What are habits? How do they change?
I used to have a pretty set idea of how this happened from my own experience.
In particular, I tend to look back on my experience quitting pot, an addiction that consumed my life, as a template for habit change.
I’d get off of it, and be off of it for quite a while, and then something would happen: I’d be extremely bored, or I’d be in a party where everyone was smoking… and bam, I’d be back. It would seem so illogical, so insane, after I’d finally kick the habit again. I knew how bad it was for me, and yet these seemingly tiny moments would just upend my life.
I remember sitting down with my therapist one day and discussing this very issue with him. Why did I keep breaking down, why did I keep failing at changing, would I always be like this, was there something wrong with me?
At first, he took me through it logically. He pointed out that I had these “moments of weakness,” these situations where I would suddenly be more susceptible to failing, to falling. And he argued that instead of trying to power through them, a philosophy that I had somehow picked up, I should do all I can to avoid them. Literally break off friendships that would lead me to keep going to these parties and social situations where everyone except me would be smoking. Do everything possible to avoid situations in which I was bored out of my mind.
And I started doing some of those things, I remade my friendships, I completely altered the way I lived my life. And it worked, I would get into these moments of weakness much less.
For years, I saw this as the main thing that stopped me from falling back into old habits. After all, it was right around that time that I let go of the habit for a significant amount of time.
But I recently finished the hit book, The Power Of Habit, which has caused me to rethink that time in my life. There was one ingredient, in particular, that I have overlooked.
After all, since then, I had ended up in parties where everyone was smoking, somehow. I had been bored out of my mind, and fell back into some other less destructive habits like video games. But never pot.
Why? What had happened? How did this weakness exist in other habits but somehow completely disappear with pot?
The book describes how habits work and how to change them in a beautifully simple and methodical style. Much of it reminded me of my own experiences, but there was an ingredient that I had never thought of.
In multiple examples, from a championship NFL team to AA, the author describes how, while new habits can improve our lives dramatically, they are also remarkably delicate when up against high-stress situations. NFL teams who had transformed their habits to reach the playoffs would suddenly revert to old bad habits when they were in big games. AA members would quit alcohol in much the same way I quit pot, and fall back in almost the exact same ways.
But then the book explains how an NFL team broke past that barrier. How millions of AA members had done what I had done with pot. What was the key? What kept them from falling to moments of weakness? Why did we all jump from breaking habits to transforming our entire self-conception?
It turns out it was a thing you’d never expect a scientist to claim. It was belief:
“A pattern emerged. Alcoholics who practiced the techniques of habit replacement, the data indicated, could often stay sober until there was a stressful event in their lives— at which point, a certain number started drinking again, no matter how many new routines they had embraced.
However, those alcoholics who believed… that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact… It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
‘I wouldn’t have said this a year ago— that’s how fast our understanding is changing,’ said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, ‘but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better.'”
Reading this passage instantly transported me back to another session with my therapist.
“I just… I just think there’s something wrong with me. That I’m broken in some way. Why else would I keep going back to this, why else would I keep making the same mistakes constantly? I have visions of myself homeless one days, and it seems realistic to me. More realistic than living a normal life.” I said.
This was a year or so after I had been released from a mental hospital and been diagnosed with bipolar. In the past year, I had failed or dropped out of most of my classes, lost some of my closest friends, and my roommate had abandoned our apartment because I had been behaving erratically and finally got into an argument with him one day where I punched a hole in his door. And, of course, I was hopelessly dependent on pot to help me escape all this pain, confusion, and loneliness.
I was a mess. And there was no proof that I could see where anything would get better. And while I tend to paint the time I was sent to a mental hospital as one of the hardest times of my life, this was probably the darkest time in my life, the most hopeless.
He took a breath, and thought carefully. He knew more than anyone in my life how much I had screwed up, how much was wrong with me, how many mistakes I had made, the countless times in just one year I had tried to kick my pot habit and fallen back into it. If anyone had reason to think I might be helpless, it was this man. After all, anyone close to me seemed to agree that I was toxic. Why shouldn’t he?
“I really believe you’re going to be fine,” he said finally. “You’re going through a hard time, but you are going to get better. I really believe that.”
I’m pretty sure he went on to explain the reasons, but I don’t remember them. All I remember was that phrase: “I really believe you’re going to be fine.”
It was like I was a deflated balloon that was suddenly filled with air. I literally could not conceive of the possibility that I might improve in a way that would be lasting until he said those words. He said them matter-of-factly, it was like he was looking into the future, like he just knew. And him knowing gave me the ability to believe.
I had always remembered that moment, but I don’t think I realized its utter importance until now. The voice, the image, of my therapist saying those words did more than just inspire me. They stuck with me. They sustained me.
Meeting with him once a week became not just a practical consideration after that. It became a sort of refuge where I could see a better future no matter what kind of craziness I was dealing with in the present. I remember coming out of sessions with him with not just skills, but a newfound confidence in myself.
And so, in those moments of weakness, those moments where I would normally have buckled to old habits in the past, this confidence stuck with me. This belief that I could be someone different than the vision I had created of myself. I would go back into that refuge, where a man believed in my future, and I would build it.
What is belief? There are so many different, beautiful, meaningful definitions. There are even multiple words for it in some languages. For example, Judaism uses “emunah” to mean believing that everything happens for a reason, that God is behind everything, even if we can’t see it. And “bitachon” means believing that God will build us a future that is so good even we can see it.
In the case of this transformation of my habits, I think that “belief” means being able to see that which is hidden from our experience.
For example, I could not envision a life in which I would get over my habits because I simply hadn’t lived that life yet. I had no evidence that it was possible. My therapist, because I trusted him, and because he had been through many similar trials as I was going through, implanted me with belief because he could see it.
Belief, in this context, is a skill. It is something that can grow within us, empower us, and move us to unimaginable heights.
In retrospect, it was more than just my therapist, though. There was a lot happening in my life that had caused a veritable explosion of belief. A revolution in seeing that which cannot be seen.
There was my near death experience, which had implanted in me an awareness that I had survived for a reason, that there was something watching over me. And there was my discovery of my Jewish soul when I started becoming religious.
One was an experience, something I could reach into my mind and use as an example of the endless possibilities of life. The other was literal practice in believing.
To believe in God is the ultimate in seeing the invisible. It is, perhaps, the ultimate definition of belief.
For most of the time after my transformation, I had not wanted to admit that becoming religious had affected me in terms of my recovery. It seemed to easy of an explanation, and all the other examples I had heard of people saying such things seemed empty and trite, manipulation to buy into a specific religion.
But this concept of habits has transformed that feeling in me.
We all need to know that there is something beyond us, a world of endless possibilities. A possibility to break beyond patterns and rules and laws. A perfect, infinite, point of potentiality. One that is located all around us, and deep within us, in the truest part of ourselves.
This is what it means to believe, to have faith. It is why AA emphasizes belief in a higher being. Belief isn’t about God, it is about us. We are the ones that need it. Because our bodies, without it, see only that which we have seen. We fall into an endless loop of living in our memories instead of our futures. We become fixed, wooden, creatures.
Is it any wonder that idolatry is such a sin? The last thing that our spirituality should be is dependent on a thing, a physical reality.
And so habits are just an example of what is truly important in our lives. The belief that we can change habits is based on an assumption that should be the basis of our entire lives.
That we aren’t fixed, static, beings. That we aren’t creatures of habit, even if we depend on habits. That we aren’t limited, even if we live in a world that appears limited.
These aren’t just theological ideas, or ones that go beyond day-to-day life. They are the very foundation by which we can change, grow, and be the people we hope to be.
Because we understand, deep down, that’s who we actually are.