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Taking care of life by breaking old habits

By Ara O’Hayre

This week I can say habits have been on my mind. It was this week that my life’s habits came center stage as I went through a life altering event when my job was eliminated. As you know if you are reading this blog, I’m an intern with DCO and my internship is wonderful and remains so. The job, or rather the career, I’m talking about in this blog, is the one I had for 15 years that ended last week. While there are many aspects of losing a 15 year career I could go into, I want to highlight how the loss of my career brought to my awareness the power of habit.

As I transitioned out of my career this week, I became aware that the nagging habits I kept engaging in, even when I knew better, were things I did because I needed comfort. I also became aware of habits I didn’t even know I had, that I had hidden from my own self. Most importantly, because I see behaviors as actions that are informed by our interactional environment, I became aware of interactional habits I pursued. All in all, I became aware of habits that were comforting, hidden, and embedded in relationship.

People that know me know I am not a morning person and have not been since I was a baby. My mom tells me I’d wake up at 9 or 10am, even when I was little. As far as I’m concerned, the early bird can get the worm. My job, though, insisted on me being a morning person. For 15 years I had to get up between 5:30 and 6am, and that was pushing it. I’d sleep as long as possible and hit the snooze button three or four times before I finally dragged myself out of bed. As you can imagine, there are a few morning habits I formed because I had to work so early. One of these was drinking coffee, which I actually did not start until I had to work consistently. The taste of coffee was something I had to acquire, but as the years went on, coffee became my morning habit. I looked forward to it, learned about all of the different roasts, and flavors galore. It became my morning cup of warm blissful comfort. It let me close my eyes and breathe as I cupped my hands around a warm, creatively decorated mug and took a sip. Ahhhhh. The day could begin.

Ok, so how many of us out there don’t have a coffee habit? I mean, really, there’s a Starbucks on nearly every corner. Let’s be real, coffee could even be elevated to a cultural habit that many of us share. My point in sharing this anecdote is not that drinking coffee makes us bad or wrong. My point simply is that it wasn’t the coffee I really needed; it was the comfort. If nothing else, we can begin to see some of our habits as things that provide a warm safe place for us. We can begin to understand the real value of our habits, many times, is comfort. Rather than seek the habit, perhaps we can learn to seek the comfort instead.

So a coffee habit is one thing, but what about habits that exist in our lives that are incognito? Do you have any of these? It might be worth taking a look. For me, the incognito habit was reverting to my introversion. I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean I don’t like to socialize, because I do. Rather, it means I gain energy from taking time for myself, and expend energy when socializing. The reason this habit was incognito to me is because I disguised it well. I made plans with friends, but always needed to cancel and reschedule. I had lots of thoughts of getting out and being active, but didn’t ever really get moving when the opportunity would arise. I convinced myself I was living and doing all the things I wanted to do, but the reality was when I had time away from work, I did not do these things nearly as much as I would like to think I did. I didn’t want to admit to myself I was spent. I didn’t want to admit I was emotionally exhausted, and was losing my verve for life. So the habit persisted, helping me cope and survive.

Sometimes habits are things we do that we don’t like about ourselves. We don’t like them so much that we disguise them, making them invisible to our conscious awareness, because the thing they comfort is something we can’t or don’t know how to change.

What can you not escape or change? How are you coping? Therein may be a habit. Be brave enough to look. There is no shame in having an incognito habit, as the habit is the symptom of something inside you that is asking for relief.

Coffee and introversion were habits I pursued individually. What was most interesting to me, though, was realizing there were certain patterns of interaction I was participating in that had become habitual; quite frankly these patterns had become hurtful to me. I had spent many years working hard to prove I was useful, only to find out in the end that I was no longer useful to important people in my life. Because I was scared of rejection, I had participated in a cycle of interaction habitually that really didn’t uphold my value. I’m sure many of you can relate to this experience.

The truth is that the cycles of interaction we participate in protect us from what we fear most. My behavior to prove my worth was trying to protect me from my fear of rejection. What cycles of interaction are you habitually participating in? What behaviors are you pursuing over and over to protect yourself from what you are afraid might happen?

In session, I’m perpetually asking clients to consider these patterns of interaction. I’m always challenging clients to see the habit, or repeated pattern, of their cycles of interaction with others. The emotional fears that support our cycles of interaction are the things we have to be brave enough to see and know. In the beginning, our behaviors which are informed by our emotional fears serve us well and protect us. After some time passes, though, these emotional fears support cycles that can become hurtful. Breaking such painful emotional cycles is the work of therapy. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest reasons we end up coming to therapy.

Habits are comforting, they provide relief from things we don’t know how to escape, and they attempt to protect us from rejection, abandonment, and many other types of relational trauma. The problem is that oftentimes habits have a related cost. They are not free. They take our health, take our spirit, and they take our personal empowerment. I’m not saying breaking habits is easy, it certainly is not. I am merely suggesting that sometimes habits get old, and sometimes life provides an opening where these old habits can be seen. When that happens, it just might be time to tell these old habits good-bye.


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