One of my earliest memories is of nap time in pre-school. I remember lying on a cot feeling bored and restless. To pass the time, I began smoothing the uneven edges of my nails. I vividly remember the trance-like state which successfully distracted me from those negative feelings. As I grew up, I noticed this behavior happen more frequently. I would fidget with my nails or pick at my cuticles, sometimes with destructive results. As I matured, so did my level of insight. I noticed the habit occurred more often in stressful situations. The effect of this repetitive behavior served to soothe feelings of anxiety. Although I understood why, I was still unable to resist. Now in my mid-twenties, I am more confident, focused and comfortable with myself than ever before. However, you will still be able to catch me playing with my finger-nails, especially when I’m feeling insecure. If having insight isn’t enough to impart change, how do we break deeply engrained habits?
Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) suggests anything we do to avoid negative thoughts, memories and emotions is called experiential avoidance. It is considered a maintaining factor in virtually every psychological disorder. Even if we only succeed temporarily, the act of avoiding an unpleasant experience is addictive. This theory follows principles of behaviorism; we repeat actions that are positively or negatively reinforcing. Either we get something satisfying out of it, or we have something aversive taken away. Many times we experience both types of reinforcement which help entrench the behavior. For example, smokers get pleasure from the social aspect of their habit, as well as experiencing relief from stress. Whether you are abusing drugs, engaging in risky sexual practices, restricting food, binge eating, obsessing over irrational fears, or repeating compulsive acts (like my nail picking), the behavior often provides relief from a negative experience.
We find it challenging to accept feelings of anxiety, sadness, fear or pain. As a result, we learn to cope with the most available option in the moment. Sometimes our methods are functional: we exercise, listen to music or express ourselves artistically. Other times we may lack motivation and resort to old patterns that temporarily relieve the negative feeling we wish to escape. Whenever you notice a pattern of behavior you can’t seem to quit, ask yourself, “How is this serving me?” The answer to that question is often the best place to start if you want to overcome a challenging habit.
Michelangelo was notorious for sleeping in his clothes. He was uncouth, melancholic and withdrawn. Yet he was able to create many of the most revered masterpieces in history. The statue of David is considered a representation of the ideal man. Interestingly, his work appears to reflect the opposite of his personality. The delicate precision of detail is flawless. If Michelangelo were as perfect as the art he created, would we find his work more inspiring? There is beauty in the flaws that make us human. We stubbornly resist accepting what makes us vulnerable. But it is our weaknesses that add depth to our individuality. We have a tendency to dichotomize experience into good and bad, right and wrong, limiting our potential for growth. Yet we can learn much more from the bad than the good.
According to ACT, accepting our negative thoughts, emotions and experiences is the only way we can overcome them. The more we judge ourselves for being human, the more we will continue to fail. If you’re repeating a pattern of behavior, there is always a valid reason. When you practice non-judgmental awareness, you free yourself from pressure to stop. This increases your ability to recognize functional alternatives. I may not have my habit under control -maybe I never will -but I can work with that.