You’ve probably heard stories or perhaps the personal testimony of people who struggled with ‘bad’ (or what I prefer to refer to as ‘detrimental’) habits, who prayed for God to take the habit away and then, suddenly, the habit was gone, never to return.
While that is a fantastic experience for those for whom that happens, it can also be a very discouraging for the far greater number of people for whom detrimental habits don’t seem to be conquered so easily.
So what are we to do? Give up in despair?
What if we were to do the same thing towards ourselves as God does toward us – exercise compassion that is informed by understanding – rather than beating ourselves up. Hold on a minute, you might be thinking, Isn’t that just making excuses?
Remember the woman at the well in John 4:4-30? This woman was out collecting water in the middle of the day – presumably so she could avoid the judgmental glances of the locals. Why? Apparently she’d had five failed marriages. (One failed marriage was a big enough shame in that context – imagine having five!) And now this woman was living unmarried with a partner. Even more shame and embarrassment!
So it would be reasonable to conclude that this woman didn’t feel too good about herself. Otherwise the possibility of encountering other people’s glances or comments while going to the well and back wouldn’t have mattered so much. But then she met Jesus who treated her with such compassion that she ended up rushing back into the village blurting out “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29) How did this woman’s shame dissolve?
That is the power of compassion informed by understanding. Jesus understood what had been going on in this woman’s life, He understood the struggles and challenges that sin submerges us in. So, instead of condemnation, His compassion acknowledged the reality of what had happened to and for this woman, what was going on within her and what was needed to best help her heal and grow. That’s what informed compassion does. While condemnation – particularly self-condemnation – is more often than not a major barrier to constructive change, informed compassion instead opens up the way to such change.
So, in the name of understanding that can inform compassion and better pave the way for constructive change, let’s take a few moments to consider some aspects of habit formation. This will help us understand why some people develop more detrimental habits than others or have a more difficult time ‘overcoming’ detrimental habits.
Unfortunately we live within a fallen reality. And that fallen reality has really messed with the ‘machinery’ of our human nature. As a consequence we face situations we were never created/designed to face – and we do so from a point of significant disadvantage. We were never designed to have a knowledge (i.e. intimate encounter with and experience of) evil. And for good reason.
One example of how sin has messed with our ‘machinery’ is the developmental sequence of our brain. When we are born, the subconscious elements of our brain are fully formed and ready to go. They need to be fully formed in a fallen world, since their purpose is to help us survive in our all-too-often hostile environment. On the other hand, the conscious elements of our brain are just starting their development from birth. Perhaps you can see the outcome of this – one part of our brain will have to play catch-up to the other. It is estimated that full maturity of our conscious doesn’t happen till our 30’s, though it is not an inevitable development and therefore achievement of full maturity is not guaranteed!
This is because growth is based on a principle called experience-dependent development. This means you will develop in accordance with the kinds of experiences you are exposed to or choose to involve yourself. If you were fortunate enough to grow up within a stable, secure and ‘enriched’ environment where all your developmental needs were provided for, you will likely have experienced optimal development and maturity. Forming constructive habits – and resisting the development of detrimental ones – is likely to be somewhat easier and more straightforward for you. You are blessed! But this scenario represents the smaller proportion of the world’s population.
Many reading this will have grown up in unstable, insecure, ‘impoverished’ and all-too-often violent and abusive environments where, instead of thriving, your mind was devoting most or all of its resources to just coping and surviving. When this happens, mature development is impaired and unfortunate side-effects occur instead. One such side effect is the development of detrimental habits that represent a person’s best ways of coping in the absence of knowledge of or access to more constructive ones. Examples of such habits can include mood-altering ‘addiction’ behaviors (substance use, pornography, comfort eating/shopping), control-based behaviors (anorexia, bulimia, cutting), or perhaps compliance and conflict avoidance at all costs. Habits formed in contexts like this are typically much more entrenched and resistant to change.
And then there are those who grew up in environments somewhere in between, where they still struggle with detrimental habits, though perhaps of a less extreme nature.
Of course, what I have outlined is a generalization, and you likely know someone who is an exception to what I have described. But the generalization holds up pretty well, and there are likely to be quite a few reading this who will recognize what I have written and affirm that they have experienced what I have described.
Why is this important to know? Isn’t it just bad news? Well, yes it is bad news at this point. But it is important news too. Remember what I mentioned earlier about God’s methods of compassion and understanding? God is compassionate because He understands. And we benefit from understanding too – from understanding how and why we got to this point.
Now for the next important aspect of understanding, we need to understand the nature of habits, and I will outline some of the more important things that are worth knowing about the nature of habits. When you better understand these, you can use this knowledge to inform your efforts to replace your detrimental habits with more constructive ones.
