YOU CAN Break that Bad Habit!
Plain Truth Magazine
February 1983
Volume: Vol 48, No.2
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YOU CAN Break that Bad Habit!
Norman L Shoaf  

Are you plagued by a troublesome habit? Do you want to overcome it? Here's important information you can use!

   YOU MAY have heard the old saying: "Nothing IS permanent but change." Well, to a certain degree that's true. Change is constantly taking place all around us.
   Yet, when it comes to changing habits — especially bad ones — it seems that no struggle can be more fierce.

Creatures of Habit

   Stop and think: Much of what we do in our everyday lives is, to a tremendous extent, a matter of habit.
   We eat at certain times. And the types and amounts of food we eat are fairly consistent. We sleep, whether too much, just enough or too little, at the same times — and most of us lie in certain positions when we sleep. We travel to work or school or the store usually by way of the same routes. When a relative, friend or fellow employee greets us, we most likely respond in the same certain way.
   We humans are, in short, creatures of habit.
   And that's not bad. Without habits, we could hardly function normally, let alone accomplish much.
   But unfortunately, we also allow ourselves to develop bad habits unthinking patterns of doing things the wrong way. Bad habits can range from stuttering, squinting and nervous twitches to dangerous driving techniques, smoking and drug abuse. They can ostracize us socially, overburden us with guilt and, in the more serious cases, harm us physically and even cost us our lives.
   These serious, harmful habits — smoking, drug abuse and shoplifting among them — are what the Bible calls sin — the violation of God's great law of love (I John 3:4). And the result of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

How Habits Form

   A habit is a learned pattern of acting — a way of behaving that has become routine.
   Mathematicians comparing humans to the computer have calculated that in an average lifetime of 70 years, the human being can take in and remember about 100 billion bits. A bit is a measure of information — the simplest form of data capable of being stored in a computer.
   That enormous number represents far more information than even the most advanced computer can handle.
   A computer, when it receives as much information as it can deal with, simply quits receiving information. It cannot take in and process any more.
   The human brain reacts similarly. When it has received as much information as it can cope with at once, it "turns off" — stops paying attention.
   But this marvelous mechanism has the ability to receive and store, in long-term memory, information about how to perform routine tasks, and to recall and use that information without having to think consciously about it. We call these routine actions habits.
   Consider: We normally don't have to think about tying our shoes, how to ride a bicycle, walking or remembering our address.
   Thus the human mind, freed from having to consider mundane details, can concentrate on more demanding tasks. It can devote its attention to unfamiliar, and thus more challenging, stimuli. Habits enable us to distinguish what is new and potentially dangerous from what is tried and true or expected.
   Apparently, from what researchers can determine, we record each experience we have — each response we make to various stimuli in the same way, the more "worn" the neural circuits and pathways in the brain and nervous system become. At last the memory is able to trigger an automatic response, thought or feeling to a specific stimulus. Repetition is essential.
   It follows, then, that doing something the right way enough times — properly executing a tennis stroke, picking up after ourselves or refusing that extra drink — builds good habits. Conversely, if we choose the wrong option enough times — procrastinate about doing needed jobs, eat too much, become impatient quickly when our children don't understand instructions — we will form bad habits.
   Interestingly enough, the earlier the conditioning the stronger the influence. In other words, it is easier to make a good habit in the first place than to break a bad one later on.

Reinforcing Habits

   The implications of this conditioning process, as far as habits are concerned, are tremendous. Consider, for instance, their application to child rearing.
   How we learn, how we remember, how we perceive masculinity and femininity as we grow up—all these are matters of habit, and they are ingrained in us from earliest childhood. Even a syndrome of failure can be built into a child's psyche by unwitting, though perhaps well-meaning, parents. And after we grow up, unlearning bad habits instilled from childhood can be very difficult.
   Parents need to reinforce good habits in their children: curiosity, patience, willingness to accept responsibility, eagerness to study. If a good family response is associated with the right action, the willingness to perform the right action is strengthened, and the right action soon becomes habitual.
From what researchers can determine, we record each experience we have — each response we make to various stimuli.... At last the memory is able to trigger an automatic response, thought or feeling to a specific stimulus. Repetition is essential.
   Still, no small child can — or should — be completely conditioned like some preschool Pavlov's dog. Each child's own independent thinking processes and experiences come into play. But loving parents can steer a child away from developing habits that will harm him or her later on.
   If an inexperienced parent, for example, gives a child something to eat (or puts a bottle in the baby's mouth, etc.) every time the child cries, the child learns that food is the cure for problems. Later in life when the child experiences sadness, depression or pain, he will be prone to developing a harmful habit of overeating.
   If on the other hand, a small child is taught by wise parents to put toys, clothes and dishes away in the proper place as soon as he or she is through using them, and is praised for doing so, the child will develop a habit of neatness and a desire to take good care of others' possessions.
   You can apply this idea of reinforcing good habits (and discouraging bad ones!) to many other child-rearing situations.

