humble and talented woman on earth. In the mornings when I had to be up early for some lame apprentice task, I saw her fiercely jogging (what discipline working actresses must have!) around the lake. In class, she gave her profound and powerful feedback while alternately chewing on straws and smoking incessantly, leaving soda cans full of ashes and empty packs scattered around her feet. How cool.
By the fall class, Mary and her then new husband had had time to settle into married living. On the first day back she announced that she quit smoking. I was very impressed and secretly disappointed, because by then I smoked and felt validated by her smoking. Mary shared how quitting had changed her: How she found herself talking on the phone and, without smoking, she could really hear what her friend was saying. She was in the moment and in the conversation, without the smoke clouding her experience. I thought that was the deepest thing I’d ever heard. During a class break, a woman tapped Mary on the shoulder and asked, “How did you do it?” She replied, “I had the support. It was Randle. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
That memory stands out for me as a profound lesson about habits, our relationship to them and the right circumstances for breaking them. Habits, like some religious uniforms, cloak the originality, spontaneity and aliveness that is our nature.
Spring is near and everywhere I hear people talking about cleansing, purging, reinventing themselves. When is the best time to address our negative habits and take on the sometimes tedious and painful task of shifting them?
It can be challenging to know which habits to address, and which ones to accept. Oftentimes, we are literally in love with our habits — watching too much TV, checking our phones every three minutes, eating the whole pint — which adds to the difficulty of letting them go. Emotional habits can be tricky, shifty, more difficult to isolate. It is harder to see the love affair in the habit of, for example, being passive aggressive, when the shame and struggle with a behavior can mask a deep attachment to it.
You know you are truly in the process of breaking a habit when it feels like something is ripping inside you, as you build the inner strength to restrain the pull towards the familiar. I feel this sensation when making a concerted effort to wait and not respond when I feel emotionally triggered (I do my best to practice what I preach). Who knew that the simple act of taking a pause could feel like so much work? When I feel that my decades-old patterns of relating are too ingrained to ever shift, I remember momentum. If little by little, in a consistent and loving manner, you pay attention and redirect yourself, the momentum creates a critical mass of energy. Through this critical mass, the habit begins to shift and in some cases, eventually evaporates.
And then the real rewards buoy you. The health, self-respect and relief awaiting you on the other side of the effort is worth it. Although I always thought she was radiant, as a non-smoker, Mary really glowed.
Habits cannot be addressed without a genuine and organic readiness. Allow yourself to know which habit really needs to go. Do not attempt to release a habit that is too dear to break, or else you set yourself up for failure, and strengthen that pervasive habit of beating up on yourself. Go slow. Although some habits require a cold turkey approach, there is wisdom in taking time to shift other habits — you wouldn’t want to have more energy running through your system than you can truly handle, or be somewhat unrecognizable to yourself, would you?
Allow yourself to daydream and envision yourself moving through life without the habit. Who would you be? How would losing this habit effect your mood, your outlook, your relationships? What might you lose, and what might you gain?
Smoke the Whole Pack
This mode of habit breaking requires that you indulge in a habit to the point of extreme duress and discomfort, in order to break free of it. It’s how I quit smoking — I felt so utterly disgusting and disgusted, I never wanted to feel that way again. People use this method all the time in their attempts to leave toxic situations. They stay in them until they hit a breaking point.
Professional and/ or Group Support
As Mary’s experience suggests, support is essential in the task of shifting habits. Not everyone has a Randle, but employing a psychotherapist or coach for understanding the emotional or psychological triggers for these patterns can help you find compassion for them. However, in some circumstances this understanding is not enough to change the behavior. Accountability, ongoing support, structure, patience, concerted effort and practice are needed.
For non-life threatening habitual behaviors, acceptance is a wonderful thing that can rub off and be a teacher for others. So, you chew with your mouth open. Big deal. You’re still love-able.
The work of habit breaking is so challenging you deserve acknowledgement, and rewards. You just gotta pick the right rewards — one’s that don’t form new bad habits!
And remember, Love Yourself no matter what.
Share your experience with habit breaking in the comments below!