Baby steps or big changes – about self control and habit

When I was 21 I decided I needed to work on my social skills. Instead of getting a hobby or something I quit university and decided to get a job. My parents weren’t amused and the result was that I went for a community college nursing class, which I was kicked out of within a few months (I wasn’t very good at washing elderly people and really only wanted to talk to them). Thankfully I had by then started tutoring math, which I was good at, so I went to teachers college. After a few years, having passed (almost) every test with flying colors I went on to teach at middle school after middle school – getting fired again and again, because dealing with teenagers took way more social skills than I had.

The lesson? Forcing yourself into something you’re not fit for will NOT work. On the other hand, I did learn a LOT. My social skills really are way better now than they were back then and forcing myself to face class after class of about 25 teenagers hour after hour for a few years definitely had a lot to do with that.

Looking back I think I was really asking too much of myself. I’m basically an introvert – even though few people will be able to spot that these days. Five years after my last teaching job it feels like the stress caused by forcing myself into that situation is finally out of my system.

I would NEVER recommend that people do what I did. Small steps are way more likely to be manageable and are less risky. I could have gone into IT, worked for a larger salary and learned decent social skills in a business environment. I might have stayed a bit more nervous in front of crowds if I’d done that, than I am now, but that’s just about the only advantage I see to the route I took.

The same goes for things like losing weight, starting an exercise regimen etc. Find a way to change your habits in a healthy direction one step at a time. If you do that, chances of having to go back a step (or all the way) and being discouraged are way less.

A couple I know are trying to prepare themselves for the Buddhist lay vows. Like most well-educated successful people, alcohol was part of their routine. In trying to cut back on their alcohol consumption they’ve already experienced several setbacks. Their main challenge is social situations where they’re used to drinking and serving alcohol. A while ago they proudly announced that they’re now down to one glass of wine a week.

Because they’re doing this as a couple they can use each other as checks. They can change their own home culture and face up to issues together as well. This makes it easier to change fundamental habits like that. Still, because habit is so strong a part of our everyday life it’s no surprise that they had to try again and again.

It sounds like such a small change: not drinking any more alcohol… at least, to me, no alcohol for almost 20 years, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. However, because of all the social trappings it’s a big habit to break.

Part of the issue is will power. The end of the year is coming up and goal setting and good intentions with it. We all know how unlikely it is that people actually keep their good intentions and reach all their goals. We’d like to ignore those stats when it comes to our own goals though.

The reason it often doesn’t work out is because it takes will power to overcome ingrained habits. As long as the new behavior isn’t a habit yet, the only way to stick to it is by having will power each time we stay away from those sweets, avoid that drink or go jogging first thing in the morning.

Unfortunately, will power is a limited psychological resource. If it takes will power to stay away from cigarettes there will be less will power left to also stay away from fast food. This explains why people gain weight after they quit smoking.

The good news is that once a new behavior is a habit, you can start working on another new behavior in your self-development plan.
More good news: will power CAN be trained, however while you’re training, do expect other aspects of your life to work a bit less well.

Some researchers even believe that one reason poor people stay poor is that it takes them so much energy to just get the cheapest groceries in the store, that they don’t have any left to better themselves…

There is one advantage to big changes though: big changes bring a change in context with them. That’s why people need rehab or go on retreat: a new context brings new behaviors with it as a matter of course. However integrating those new behaviors into your home life is a lot harder: old habits, old triggers (like the bar where you always meet your drinking buddies)…
The reason I’m not afraid of speaking in front of groups any more is that I was forced to face them hour after hour, day after day, week after week. It worked to change my circumstances drastically and since I kept at it long enough, it’s a skill I have at my disposal for the rest of my life. However, there is always a cost.

15 thoughts on “Baby steps or big changes – about self control and habit

  1. I’d say the common conception of will power is probably not the way to break a habit. If you use will power to resist something, you are still giving it power by resisting. It’s better to accept it, and then refocus on the goal you are going for as opposed to “fighting it” in my opinion anyway.

    1. I don’t know how that can work. The only way to change a habit is by either replacing it with another habit or quitting it altogether. Replacing it is probably easier, but still it requires doing something about the habit in the first place. And that requires will power.

