Developing the Mental Strength to Overcome Bad Habits

Most people are startled at how painful it is to even think about depriving themselves.

What is the best way to change a long-standing bad habit? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.
It should be easy to stop yourself from indulging in a bad habit. In the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, “Just say no!” But anyone who’s ever tried to change a bad habit knows the truth: “just saying no” is like spitting into the wind.
Why do habits have so much power over us? As psychotherapists who have helped thousands of patients overcome bad habits, Phil Stutz and I start with the actual feelings we experience when we try to change ingrained habits.
Try this:
• Choose a bad habit you often give in to. It might be eating sweets, answering a text while driving, buying stuff you don’t need, or anything else that comes to mind. • Create the urge to give in right now. Feel how intensely you want the thing you chose. • Now imagine holding yourself back – forbidding yourself from indulging. • Notice your reaction: how does it feel to be denied the thing you wanted so badly?
You might have felt sad, anxious, frustrated or angry. But whatever you felt, most people are startled at how painful it is to even think about depriving themselves. It’s surprising because logically, you know you’ll get over it. If you stop yourself from getting high, having an extra slice of cake, or overreacting to a driver who cuts you off, it’ll hurt momentarily, but the pain will go away. In a short time, you’ll move on and forget about it.
Why is self-denial so painful? On a conscious level, we know we’ll survive not getting what we want. But deep down, on an unconscious level, we’re convinced of the opposite: we believe it will kill us. As evidence, watch a little kid who’s been told he can’t have something he wants -- a sugary drink, a toy, another ride on your back etc. He’s instantly overwhelmed with intense feelings of grief and anxiety. Deep down, he believes the loss is insurmountable. These feelings still live inside every one of us.
If you need further proof, just look at the damage otherwise rational people inflict on themselves to avoid feeling deprived. Nearly every month we witness the spectacle of another politician, sports figure, business leader, or clergyman destroy their lives because they can’t control their bad habits. Deep down, they can’t tolerate denying themselves what they want.
How do you train yourself to tolerate deprivation – so you can free yourself of your bad habits? You have to start by taking a different view of deprivation. It isn’t what you think it is. Being deprived of something isn’t a permanent end point, a death from which you never recover. It’s the opposite. Deprivation is a portal into more life. Not only can you tolerate it, it’s the pathway into living more fully than you ever thought possible. Once you can live through it, deprivation frees you from being enslaved to your bad habits.
But it’s not enough to believe this; you have to experience it. That requires a shift in focus. We normally focus outside ourselves, on the thing we’re denying ourselves: sex, a piece of jewelry, “one last hand” of poker, etc. Even if we’re able to deny ourselves of what we want, we stay focused on it, wishing we could have it and feeling robbed of it. This keeps us focused on the outside world.
If there’s something we crave outside us to make us feel more complete, then it stands to reason there must be something missing inside us—an incompleteness or emptiness. What would happen if we forgot about the thing we want in the outside world? In fact, what if we forgot about the outside world as a whole, and shifted our focus to this hollowness that exists inside?
What is the hollowness inside each one of us? We don’t know much about what’s inside us, because we’ve spent so much of our lives trying to fill ourselves up in the outside world. Given that you’ve avoided it most of your life, start by having no opinion about it. Surprisingly, when you stare patiently into the inner emptiness, you begin to sense something you never would have expected. What felt like a dark, barren, dead zone lights up with life.
Don’t try to make logical sense of this, just see if you can experience it for yourself:
Put yourself in the same state of deprivation you created in the last exercise: you want something very badly and you are barred from getting it. Make the feelings of deprivation as intense as you can. • Now let go of the thing you want. Forget about it completely. As you do, imagine that the entire outside world disappears as well; it’s no longer a source of gratification for you. • Look inside yourself. What was a feeling of deprivation is now a vast empty space. • Face it. Remain calm and perfectly still. Stay focused on the void and see what happens. Most of our patients, when they do this exercise, start to sense a stirring, a movement in the void, like there’s something down there. Some have to repeat the exercise before the void reveals its true nature. But eventually, the nothingness turns into a something-ness.
This something-ness is your potential – an infinite body of fullness and light that’s been buried under the weight of your bad habits. I know… that sounds unlikely. But mankind used to have a much deeper, intuitive understanding of how pure potential can be hidden inside a vacuum. The mystical Jewish tradition of Kabbalah teaches that before the creation of the universe, God was everywhere. In order to allow space for the universe to come into being, God had to contract, leaving an empty void. That nothingness was where all of Creation flowered into its full potential. In a similar vein, the Hindu/Yogic concept of “Shiva” means “that which is not” – a formless void. Simultaneously, it is the womb into which all things come into being.
What these disparate traditions describe as a cosmic process that, in modern times, occurs inside of every human being: there is an inner void into which the seeds of your potential can flower.
This question originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Quora: * Self Improvement: How can one raise his self-confidence to the max? * Life Advice: What does life mean to you, in only two lines? * Productivity: How do I get rid of procrastinating while doing productive works? Photo Credit: DigitalVision/Getty Images