How to Produce Change

   Here are several steps, to be followed in order, that can help break bad or harmful habits:
   • We must admit we have a bad habit. This can be extremely difficult. But it is prerequisite to that elusive goal of personal change.
   Habituation is the natural enemy of change; our habits actually program us to resist change. Once a habit is ingrained, it becomes invisible to the conscious mind, and the brain, free of paying attention to the action, will notice only if we do something different than we are accustomed to doing.
   • We must see why we do whatever wrong action we are doing. Honestly evaluating ourselves is important. How specific habits form is the subject of much debate, and in the space of this article we cannot attempt to examine the origin of every bad habit. But numerous factors come into play: childhood conditioning, subconscious desires, rational or irrational fears.
   The downward pull of human nature affects us all; we are all constantly bombarded with the negative thoughts, ideas and attitudes broadcast by Satan the devil, the "prince of the power of the air" (Eph. 2:2). Satan's evil influence is a root of every harmful habit mankind practices — warfare, sexual promiscuity, lying.
   • We must realize that there is a way to break the bad habit. No matter how powerfully motivated to follow some wrong pattern, it is possible for us to change course.
   In the case of those bad habits the Bible calls sin, the urge to lie or to give up and keep smoking, overeating or indulging in sexual lusts can seem overwhelming.
   The apostIe Paul described this struggle with sin this way: "For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom. 7:19-20).
   One psychologist terms the battle to overcome a bad habit as a "struggle between the old and new order." Habit forming is highly conservative; change is profoundly disturbing. Trying to change the self into something different threatens the self, and the self sends up danger signals to try to get us to give up.
   We may be dieting or trying to stop drinking to excess or trying to quit smoking. In every case the self — what Paul called the "old man" (Rom. 6:6) — tries to rear itself. A large part of us as human beings is programmed to resist change.
   But we can change! God made us of matter so we could. We humans can, after deciding to reject negative behavior, learn to follow right ways and ingrain these right ways into our minds and motivation. We call this developing character.
   • We must be convinced that breaking the bad habit is worthwhile. Motivation is paramount. As one authority has written: "No one can master a habit who does not want to and who cannot find within himself or herself the resources and the determination to do so."
   This, however, is not entirely true. To change from the selfish, inflowing way of "get" to the way of proper concern for ourselves and true, outgoing love for others ultimately requires God's help, in addition to resources we find in ourselves. But we must first want to change. If we don't seriously want to change our bad habits, we never will.
   • We must cease the habit immediately, not gradually. Completely halting the negative behavior immediately is by far the most effective — though sometimes difficult — method of breaking bad habits.
   You've read of heroin addicts who tried methadone and ended up addicted to methadone, or smokers who tried to beat smoking by eating candy and ended up addicted to candy.
   There are far better ways to beat bad habits!
   For instance, a person may create a new, competing habit to compete with the old. But he should make sure the competing habit he forms is a positive one. Instead of eating to cure feelings of sadness, one could jog or play a strenuous game of tennis, for example.
Habituation is the natural enemy of change... Once a habit is ingrained, it becomes invisible to the conscious mind, and the brain... will notice only if we do something different than we are accustomed to doing.
   Certain behavior modification therapies attempt to wear out the bad habit until personal disgust and exhaustion weaken its hold. If a person is addicted to a certain food, the therapist may attempt to associate the food with some unpleasant experience. This is known as aversion therapy. Its merits are debatable, though, in the absence of strong motivation on the part of the person with the habit. As the old saying goes, "A person convinced against his will is of, the same opinion still."
   It may be that a person will simply have to learn to tolerate a negative stimulus. For example, a person prone to overeating may simply have to steel himself against having an extra dessert — or any dessert at all — even if everyone around does indulge. After all, the temptation to overeat is going to be present throughout life. One can't eliminate the temptation — food — so one's habit of abusing it must be changed.
   • When we have broken our habit, we should be willing to help others who have the same habit. When someone who has "been there" helps someone who is still there, the motivational benefits to both are great.

Requires God's Help

   All the steps outlined above are part of one group's successful program to combat wrong social habits. These points can be applied to overcome any bad habit — again, however, only by someone who really wants to change.
   Changing from a negative, harmful way of life overall to a happy, productive, outgoing way involves changing human nature, and that requires the additional power of God's Holy Spirit.
   God is interested in developing strong, right character in ever¥ one of us. He wants us to live the give way instead of the get way, and the way of give is the way to every happy, wonderful result man desires.
   No one who has been overcome by bad, sinful habits — no one incorrigibly steeped in a selfish, harmful way of life — will ever enter God's kingdom (I Cor. 6:9-10).
   To fulfill God's purpose for us, we must make sure that we "record" in our character the finest, most positive, most beneficial and give — oriented habits possible, rejecting everything that harms, is selfish or does not achieve right goals. For, in God's kingdom, there will be no bad habits in God's family!
   When we live God's way we can say with Paul, in response to life's every challenge, including bad habits, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13).

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Plain Truth MagazineFebruary 1983Vol 48, No.2