Any habit is hard to break—whether it’s biting your nails, smoking, or perpetually showing up late. A willingness to change is an admirable place to start, even if doing so can feel beyond your control. Heavily influenced by childhood experiences and environments, these deeply ingrained behaviors are formed early in life.
Still, with repetition, practice, focus and commitment, new habits can be formed and maintained. But first, you need an understanding and awareness of the ones you want to break. Here are five tips to help you along:
1. Start small.
Focus on changing one habit at a time. Rather than beginning with a goal of, say, exercising daily, consider just once a week. As you find success, gradually increase to meet your ultimate goal.
2. Understand your habit.
Patterns persist, in part, because harmful behavior is rewarded. Procrastinating temporarily, for example, wards off anxiety. Breaking this habit requires the capacity to tolerate the discomfort, so you learn that procrastinating causes more anxiety in the long run.
3. Examine the context.
Identify the situational and emotional triggers associated with the habit you want to change. Many habits are formed as a means of coping with anxiety, anger or boredom. Once you’re able to identify the trigger, work on developing ways to satisfy your emotional needs with healthy behaviors.
4. Remember that regression is normal.
Learn to be compassionate with yourself when you make a mistake.
5. Seek professional help.
Change is hard, especially when it comes to long-established behaviors. A therapist can help you gain a deeper understanding of the behavior and its origins.
Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pa., whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families.
Dr. Durlofsky treats a wide variety of disorders and has a special interest in issues affecting women. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital, Lankenau Hospital, the Women’s Resource Center in Wayne and the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. In addition to her practice, Dr. Durlofsky is a workshop facilitator and blogger.