Holy shit! I know why habits are so goddamn hard to break!
Did you ever stop to think, “why is everything in my life so goddamn difficult?” Of course you have.
Have you ever stopped to think, “could it be that there’s nothing wrong with me, but that perhaps everything around me is fucked?” If you haven’t, I want you to take a moment to think about that right now.
And then I want you to take a moment and think about the worst habit of yours you’re trying to break. If you’ve been diagnosed with OCD, don’t stress it, just pick the latest one you’re trying to break. Are you ready to hear something powerful?
All animals are habit forming and the more complex the animal, the more complex the habits they can form. Habits can happen spontaneously as a result of some circumstances. If one day you lay down to sleep and there’s a spider on your pillow that scares the shit out of you, you may develop a habit of flipping your pillow once or twice before you go to bed for the rest of your life. Why does the act of flipping your pillow once as a result of a frightening experience become an ingrained habit? Because coded into our ancient DNA is a learning mechanism that operates on the instinctual level. If flipping the pillow once saved you from getting bit by a poisonous spider, continually flipping that pillow might save you again. It’s that simple.
The reason why habits are hard to break is because they are designed to help us adapt to environmental circumstances we may not fully understand. Consider a tribe of humans living in the Amazon and sharing a habitat with the dreaded banana spider (more venomous than a black widow, and it jumps). If some humans died after gathering bananas, and others who shook the leaves of the banana plant before reaching in for the bananas didn’t die, then even if you don’t understand how spider venom works to kill a person, or how shaking the leaves makes the bananas safe to pick, you can go right on ahead and shake those leaves and you’ll be safe from at least one type of horrible Amazonian death. The cool part about the habits is that the ones that didn’t help to protect us from the spiders, well, they die with human.
In other words, habits are a kind of knowledge that’s built directly into our muscles and our nervous system. They override the slow and faulty cognition of the brain and motivate us directly through anxiety and the relief of that anxiety that the performance of the habit brings.
So, next time you find yourself fighting against some nasty habit, ask yourself, “what is it about my environment that this habit is trying to protect me from? Why am I so anxious in this situation?” Instead of trying to overcome your habit through sheer force of will, you might have more success simply removing yourself from the environment that triggers it. Over time as it is not exercised, your nerves will overlay new more efficient pathways over the old habits and your compulsion will weaken, though it may never disappear entirely.
This public service announcement brought to you by Konrad Lorenz and his many feathered friends.