Let’s Stop Labeling Habits
I had the idea for this post last week and in the span of that same day I heard references to “bad habits” three times. IT WAS A SIGN.
Something kept rubbing me the wrong way every time I heard that phrase. Even though each person was referencing his or her own habit, the phrase left me feeling shameful, disappointed, and less than. I can’t even imagine how it made them feel.
One of the characteristics of an addict is very black and white thinking. I have to work really hard to find balance because my comfort zones lie on two completely opposite sides of a spectrum. It’s very easy for me to slip into an all-or-none mentality like I did with exercise and food in early recovery.
Sidenote: I’m not saying that if you also struggle with black and white thinking, you’re an addict. If you’re drinking by yourself every night, however, shoot me an email. 🙂
Anyway, another favorite of mine was labeling everything as “bad” or “good.” That’s really the only way I understood things and was able to make my overwhelmed brain happy. The only problem with that way of thinking is that some things just are and don’t actually require this type of categorization.
The following is why I feel we shouldn’t label habits and what we should do instead. It’s based on my experience and my opinion (although I did get my psychology degree in three years so I think that makes me a world-renowned therapist??). Anyhoo, here’s my two cents:
1. It creates shame
As I’m sure you’re aware, I enjoy desserts. They are magical and wonderful and I will not remove them from my life. I hate when people say they have a bad habit of eating something sweet before bed. Statements like these are how I started to spin down into all sorts of disordered eating.
I would hear things like that over and over again and assume that having a square of chocolate AT ANY TIME was bad. Eating after 7 pm was BAD. Having a craving for ice cream and eating it was HORRIBLE.
The word “bad” brings a lot of shame. With shame comes feelings of worthlessness and disappointment. What helps distract people from feelings of worthlessness and disappointment? CHOCOLATE. ICE CREAM. (insert yours here). I would feel bad that I enjoyed a dessert, which would make me more likely to “enjoy” said dessert again. I use the term “enjoy” quite loosely here, as I would ultimately feel awful for eating it when I was done.
2. It places arbitrary values on behavior
- “I have a bad habit of biting my nails.”
- “I have such a great habit of exercising 5 days a week.”
- “I always procrastinate. It’s such a bad habit.”
Labeling habits as “good” or “bad” implies that one is better than the other, when in fact neither is true. Many habits are assigned a “bad” value such as late night snacking, swearing too much, being late, etc., but if they’re not causing you any consequences that you perceive as negative, they’re really just behaviors.
It’s easy to see why “bad” labels can be detrimental, but “good” can cause just as much damage. Take the above example. This person probably feels happy and proud for being able to regularly exercise 5 days a week (nice job person I just made up!). What happens when something comes up and they’re only able to exercise 3 days a week? Because the “good” standard was set at 5, losing those two days may make that person feel disappointed or like they’ve failed (which is nonsense).
3. It creates comparison
What one person may consider a bad habit, another may not even pay attention to day to day. By creating an umbrella label of “bad” over one specific behavior, it can cause other people to experience negative feelings that they never would have had.
I learned through repetition that “procrastination is a bad habit.” During my time in school, it caused me to look around at my peers and view those people who didn’t procrastinate as better than me. “If only I could get things done early, then I could feel better about myself.” I became stressed out because as often as I tried to force myself to do things early, it wasn’t in my nature and I would feel like a failure if I ended up waiting.
It wasn’t until MANY years later than I realized there’s nothing wrong with procrastination. I always got my work done, I just did it closer to the deadline than other people did. I realized that I operate better under a little more pressure and that’s completely fine. There was nothing good or bad about it. I had been taught to try and change something that was never causing me any problems in the first place.
As an example of my procrastination, I am supposed to be developing slides for my presentation at the Mental Health Marketing Conference where I am presenting next month. They’re due tomorrow. What did I do instead? Spent 15 minutes making the WONDERFULLY helpful and IMPACTFUL diagram you see above. You’re welcome.
Think of habits simply as behaviors. Now ask yourself one question:
Is the habit causing problems or making your life unmanageable?
If the answer is yes, you may need to look into changing that habit. If the answer is no, YOU DO YOU.
Ultimately, habits are personal. Take a look at how they are affecting your life. If you are constantly late and friends stop wanting to hang out with you or you suffer job-related consequences, that may be a motivation for you to change that habit. If you are gaining more weight than you’d like by snacking mindlessly throughout the day, it could be time to take a closer look at your patterns and change some things around.
Simply being aware of your own behaviors without a value attachment will help you be more accepting of yourself. Take the time to think about your life today and ask yourself if you are happy and content or if there are habitual behaviors that you may want to change. If so, that doesn’t make you or them bad, it just makes them ineffectual and unnecessary to how you want to live your life.
Thanks to Amanda for letting me think out loud!
- Do you have any habits you wish to change? Why?
- Are you a procrastinator?
- Want to do my slides for me?