Let's Stop Labeling Habits - Erin's Inside Job Self-Help

Let’s Stop Labeling Habits

See why labeling habits as "good" or "bad" can bring about shame, disappointment, and other negative emotions. See what steps we should take instead to evaluate habits in our lives.

When I learned that I had the ability to stop labeling habits as good or bad, it was revolutionary to me. It unloaded shame, disappointment, and anxiety that I was putting on myself. But I still hear it from others all the time.

Something rubs me the wrong way every time I hear that phrase. Even though each person references his or her own habit, the phrase leaves me feeling shameful, disappointed, and less than. I can’t even imagine how it makes 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 should stop labeling 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. 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.

See why labeling habits as "good" or "bad" can bring about shame, disappointment, and other negative emotions. See what steps we should take instead to evaluate habits in our lives.

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. Just stop labeling habit as good or bad.

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.

What other advice do you have on how to stop labeling habits?

50 comments on “Let’s Stop Labeling Habits

  1. Hand to the sky AMEN. I feel the same way. That is why I always rediret my clients when they talk about bad behavior and negatives. Is [insert”behavior here]the most productive way to go about it? Depends on their goals; what can we do to alter those goals, or alter the behavior, to get them on their way?. This is also why I don’t tolerate detoxes and cleanses.

  2. I bite my nails and have heard over and over again how it is a bad habit. For one it is bad for your teeth but so far my teeth are fine. Sometimes I try to stop and then without realizing I bit all my nails off because it is a habit I dont think about. A manicure might look nicer if I stopped but I also dont need to spend that money. I like your perspective as looking at it as a behavior. Maybe one day I will stop but so far I havent committed to changing the habit.
    Alicia recently posted…Low Carb High Fat Week 4: WIAW#20My Profile

    1. Yeah that’s one of the ones where I was especially like if you’re fine with it then it’s not really an issue. You’ll just have shorter nails!

  3. YES! I want to highlight and underline this and then put a neon sticky note next to it: “Simply being aware of your own behaviors without a value attachment will help you be more accepting of yourself.” Mindfulness without judgment is so important for emotional health and personal growth. Have you been reading Tara Brach, or are you just equally insightful? 😉

    1. No I haven’t heard of her! I’ll have to add her to my list. I always love new recommendations!

  4. I’ve never really thought of this, but YES! oh man. YES. Especially loved where you said that if the “good” habit is decreased (like in exercise) does it become a bad habit or less of a good habit? I think we fele such a strong need to define things to better understand them, but sometimes things just are what they are- no need to categories.
    Morgan @ Morgan Manages Mommyhood recently posted…Why I’m Finally Seeing Blog GrowthMy Profile

  5. I totally agree with you! Just yesterday I wrote a post about how our minds could be our greatest friend and worst enemy. It’s up to us which one we chose. I think labeling can definitely put us in a negative mindset that may ultimately impede the process of changing the behavior. And yes, I’m a big procrastinator too lol!
    Olena @ candies & crunches recently posted…How Running Makes Us Happy, But Happiness Makes Us Better RunnersMy Profile

    1. Awesome! I’ll have to check out that post! Once I accepted my procrastination things were totally fine!

  6. YES!!!
    I was actually ready to disagree a little (surely habits can be bad?!)…but that was before I read your *entire* post. I guess skimming and forming opinions before I have the whole story is a bad habit of mine? 😉
    I have written similar posts on “bad” vs “good” foods and guilt. I definitely relate to the point you made about desserts/cravings. It’s NOT a bad habit to honor my cravings!!! No need to feel shameful. Also, the exercise thing. I struggle with guilt for not working out frequently even though I love it. In a perfect world, I’d workout at 5x a week…but in reality, it’s 2x with a few leisurely walks mixed in because I enjoy seeing my husband and son (& Netflix) too!
    Basically anything that creates comparison (in the negative, self-deprecating way) is garbage.
    Catherine @ foodiecology recently posted…Mother’s Day Reflections + Thinking Out LoudMy Profile

    1. Absolutely. I used to thrive in comparison until I realized how destructive it was and it didn’t allow me to accept the person I was.

