*(The examples provided below are composite cases, synthesizing disguised information and not any patient in particular)*
In the spirit of the New Year, and the resolutions that often accompany its arrival, this blog post is going to focus on habits. For many, the word “habits” conjures up images of nail biting, or binge-watching The Office after work– and these are habits we tend to focus on when making a resolution. Therapeutically speaking, habits are important to consider, too.
Habits are often subconscious. They’re behaviors we do without much thought or consideration, patterns we fall into. At times, they are innocuous, and at others, they deeply affect us, often without our realizing it. As a teenager, I frequently ended up with a stomach ache after eating. It wasn’t until I was in college, surrounded by people other than my immediate family, that I realized I practically inhaled my food at mealtimes. This realization forced me to ask myself: why the heck am I eating so quickly, and do I really need to be doing this? Growing up with brothers meant that food was a hot commodity in our house, and if it wasn’t on your plate or in your stomach, you might not get any– thus the snarfing. This knowledge allowed me to slow down at mealtimes and, low and behold, the stomach aches disappeared.
In therapy, it can take time to discover habits. Some are more apparent, like the one above, and others take time and exploration to discover. And, once discovered, there is the important question of what to do with the information and whether or not you want to change. What makes this more challenging is that many of our subconscious habits come about as a means of survival.
Mika started therapy with me as her marriage was falling apart. She was full of self-blame about how her marriage had gotten to this point, which was confusing to hear because Mika sounded like a thoughtful, caring partner. She was intensely in tune with her partner’s needs and wants. She worked hard to pay bills and engaged reflectively and effectively in parenting. As we talked, it became apparent that these behaviors had meaning for Mika and resulted in some big feelings that were hard to communicate.
Mika’s father struggled with untreated bipolar disorder when she was young, and this manifested in unpredictable, angry outbursts that terrified her. She also knew him to be a very caring parent. This juxtaposition confused her and made it challenging to know how to navigate the relationship. In young Mika’s mind, the best course of action was to be the best version of herself in order to avoid upsetting her dad. This meant putting her own feelings and needs aside and listening carefully to the needs of others. She became an expert at reading her parent’s emotional cues and responding in ways she hoped would diffuse the situation. Mika’s mother relished in this close, attentive relationship with her child, perhaps because it was so radically different than the one she had with her unpredictable husband.
Mika developed a habit that helped her survive her childhood environment– people pleasing. And while it meant that she survived into adulthood, it was also a strategy that led to challenges in her adulthood. Mika threw herself into her romantic relationship with very little focus on herself or her own needs. Through exploration, Mika was able to notice that in paying such close attention to her partner’s needs, she hoped her partner would do the same. When this didn’t happen she became resentful. The resentment showed up as anger because Mika didn’t have the tools to recognize her needs or wishes and communicate these to her partner. This was scary, because it made Mika feel like her out-of-control father. Working on these skills in session allowed Mika the space to begin trying new ways of relating to her partner and talking about what she needed in the relationship.
In therapy, Mika learned to focus on her feelings when talking with others and considered what feelings of guilt, anger, or annoyance meant. She could identify her own needs more readily and acted in ways that better met those needs. For example, when she was annoyed with her partner for asking her to handle their child’s challenging bedtime routine for the fifth time that week, she could recognize her feelings and communicate her need for a night off rather than suppressing her feelings and catering to her partner’s needs instead.
As I noted above, identifying the habit is only one part of the equation. The more important part is what we do with the information we gather. To put it as one of my clients recently did: “Okay Sam, I get it, we keep going back to what happened and I can see that this is why I act this way, and that it keeps repeating. But what do I do about it, besides being pissed as hell that this happened to me and I adapted the way I did?” It’s a great question with a simple, yet terribly challenging answer: change. Change is hard– it’s why most New Year’s resolutions fizzle out by the end of January. Holding yourself accountable in therapy is one way to help yourself continue to try new ways of being and interacting. Mika continues to work on identifying her own needs, a skill that has been long buried and is a bit rusty as a result. She’s also learning to more effectively share these needs with others.
Change isn’t easy. Reflecting on our habits is an arduous process that can also stir up a lot of grief. We can’t change the past, but if we are brave enough to try a different way of being, we end up with a present that better meets our needs.