How do we change habits that seem unbreakable?
Realize that good things can become dangerous to us.
No matter what your opinion of McDonald’s is, it became a subtly addictive thing in my life. My friends and coworkers started to get wind of how often I was eating fast food and they started to encourage me to stop. I knew it wasn’t healthy physically or emotionally and so I tried to give it up. It was hard. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to stop. A good thing had slowly turned not-so-good. Many times my conscience would say “Jess, stop. This is overboard” and then I would be alone for a few nights in a row again and it would be too much.
Two steps to changing a habit
1. Find the triggers
The first key was figuring out my trigger. Like I mentioned in the first part, I had noticed a trigger that was prompting me to crave McDonald’s. It was my loneliness after a hard-days work, or the anticipation of going home to be alone for the rest of my evening that drove me across the street. It was comfort food. Once I found my trigger I was able to make a plan to avoid putting myself in this situation.
When I moved out of that apartment across the street from the McDo (as we call it in Quebec), the problem change with my social life. My new roommate was around more and we ate meals together. The problem seemed to just go away. A few months after moving in with my new roommate, I started dating a guy. Nine months after our first date, we were married. Was I ‘fixed’? No, that became pretty clear to me last fall when my husband started taking a few night courses and I found myself alone again four nights a week. For the first time in a few years I felt that loneliness again.
2. Replace the behaviour
Psychologists seem to agree that to properly get over a bad habit, you need to replace the negative response to a trigger with a positive response (The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great resource). Some might suggest that I respond to my loneliness by munching on celery instead of a McChicken. But that wouldn’t really satisfy, would it? Not in the same way as that salty, fatty McChicken. That’s the pressing question: what really satisfies? The McDonald’s was a coping mechanism. You could even go as far to say that marriage is a coping mechanism for loneliness. As you can see from my example, even marriage couldn’t fully satisfy my loneliness!
So what, then, do I replace my food response with? What will really satisfy me? I am happy I can say I’ve found the answer.
One night I was lying in my bed. I was a teenager. I felt lonely. I had been raised to believe that God existed and he was a personal God. That night in my loneliness, doubt and anger, I said to God, “If you are really there, prove it.” As crazy as it sounds, I waited, arms folded across my chest, for an answer.
I waited. And waited.
And then louder than my own thoughts I heard the words in my head and felt the comfort in my heart: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” These are words from the Bible that are placed at a very interesting spot. In Hebrews 13:5, the author instructs people to “keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have.” Why? “Because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
The logical conclusion in the author’s mind, is that God’s presence is more satisfying than money, things or really tasty food. Based on my own experience, I can say this is true. Instead of escaping from the stress of life through food or shopping or TV, when I turn to the Bible and read words like “never will I leave you” I can’t avoid being comforted, satisfied and reminded that my sense of loneliness is false because God is with me. It’s a bit crazy isn’t it? The fact that a perfect, always existing, all-knowing, all-powerful being not only cares enough for me to have a personal relationship with me, but will never leave me? Wow.
Not only is my relationship with God a source of comfort, unlike any other option we can use to satisfy these deep cravings, it is not a trap. Like anyone else I have difficulties in life but as I read about the fact that Jesus calls me his friend and he extends grace to me despite my flaws and failures, I can’t help but be changed. Now, when my husband is away at his night classes and I feel lonely and my friends are busy, I don’t turn to food (even though the instinct is still there) but rather to the Bible or prayer.
I’ve found this has helped me enjoy my relationships with my friends and my husband more because I’m not looking to them to fill all of my needs. Otherwise, I might have grown resentful of the fact that my husband’s higher education was leaving me all on my own; I didn’t get married to sit at home alone. Instead, I’m able to be happy for my husband that he’s following his dreams.
I like this version of me much better.
Have you considered before how the only way to overcome one desire is through a greater desire displacing the previous one? Where do you think power is found in liberating us from the pattern of destructive habits?