When it comes to New Year’s Resolutions, I am absolutely rubbish. I have been trying to give up biscuits for over 30 years now, or at least to cut down on them. Thirty years of trying and it still takes a superhuman effort to limit my consumption to three a day. (It’s supposed to be only two-a-day but I can never resist going back to the tin for just one more hit…).
I don’t just fail to give up at New Year, I fail all year. My most successful stints are those rare occasions when I am on holiday in a remote country and there are no biscuits and no corner shops. Rainy camping holidays in Cornwall are the worst – I can go through a packet a day then easily.
Which has got me thinking about why change is hard. Why is it so hard to wipe the slate clean and really do things differently? Every time I head to the kettle to make a cup of tea I rehearse in my head all the reason I shouldn’t have a biscuit and yet at least once a day I walk away from the kettle holding two biscuits. Often, I’ve finished the first biscuit before the kettle has even boiled…
I guess, at its heart, habit is just repeated behaviour that is all linked up together. Every time I make a cup of tea I am not just making tea in the present, I am reliving the memory of all the other times I have made tea in the past. After thirty years, the neural pathway in my brain between making tea and eating biscuits is a massive superhighway and all the side roads have shrivelled due to underuse.
Each time we step into a situation we bring with us an internalised history of all our previous experiences, feelings and behaviours in similar situations. We never really approach anything afresh. And when that situation involves another person it’s a double whammy because they bring with them all their memories of previous interactions too. Which is great when you are in a positive dynamic but can be a real obstacle to changing a negative spiral.
Imagine you have a young child who whines. Every time they use that whiny voice it winds you up instantly. (You bring with you all the negative emotions and expectations of the other gazillion times they have used that whiny voice). Imagine you are a child who whines. I use that whiny voice because, having used it so many times before, I have an expectation that it will get mum’s/dad’s attention, maybe not positive attention, but some kind of attention at least and I don’t have any other well-established pathways for getting what I want.
Trying to stop the whining habit is hard if you tackle it head-on. If we respond to the whining in any way then we are giving it attention and accidentally reinforcing it. If we ignore it, it can get worse and worse and whinier and whinier until it finally gets under our skin and we respond to it any way (usually negatively!).
Sometimes, the best way to achieve change is not to try and stop a habit but to start a new one. Rather than focussing on the whining, you could try and notice every time your child is using a pleasant non-whining voice (even if it is only for a few seconds) and tell them how much you like it. Do it again and again and again and hopefully you will achieve three things:
- you will be thinking a lot more about all the times your child uses their nice voice and therefore feel far more positive about them in general
- your child will be thinking a lot more about their nice voice and the positive reaction it gets and will therefore feel more positive about themselves and their interactions with you in general
- your child is likely to repeat the nice voice experience more and more often and develop a new neural pathway
So maybe what I really need to break my biscuit dependency is not to go near the kettle at all? If I don’t go near the kettle, I won’t step foot on the superhighway and I’ll never have a biscuit again. Hurray! But even as I write that my brain is sending me pictures of all the times I have snuck to the biscuit tin after my husband’s made me tea, or when there was no tea at all, and I’m not so sure that this is going to be a my biscuit-free year after all….
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