      In order to change anything it needs to be faced (which is perhaps related to acceptance). Fighting the negative won’t work long term, but if it’s a step on the path towards creating new habits that do work it’s still an essential ingredient.

  2. Habits and skills are the things we developed in the past and they help us in the present. Only because the present is changing we stumble upon habits and skills that are in need of a review. Although willpower is a powerfull thing, it is often used to suppress things. I found out that accepting the ‘problem’ at hand in a affectinate way made me work towards a solution. Sometimes all it needs is a change in perception.
    I quit smoking not because I felt smoking was bad for me, no it was because of all the comments I got when I was enjoying my cigarettes. So either I turned my back on the people or what . . . ?
    I changed my idea. I promised myself to quit smoking if I would be able to smoke 2 packages of cigarettes per day. Mind you not the ordinary package but the self-rolled packages we used to smoke in Holland. One package gives me about 30 cigarettes, each lasting between 10 to 15 minutes. So do the calc. Smoking 60 cigarettes would require me to smoke continously almost the whole day.
    I found myself rolling the next cigarette while still smoking, just to reach my target. After one month I could smoke about 1 1/2 package so I had to speed up to get to my quitting point. I found myself all day obsessed by smoking as much as I could and then after some time it became amusing. At last I could not help myself but i was laughing at myself all the day.
    That day came when I finished the 2 packages and I stopped immediate. No withdrawal symptoms at all !

  3. ” The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.”
    -Alcoholics Anonymous. Big Book. Chapter 3. Page 43.

    1. Dear Mr Kumar,
      I just google’d this quote and google returned me 5150 hits. Amazing number of quotes considering I searched for the whole text.
      The truth, as I perceive it, is that spirit comes into matter. In that way we all can grow to more complete Being.
      Feeling incomplete urges us to grow, it makes us go to paths unknown. Unfortunate the western mind is very mental and the connection to the physical body is weak.
      To me it means we can mentally go many places without experiencing the actually ‘thing’.
      Alcohol was and is longtimes used to get access to the gods ( hindu brahmans still use it on Bali ). But getting access to something that is out of the ordinairy urges us to go the new paths and get to that same experience from within. Failing to do the work people stick to the means that gave them once the access thus creating the addiction. But this is just my idea of things.

  4. With due respect to the views of Ms. Katinka and Mr Gerritsen,I wish to point out that alcohol addiction is a sickness like Cancer or Aids. The WHO had affirmed it many years back. The Big Book of AA had also attempted to establish the fact. Now the American Society of Addiction Medicine has published a new definition of addiction highlighting that ” Addiction is a chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavioral problem involving too much alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex”.

    “At its core, addiction isn’t just a social problem or a moral problem or a criminal problem. It’s a brain problem. Many behaviors driven by addiction are real problems and sometimes criminal acts. But the disease is about brains, not drugs. It’s about underlying neurology, not outward actions.” Addiction is also recognized as a chronic disease, like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, so it must be treated, managed and monitored over a life-time “.

    The new definition resulted from an intensive, four-year process with more than 80 experts actively working on it, including top addiction authorities, addiction medicine clinicians and leading neuroscience researchers from across the country. The full governing board of ASAM and chapter presidents from many states took part, and there was extensive dialogue with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

    It would go a long way in helping those unfortunate addicts and their suffering families, if influential people as Ms. Katinka promotes this scientific knowledge in the media.

