Why is it so difficult to change habits?
Gretchen Rubin explains that changing a habit changes our identity. We are loath to become someone else, even if it means having better habits. It’s one thing to change what you are doing; quite another to change who you are.
If virtue, as Aristotle suggested, involves practicing good habits, the more you practice such habits, the more others will accustom themselves to the new virtuous You.
It is not, Rubin suggests, an automatic transformation. Becoming someone else does not happen overnight.
Rubin explains her thought:
Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.
Often, habits can’t change until identity changes. For instance, a person identifies as the fun one, the one who says “yes” to everything — but also wants to cut back on drinking. A person identifies as a workaholic, but then wants to work reasonable hours. The identity is incompatible with the change in habits.
James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.
Continuing, Rubin suggests that one must change one’s identity before one can change a habit. Agee, however, in the passage she quotes, says that changing the habit came before he learned to be someone else.
She also suggests that we can only change our identity by rewriting our story. Some researchers have recommended the exercise in order to transform ourselves, as Augustine did, from sinner into saint, but most people, I believe, use the exercise to buck up their courage and to continue developing new habits before the benefits become manifest.
Rubin raises several important questions.
I would address them by noting, after Aristotle, that you can only overcome bad habits by replacing them with good habits. Considering that you identify yourself with your habits, you can only develop a new habit by working at it, by struggling against a tendency to retain the familiar bad habits.
Yet, if you try to change your identity before you change your habits, you will fail. Many psychotherapists have proposed that changing a habit requires some kind of prior mental change. The results have invariably been that you change your mind but keep your habits.
It should go without saying, but no one has changed a bad habit by discovering its meaning.
The reason is clear. You are not merely who you think you are. You are not merely who you feel you are. Your identity is based on what you do and on how other people see you.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, you are the only one who can never see your face directly.
If you change a bad habit, other people will for a time still identify you as the person who presented himself with the bad habit. You might decide to clean up your life, but other people will treat you as the person who, for example, drinks and smokes to excess… the life of the party.
If you are the life of the party you will probably receive more than your share of invitations to fun parties. But you will not be hired to do a job and your friends will not want to fix you up with their sisters.
When you abandon a bad habit, those who have known you by your bad habit will resist, even distrust the new You. Only consistently good behavior will persuade people to treat you as someone they can trust and rely on.
The more time this takes, the more you might feel discouraged when people do not catch on. The more you feel discouraged the less you will feel that it is all worth the effort.
It has less to do with self-perception than with the way other people see you and the way they treat you.
In time, your good behavior will become so automatic, so second nature that you will feel that it really is You. Eventually, other people will recalibrate their expectations about you, act differently toward you, introduce you to their sisters and solicit your views on weighty matters.
Put it all together and you will become a new You. If this involves a radical change of identity I think it fair to say that you will have become someone else.
I suspect that you eventually reach what Malcolm Gladwell called a tipping point, where the new habit feels natural and where other people accept it as You.
If I had to venture a guess, I would imagine that the influence of other people is more important than your self-awareness.
One should also to recognize that, among your friends, family and colleagues, some people will more quickly accept the new You while others will remain skeptical.
Evidently, you should put greater stock in the actions of those who trust you than in the derision of those who do not. Thereby, you will build confidence and identify with your new virtuous You.
I close with a few lines from Aristotle. Therein the philosopher argued that you are what you do. You cannot be a builder unless you build something. And you cannot be courageous unless you act courageously.
One might see in this text the foundation of cognitive therapy:
This, then, is the case with the virtues also; by doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly. The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.