Creatures Of Habit

Imagine that you’re an infant. In the main, you get what you want by crying. If you’re hungry, you cry, and then someone arrives to hold you, comfort you and give you food. If you’re tired, you cry, and then someone comes along and holds you close, rocks you back and forth, and helps you to sleep.  A dirty diaper yields more of the same: you cry, someone solves your problem. You’re not quite fully comfortable in your crib: you cry, someone walks in and fixes your problem.

Pretty much every problem you have can be solved primarily by crying. You reach this conclusion because the first thing you do in any bad situation is cry. All else follows that.

It takes you several months to learn that the people who walk in and solve your problems for you are dealing directly with those problems. It’s not your crying that’s responsible for your relief, it’s the actions of a third party, tackling those problems head-on.

Once you learn this, you continue to cry when bad things happen because, although you may understand that your real problem is, say, hunger, you’re not capable of solving that problem yourself. The crying becomes a signal to others that you want them to come and help. When you need them, they’re there for you.

However, in some situations, you eventually learn that you don’t need them. You don’t need them because your problem doesn’t involve physical needs. Sometimes you’re just cranky. Babies get cranky just like everyone else.

Okay, stop imagining. Now go back to being an adult. As an adult, you get cranky and, no matter how much you cry, no one comes around to magically fix your mood. So you figure out other ways to address your crankiness: You exercise, or you listen to music, or you read a book, or you go find a happy place, or whatever it is.

You self-soothe.

We’re babies again. We know we’re cranky and that nothing will fix it. We learn that what we need is self-soothing. Some of us learn that we just need to suck on something - it’s not that we’re hungry, we just need to mimic the scenario that is naturally most relaxing to us, which is suckling. We don’t have a breast or a bottle or a binky, so we use our thumb instead.

It works. We self-soothe. Our caretakers get a good night’s rest. Everybody’s happy. This becomes a habit, and for a long period of time, it seems to be a good habit. We get what we need, and our caretakers seem less cranky when we really do need something.

Eventually, though, this good habit becomes a bad one. We suck our thumbs too long. We’re no longer babies, now we’re toddlers, and some of us are still sucking our thumbs. We look ridiculous, we’re spreading disease, we’re making our teeth crooked, and our caretakers are no longer so thrilled about this thumb-sucking situation. What was once good is now bad. Everything goes haywire.

Okay, back to adulthood. Some of us learn to self-soothe with alcohol. Others learn to self-soothe by controlling how we eat. Others learn to self-soothe by cutting. Others act out. It’s clear that we’re aiming for a productive goal, but it’s also clear that our methods undermine our needs, just like thumb-sucking.

Like thumb-sucking, we developed some bad habits by engaging in behavior that was initially good. Perhaps the cutter started out by screaming into a pillow or punching a cushion, then gravitated toward more painful processes to achieve self-soothing more immediately. Perhaps the anorexic gained a sense of control initially by focusing on a very productive act of self-healing: eating; but this  got all tied-up with body image and took a turn for the worse. Perhaps the alcoholic got into drinking by talking about his problems with his friends over a beer, and gradually built that ritual into his reflective process.

Whatever the details, the story is roughly the same: What starts out as a genuinely good idea becomes a habit, and then the habit takes over and a genuinely good example of self-soothing becomes an act of self-destruction.

There is no threshold. It’s not as if punching a pillow twelve times is perfectly safe, but that thirteenth time results in a rug-burn on your knuckles and now you’ve achieved self-harm. It’s not as if sticking to twelve punches is all you need to keep things under control. Twelve becomes thirteen because you needed an extra punch one day. And then one day you needed another. And then another. And then another. And then one day you punched the table instead of the pillow and your knuckles bled, and that was when you felt better. So the next time you needed to feel better, you just went to the table the first time, to cut straight to the chase.

Babies don’t set out to suck their thumbs. It’s behavior that proves useful in a particular situation. It doesn’t start out as a habit, it merely becomes one because it proves so useful.

Similarly, as adults, our self-soothing choices may have started out perfectly reasonable. But if you find yourself locked into a bad habit, you have to recognize: it’s not the “thing” that you’re looking for. It’s not the alcohol, or the cutting, or the starving. It’s not the rage. These habits just grew out of what you were really looking for: relief.

Of course, it’s easier said than done to replace your bad habits with more constructive actions that address your relief more directly. If it were easy, no one would ever have any kind bad habit at all. Still, what other choice do you have?