  5. Mr Kumar,
    It is just my opinion but I feel Ms Katinka has set up this website to “consider all things”, giving it the name ‘allconsidering”.
    I am sure we all agree that certain negatives conditions if endured for a long time will result in damage to the physical body.
    And yes, I agree with you there will a point in time when the person that is suffering comes to a condition that surrendering to the ALL will be the only option.
    But I strongly belief we all have the liberty (= different from freedom) to choose our own path in Life. We even have the liberty to forget that there was a point in time when we choose to forget we made to choice to forget, obvious is it not ? And that is the drama we call life on Earth.
    Some people manage to peel away layers that conceals the real ONE and others are still creating more layers to divert from being ONE.
    Do they need help ? I don’t know. When I meet someone that asks my help, i will help.
    Do people want to know the real true ? Many times, NO, they want to continue the drama. Can I help there ? Sure, a little bit.
    Can I be compassionate ? Yes, sure.
    Do I need to take these people in custody ? Do I have to treat these people as if they cannot help themselves ? NO, I do not.
    Can I feel their sorrow ? Yes, many times I start to cry knowing it is not my sorrow.
    Do I have to acknowledge the scientific knowledge ? NO, I can only acknowledge what I know of myself, what I have done, experienced, all the rest is hearsay. There is lots of data about things, it is up to each of us how to deal with that. I can only help the things that are at hand.

  6. Dear Mr Gerritsen, ,
    Since you use the word ‘surrender “in the context of AA, I think you have knowledge of AA. Alcoholics reach that point because their self -control proves insufficient to contain their alcoholism.
    They are faced with a situation of life or death and exercise the choice to look for help. They understand that they are “powerless over alcohol, and their lives have become unmanageable”. All these are in the realm of understanding and making a choice. It is only after that, they willingly choose the path of surrender. They surrender to the greater power of a God of their understanding.
    Surrender is not an inferior path. Except the Tirthankara’s of Jainism, most other Avatars have adopted it for self-realization.
    Surrendering to the ‘Self’ is a supreme spiritual practice. The Self is our core, the witness, the emptiness, the other, the Tao, consciousness and the Brahman.

    1. Yes, alcohol addiction is ultimately measurably present in the brain. I’m sure the same is true for sexual addiction for instance. However, that does NOT automatically mean that we don’t have the power to change it. We change our brain routinely, every time we learn a new skill.

      And yes, surrender to something higher is a respectable aspect of every religious tradition – even Buddhism – the question is to what extent AA members succeed in finding a connection to that Higher Something in themselves. As long as they view it as outside themselves they may have even more trouble than they otherwise would to stay off the booze. Since in Christianity it’s not generally recognized that one should see Christ in oneself (that’s blasphemy in most versions of Christianity in fact) one may get into trouble.

  7. Katinka-

    I appreciate you last comment most. Have you written a post that you can direct me to that is on the topic of Christianity and the inability to view a “God or God Like” in oneself.

    I have always found this to be the most enlightening part of other religions and would like to read your expanded thoughts on this. Thanks!

    1. I haven’t written about that yet. If I were to, I’d have to go into Buddhist stuff like ‘Buddha nature’, Hindu Atma/Brahman and yogic Purusha. However, basically I’m not enough of a Christian mystic to write about it.

      My advice to you would be: do read up on Christian Mystics like Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Avila. I loved Meister Eckhart when I was in my early 20s.

      You’ll find plenty of real life connection to God in there.

  8. @Courtney. Seeing there is no response (yet), I would like to point you to the author of some (to me) spectular books : Annalee Skarin. Although not Christian (she was a Mormon, later excommunicated by the Mormon clergy) she wrote her seven books about ascension. It made me forgive the Christian clergy for hiding all the good things for the common people.
    I think the first book is titled “Ye Are Gods”. Kind regards, Leo.

  9. I appreciate the honesty in this.

    I recognized the rubber band effect in my life in what you expressed.

    For me it’s alcohol. Over the years it grabbed a deeper hold on me till I found myself drinking daily.

    Taking a huge leap and going without support when radically changing something like that can be catastrophic. I know from first hand experience.

  10. I have learnt that first and foremost you must accept that everyone has a darker side to their personality. This is the side that eats away at your positive thoughts and actions.

    I find that even knowing about this doesn’t negate this side of you; it merely lessens its effect. If we fail to adhere to our resolutions this can lead to negative thoughts such as, “I’ve failed!”, regardless of whether resolutions are perceived to be either positive or negative. (i.e. if we do not reach the desired goal.)

    Usually resolutions or lists are made that are too large or even unrealistic, so, I agree with the author that lots of small well-planned steps are the key – a program – if you will! Upon perceived failure then take a break, don’t abandon! Go back to it a day or even a week later.

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