Why do old habits die hard?

Old habits die hard – what stops us changing?

Old habits die hard‘ is an enduring phrase because there’s more than some truth in it. 

It is simple to list the things we intend to change; give up sugar, wine, cigarettes, gambling, picking the wrong kind of romantic partner, but it is quite another to change them.  It is why it is so difficult keeping new year resolutions.

We know how bad certain things are for us but that in itself isn’t enough to change anything, most of us just endlessly repeat the same old habits.

Why is it so hard to change old habits?

Well firstly, being habits they have become ingrained in us.  The old habit is as familiar as a pair of old shoes, they fit us, so we keep on wearing them.

Knowing that we need to change the habit is not sufficient to do so, we need more than insights and good ideas.

Remember: Good habits are important too

It is worth remembering that not all habits are bad.  Stephen Covey’s ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People‘ is a very useful resource for thinking about developing good habits.

Covey argues, for example, that to be successful we need to develop good habits like ‘beginning with the end in mind’.  If we want to achieve something we need to develop the good habits that will support us.

Where did our old habits start?

We tend to live by habits and routines that started long ago.  Perhaps from the very beginning of our lives we have been steered along certain directions, how are we supposed to get out of them now?

Psychotherapy, particularly models of therapy that have developed out of ideas of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, take as their basic premise the idea that our actions are partly driven by unconscious motives.

This doesn’t just mean that we have forgotten where the habit came from.  It means that part of our motivation for making the habitual choices that we get caught up in, is based upon obscured motives involving pleasures and satisfaction.

This suggests that we may keep doing things that we know are not good for us, because of a sense of satisfaction which we find hard to give up.

In many cases self-destructive habits such as;

  • eating disorders,
  • addiction problems,
  • self-harm

develop out of an attempt to manage the unhappiness of our original family experience.  We may know that we don’t want to live the way our parents did, and then realise that we are doing those things ourselves.

These habits can prove very difficult to change.

Old habits and relationship choices

Take the example of someone who wants to break the habit of getting into relationships with unobtainable people, ie., people who are already in relationships.

What we might find is that for this person relationships have developed out of not knowing how to relate to the opposite sex in a mutually constructive way.  Though it sounds cliched, the evidence that dynamic and depth psychotherapy is built upon is that we tend to choose partners based upon the dynamics of our early home lives.

If we grew up in unhappy or complicated homes, there is every chance that we will repeat the mistakes and recreate the kind of situations that we came from, and, this is the interesting part, that we probably wanted to get out of in the first place. 

Changing these kind of habits takes more than commitment and work it takes insight, and that insight can be hard to find and develop.

Old habits die hard – changing the way we work

Take the example of someone who wants to perform better at work but consistently fails at the last moment.

They lose their nerve just when the big prize seems to be within their grasp.  Why? 

Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ is useful here.  Nietzsche, many of whom’s ideas form the basis of existential psychotherapy, thought that we all have a responsibility to change what we don’t like about the current moment we are living through.

If we know that there is something that we don’t like in our lives but do nothing about it, then Nietzsche would suggest that we are destined to endlessly repeat it. 

If we want to change the outcome of the way we live, then we have to change the way we are living, and we have to do it now.  Otherwise we are like the tennis player who can get to the semi-finals but never the final.

Can you change things by yourself?

You may be one of the lucky people for whom a self-help book is enough.  You buy it, you read it and you change your life. You may be like Eric Clapton who went to see Jimi Hendrix at the 100 club and you go home and change the way you play your guitar.

For most of us things are not so simple.  Most of us will need a confidential and reliable person who will work with us and help us develop the insights and see the changes through.

Psychotherapy and changing old habits

In my psychotherapy practice I have learned to understand and develop insights into the ways in which people may be caught up in old habits. It can be very hard to spot these things on your own.

Working on these things in psychotherapy can be the beginning of developing new and better habits and practices of self-care.

The beginning of a new focus aimed at helping and supporting you to develop good habits and change the things you want to.

This may mean better and more constructive habits being established around, relationships, work, food, health and money.

Contact me for a free telephone consultation to see how my work can help you break out of your old habits.