- You need to know that you cannot get rid of a habit. You can only progressively develop a more preferred habit. Habits that are not used become ‘dormant’ (yes, like a volcano). If you happen to encounter the right convergence of conditions, the habit will be reawakened – meaning it will once again surface as an impulse. If this happens, be informed rather than horrified. It doesn’t mean you have failed, it’s just part of how things work within a fallen world. And that is not an excuse, it’s an explanation.
- Habits are formed by repetition – not by decision alone. You can decide/intend to form a new habit all you like, but unless you practice it over and over and over, it will end up like most New Year’s resolutions.
- It is actually a myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. This finding was for one particular research project involving development of a relatively simple habit, and it got promoted to the point where it is widely believed. The truth is that it depends upon the particular habit you are trying to develop and whether or not it is competing with any previous habits you may have developed. It might take 21 days, or it might take considerably longer.
- Developing a constructive habit to replace a detrimental habit is usually hard word and takes considerable effort and, frequently, discomfort to develop. As humans, we have a default tendency towards consistency, familiarity and the path of least resistance, rather than towards the challenges of change.
- While God will provide us with the strength to persevere to develop a habit, He won’t develop the habit for us. Why? Because habit development is a big part of character development – or more accurately, character re-development.1 This is a progressive process that is the work of a lifetime. God can’t implant or download a character into us. It has to be developed because it is a huge part of our individuality. Adam and Eve had to develop their characters after God created them. And even Jesus had to develop a character (see Desire of Ages, page 762). Developing a character from scratch is hard enough, but re-developing one that has been based on detrimental habits is even harder. Don’t stay discouraged and don’t get down on yourself if you find it hard going. Press into God instead of getting down on yourself, drawing upon His strength (Phil 4:13) and following Paul’s example in Phil 3:12-14.
- Trying to not repeat a detrimental habit by willpower alone works for some people, but not for most. Researchers have identified that pre-commitment is more powerful for most people than willpower alone. This finding is not surprising because it matches the nature of subconscious behaviors, which are automatically activated by environmental cues. This means that when your subconscious detects that you have come into contact with certain cues/triggers, it will automatically select and present a response for you to carry out – along with plenty of emotional motivation to do so. You will experience these responses as impulses of varying intensity from mild to wild.
An important part of pre-commitment involves identifying the environmental cues that trigger you to respond in a certain impulsive/habitual way and, as far as possible, modifying the environment so that the cues/triggers are not so easily encountered. It is even better if you can cue your conscious to be activated, as this will give you the ability to stop and think, rather than just instinctively/reflexively continue subconsciously down the old path.
A simple example of modifying the environmental cues might be putting that chocolate in a less accessible place or, possibly, even removing it from your environment altogether. (Don’t worry, I can assure you that you won’t die if you do this – even if you think/feel you might!) A more elaborate example that engages the conscious is to write a brief note to yourself and place it on top of the chocolate box. This note would say something like:
Dear (your name),
If I am seeing this note, it is because my subconscious thinks it would be a really good idea in this moment to eat this chocolate. And my subconscious believes that if I do, I will feel so much better. And perhaps I will feel better for a moment. But after that initial moment, I will also start to … (list the follow-on consequences you know you experience). I can go ahead and eat this chocolate, but I can’t do that and have the bits I like and not have the consequences I don’t like. Or I could instead go and …. (some alternative behavior that doesn’t have the undesirable consequences). While I am free to choose either option, I am not free to avoid the consequences of that option. My choice is to …
This does not mean you won’t choose the detrimental option – but it increases your possibility of resisting that option in favor of a more beneficial option because you have engaged your conscious. Our conscious was designed to be a gatekeeper of our subconscious, which pauses our impulses and allows us to consciously think about and assess them. A good question to ask yourself at the gate, is, Will this impulse take me closer to or further away from what is most important to me in my life – as opposed to what I feel like I need ‘in this moment’ where comfort may well feel like my highest priority. Paul’s gatekeeper criteria are spelled out in Phil 4:8.
I hope this information is useful and encouraging to someone or perhaps to someone you know. Please keep in mind, however, that these are general principles that likely have at least some relevance to most people in most situations. However, in other situations, you may need more specific information.
- For better or worse, our characters begin to be powerfully shaped by experiences that begin even before we are born and then continue on through our childhood, adolescence and so on. However, what we encounter in our earlier years is disproportionately powerful in its ability to shape us and hence this period of our development is referred to as the ‘critical years’. So, by the time we are adults, as anyone will likely know from their own experience, much of how we approach life is well established and ‘ingrained’. Consequently, for many people, the development of a Christ-like character is not something that is starting from a blank slate. Rather, it involves having to re-develop what has already developed and therefore often has to compete with well-established detrimental habits that don’t want to move over without putting up a fight. Yes, God will give us the strength to overcome this fight, but it is still a fight that we are more, rather than less, likely to go through because it the process by which we grow. Like Jacob’s night of wrestling (Gen 32:24-28), we will need to persevere in God’s strength until we overcome. ↩