Willpower is overrated.
When people talk about changing their behavior, they often place a lot of hope on simply not doing the thing they want to stop doing. It’s not very effective and there are other ways to change your behavior that are much more pleasant.
Recognize that it’s a coping method
Whatever you’re doing is a way to cope with a triggering situation. A lot of behaviors we view as bad habits — like binge drinking, abusing drugs, smoking, gambling, self harming, compulsive shopping, risky sexual behavior, and overeating — are effective coping methods. The issue is just that they cause their own problems.
By trying to use willpower to stop doing these things, you’re trying to force yourself to stop coping.
That’s not healthy, that’s cruel.
Respect yourself, your emotions, and your own wisdom. Rather than denying your needs and punishing yourself, lets think of new ways to meet your needs.
Figure out what need it meets
Stop and think about why you do it, without judgement.
- What sort of situation triggers this problematic behavior?
- How do you feel while you’re doing it?
- How do you feel afterwards?
Maybe it feels like a reward for getting through a difficult situation. Maybe it’s a way to punish yourself for not meeting expectations. Maybe it helps get you out of your head and into your body. Maybe it makes you feel wanted and appreciated. Maybe it helps you blow off steam and get rid of negative feelings that are building up. Maybe it helps you express just how much you feel. Maybe it helps you feel in control. Maybe it helps you tune out of a situation that’s overwhelming. Maybe it does all or none of these things.
Take a moment to acknowledge how good you are at intuitively knowing what you need and figuring out a way to meet that need. You have been taking care of yourself by doing these things and now you are going to work to level up and do an even better job of taking care of yourself.
Find another way to meet that need
Problematic ways of coping are so popular because they’re so effective. There’s probably not going to be one new behavior to replace your current way of coping.
Think about the need your current method of coping is meeting.
- What else might meet that same need?
- Has there been a time when you wanted to do that thing and did something else instead?
- What helps you calm down when you’re overwhelmed?
- What occupies your mind so completely that you lose track of time?
Brainstorm ahead of time so you have ideas to try when you need them. When we’re in the middle of a triggering situation we aren’t able to access our problem solving skills, so help out your future self by getting ideas ready for later.
Consider having a friend or counselor help you with this. Choose someone you trust to support you as you come up with your own ideas, rather than trying to tell you what to do. What works for them or other people they know may not work for you, but sometimes it’s easier to come up with your own ideas when you know how other people cope and have someone to talk you through it. No matter how well they know you and how much they want to help, you are the expert here.
You can text the Crisis Text Line and they will help you calm down and then guide you through coming up with your own solutions. The Crisis Text Line is a free, confidential service that connects you with a trained peer crisis counselor.
Don’t worry about failing
Patterns of behavior aren’t something we can change in an instant and that’s okay! You’ve been coping this whole time and you’ll continue coping.
Finding a method of coping that works requires trial and error. What works for you will change depending on the circumstances. That’s why it helps to have a list of things ready to try when you need them.
Be prepared for new ways of coping to not meet your needs sometimes and to fall back on your tried-and-true but problematic ways of coping.
- Are there ways to mitigate the harm caused by your current problematic coping method?
- Are there ways to address the situation that triggers this need to make it less likely to happen?
- How can you help your future self feel ready to try again when a new coping method doesn’t help?
Recognize that trying to change your behavior patterns and figuring out your needs is brave. This is a big change. This is part of an ongoing process, so there’s no failure, just getting through the day. Each time you’re triggered is a new opportunity to use a different coping method and learn new ways to get the support you deserve.
Resilience isn’t about denying your feelings or your needs. Resilience is about listening to yourself, recognizing that your needs are valid, and finding ways to have your needs met.