Saturday, February 20, 2010

Coaching Lessons: How to Overcome Bad Habits

For those of us who have absorbed the lessons of the therapy culture the notion of overcoming bad habits feels... dare I say... simple-minded.

It feels how-to. And that is clearly well below your IQ and your intellectual competence.

Nevertheless, if you are willing to suspend disbelief for a few minutes, let's give some thought to Dan and Chip Heath's new book: "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard." For a review, follow this link.

Surely, change is hard. Habits become like old friends. Discarding them causes severe psychic fallout... to the point where you are sure to start questioning your wish to change them.

Unfortunately, the therapy culture makes it even harder to change bad habits. It teaches us that they are meaningful experiences, that they express past traumas or unspeakable thoughts, and that we can only overcome them when we discover the hidden message and translate it into words.

By that time the bad habit will no longer be a bad habit. It will be a bad impulse. Worse yet, it will have been shown to reveal a fundamental truth. Once you accept that it contains a truth, you no longer have a real incentive to change it. How can you deny a sordid truth without being accused of being simple-minded and weak-willed?

Surely, this contains a high level of theoretical elegance. It makes for a good narrative. In practice, it never works.

Even those who defend this theory most vigorously will tell you that the best you can do is to engage in an endless struggle with the bad impulse. You will keep trying to suppress it and it will keep popping up.

As I said, this is theoretically sophisticated. And if you like to attach yourself to serious theory, regardless of whether it works in practice, be my guest.

The alternative is not, in fact, an exercise in simple-mindedness. I hope I am not being too defensive if I argue for the habit-changing approach by bringing out the big guns. Actually, the biggest theoretical gun of them all... Aristotle.

According to Aristotle repeated bad behavior is a habit, not a meaningful experience, and not the expression of some basic truth about our or human nature. A bad habit does not express anything that we should want to know.

But if that is true, then we do not need to learn to live with it or to learn to control it. Life is not and should not be an interminable struggle against bad habits of impulses.

According to Aristotle, we overcome bad habits when we replace them with good ones. In fact, that is the only way to conquer a bad habit.

But then, how do you do it? According to "Switch" you make a plan; you develop a program; you establish rules, and define certain attainable tasks. And then you go out and follow the rules and complete the tasks... one by one.

Of course, it's easier said than done. And it is far more difficult to do than to undergo years of psychotherapy in the hope that one day you will have an epiphany that will make it all make sense and still allow you to keep your old friend, your bad habit.

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