Unhelpful behaviors: Why you can’t stop doing something that’s bad for you?
How to make choices that serve your long-term well-being?
Reward-based learning helped early humans survive. But in modern times, the same brain mechanisms can trap us in unhealthy habits. Recognizing that you have both an "impulsive self" and a "wise self" can help you foster self-compassion while making healthier choices. Reframing healthy behaviors as "rewards," building in hard stops, and practicing mindfulness can help change bad habits for the better.
Does any of this sound familiar? You hit “play next episode” on Netflix (for the third time in a row) even though you know you are staying up too late and have to work the next day. You check your social media and surf the web for “just a few more minutes” even though there are other things you know you should attend to. You have “just a few more sweets” even though you are quite full. You check your phone continually even though doing so takes you away from fully engaging in important things that you could be attending to.
Why It’s So Hard to Stop Doing Something That’s Bad for You
Why is it so difficult to stop something that feels pleasurable, even when you know it isn’t what is best for you in the long run?
For the human organism, reward-based learning (seeking what is pleasurable and avoiding what is painful) was a helpful evolutionary strategy for the human species. Pursuing things that felt good (such as sex or good-tasting food) and avoiding pain (e.g., getting bitten by a snake, or getting sick from a poisonous plant) helped our ancestors survive. This is hard-wired into our biology.
Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains that from a neuroscience perspective, it is as if we have two competing selves controlled by different parts of our brain. We have the impulsive self that wants immediate gratification, which is controlled by the midbrain (responsible for our fight-or-flight response); and we have the “wise self” that wants what is best for our long-term well being and can hold a wider perspective (controlled by the medial prefrontal cortex).
Dr. McGonigal explains that when we want to change a behavior (in this case stopping something that is unhelpful) it is as if we have two competing parts of our brain in conflict.
So how can we work with this? How can we disconnect from or stop engaging in behaviors that are pleasurable in the moment, in the service of our long-term well-being? Here are a few suggestions:
5 Strategies For Stopping Unhelpful Behaviors
1. Be Aware, Be Curious.
First, bring mindful awareness to your behavior to observe what is happening in each unfolding moment, in order to interrupt an automatic behavior. Pair this awareness with a genuine curiosity about what is happening, how it is happening, and the consequences of this particular behavior. Researcher and psychiatrist Judson Brewer, in his extensive research on how to interrupt habit loops, has found that mindful awareness and the essential element of curiosity are key ingredients for changing behaviors, including strong addictions.
Here is an example of what this kind of mindful awareness and curiosity might look like: “Isn’t this curious that I know I need to be at this appointment at 3:00, yet I am giving in to a strong pull to just check my emails and social media one more time? It feels like an anxious feeling is driving me as if I might miss out on something if I don’t do this.
There is a strong reward in the moment but on my way to this appointment, I am aware of high stress, anxiety, and frustration because I know I am now late and I am white-knuckling it all the way. This feels very uncomfortable in my body, and the stress from this behavior choice lingers long after I arrive late to my appointment.”
2. Be Intentional. Create Hard Stops.
Once you identify what isn’t working for you, see where you might need to create a “hard stop” for disengaging from unhelpful behaviors. A hard stop involves a commitment to drawing a firm line for yourself, as well as some willingness to tolerate immediate discomfort in the service of your long-term well-being.