  7. I think the more emphasis we put on ‘habits’ the more we miss the wrong mindset, that we might have behind a habit. It’s easy to treat the fruit of a matter without looking at the root, so I 100% agree that we need to go beyond the habits, and I think the best way to do that is say, ‘What is your mindset here?’ For me, I have to ask myself, ‘What does God say about this?’ Are you thinking wrongly? Or are you thinking about what is true in relation to this? THANK YOU for writing this! I was totally thinking about labels this week.
    Emily recently posted…Recovery Series: A Purpose for LifeMy Profile

    1. That’s a good point – that we also need to take a look at the root of the habits. An idea for a whole other post haha. Before we jump into that, we need to stop shaming the ones we have! 🙂

  8. YESSSSSS! “…but if they’re not causing you any consequences that you perceive as negative, they’re really just behaviours.” <– SO MUCH THIS. I do a lot of things that many people would consider "bad," but I've never seen them have a negative impact on my life, so why would I bother changing them? The fit some nonsense mold of what it means to do everything right? Pft. Been there, tried that, and life was HORRIBLE. Horrible. All the "good" habits led me to a "bad" place, so eff that. And yes… I'm the queen of procrastination.
    Amanda @ .running with spoons. recently posted…biking madness, face swap fails, and food talk (ToL#181)My Profile

    1. Totally! Sometimes I’m just plain hungry late at night and I’m going to eat something!

  9. Wow. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this post – habits are habits so …? – but was very positively surprised. My initial thoughts might have been because I [thought I] hadn’t pondered habits before. But oh how wrong I was. Labeling certain ones as good and others as bad seems to be ingrained in our minds. Thank you for the nudge and inspiration to change that.
    Miss Polkadot recently posted…Week in review: [Last of] April showers.My Profile

    1. Of course! It’s so much easier if we just accept them as actions and if they’re not working for us then change them!

  10. Does drinking with Merlin count as drinking by myself? 😉

    Love this post, and I totally agree, ESPECIALLY with your comment about shame. For serious, Brene Brown change my life.

    Procrastinating is my JAM. You know what, all my work gets handed in on time and I do a good job. Per my other guru, Gretchen Rubin, that’s just how people ARE. Some do work up front, some don’t. The end.

    1. I need to look into some Gretchen. I’ve heard many good things. Also, as long as you’re not passing out every night I say you and Merlin go for it 😉

    1. I know what you mean. I just accepted what I heard from lots of people without actually thinking about how my behaviors affected my life. It turns out that many of them weren’t as bad as I was taught they were!

      1. This is what I was thinking! My being late all the time actually does hurt my relationships with friends whom I’m making wait for me. But while I tend to think lateness is ingrained in my personality like a habit, that means I can excuse myself from working on it. Nice post!

  11. THIS. IS. EVERYTHING. Oh my lanta people need to hear this more. I have had an eating disorder for eight years and I am trying SO hard to break this mentality around “good” vs “bad”. Cause you know what? Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what it is! You do you girl. Ps. Have you ever considered starting a podcast? Cauuuuuse I think that’d be bomb 😉 you have a lot of wisdom to share

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful! Once I started putting so much weight on what other people thought it became much easier. Ha no I hadn’t thought about that but that’s a great compliment!

  12. I love this post! I try to keep this in mind, especially #2. Placing arbitrary value on certain actions creates guilt and shame, which are often such a waste of energy. Plus, it can distract from real self-awareness. Sometimes there’s a reason for procrastination and it’s worth taking a moment to do a gut-check. (Or sometimes it’s just an annoying, boring task haha) 🙂
    Danielle recently posted…Sunday Link Love: Making Mistakes, Healthy Smoothies + Growing BusinessMy Profile

  13. Very interesting thought exercise, and something I’d never thought of before! I think from now on I will try and reframe it in my mind (or aloud, but I don’t normally talk about my habits, lol) as “I have X habit that is not serving me, how can I change my behavior in a way that will?” Thanks again for pointing this out!

    Oh, and I’m the same way about waiting till the last minute to do things. It took me a long time to figure out it was ok, and that was just how I worked, especially since my mom and sisters are the other way. It was actually the Myers-Briggs that helped me come to terms with that part of me.
    Abbie recently posted…Thinking Out Loud Thursday # 17- “If We Were Having Coffee…”My Profile

    1. Love Myers Briggs! I always forget what I am though and have to go back and do it again haha. I know the main ones but forget all 4!

  14. I definitely needed to read this. I struggle with very black/white thinking (that addict gene runs in the family – ugh) and it’s very difficult for me to not see things as only good or only bad. It’s extremely hard for me to find that grey, in all areas of my life – food, exercise, social time. And yes, I am a procrastinator and I don’t like it!

    1. It’s always work for me to try and find the balance and the middle but it’s so important!

    1. I totally agree! It’s always a little frustrating to me that I can’t always pinpoint where the chance happened. It’s something that just takes time and effort I think.

  15. Excellent post, Erin👍 Appreciate your willingness to put this topic out there. When my clients use words such as bad, good, success, failure, or anything that hints at blame speech, I’m always quick to point out how destructive that language can be & how it doesn’t tend to leave us “better” or empowered. Instead, it can leave us beat-up, disempowered, & shame-filled, & that’s definitely not a recipe for healthy coping & growth.

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