Changing Harmful Behavior Patterns

We all engage in problematic behavior from time to time, despite the fact that we intellectually realize it’s not good for us.  When we do this repeatedly, it can feel like a painful trap we fall into over and over again that we are powerless to avoid.  These patterns can include things like turning to mood altering substances or activities when we feel low (junk food, cigarettes, booze, gambling, meaningless sex) or picking romantic partners who are emotionally unavailable or even abusive.  The behaviors are maladaptive, meaning that they make it hard for us to adjust and thrive in our environment.  So if we know these patterns are unhelpful, why do we keep doing them and how can we change them?

There are many common reasons we engage in maladaptive behavior patterns:

  • Its the only response we know (ignorance) – we may be inexperienced or we may have learned maladaptive behaviors as children from our families of origin.
  • We are afraid of the unknown (fear) – as the saying goes, we prefer “the hell we know” over “the hell we don’t know”.  We fear that change may only make things worse.
  • Its become a habit and automatic over the years (habituation) – we are unconsciously engaging in familiar behavior that no longer serves us without taking the time to think through why we are making these particular choices.
  • We value the quick fix (impatience) – the immediate pleasurable rewards of our behavior can often overpower the threat of more distant negative consequences.  We justify our behavior to ourselves and make excuses.
  • We don’t believe we are worthy or capable of anything more (low self-esteem/confidence).  Change is risky and takes effort which requires a sense of hope and competence.  If we don’t value ourselves, why should we invest?

Know that change won’t happen until you decide

Change is hard work and you’re not likely to follow through until you are good and ready.  Other people can’t decide for us – we have to make the choice ourselves.  For more information about how to decide, please also visit my posts about building motivation and making a change.

Understand that you are largely the creator of your current reality

Life is not just a series of facts – it is experienced through each individual’s unique lens, filtered through the senses, life experiences, and personal attitudes.  Even when life throws us curve-balls, we get to decide how we are going to perceive  situations and face challenges.  This means not only do we create our own maladaptive behavior patterns, but we also have the power to change them.

Remind yourself often of the costs

Its easy to get caught up in fantasizing about all the immediate benefits we get from our harmful patterns.  Many times they give us much pleasure in the short-term or they allow us to avoid something unpleasant.  We rehearse these positive things over and over in our minds, which artificially inflates the value of the behavior.  At times the behavior no longer gives us pleasure and we are merely chasing after the fantasy.  This is why it is important to equally remind ourselves of the costs these patterns exact from us and others around us.

Identify and challenge the beliefs that keep you stuck

We are frequently unaware of the core beliefs that send us down the wrong path.  They are deep seated, long standing beliefs about the world that we act on, often without even thinking.  These harmful beliefs can include things like “the world is a dangerous place”, “people are basically bad”, or “I am defective”.  It is very difficult to work long and hard at a goal one doesn’t really believe in.  Therefore, it is important to take a closer look at the beliefs that might be maintaining your harmful patterns of behavior.

Envision a better reality

It is difficult to work toward a goal that is unclear or that provides few rewards.  Why would you work hard toward something you didn’t really think you could ever achieve or for something that was no better than the status quo?  It can help to take some time to explore in detail how things might be better if you broke free from your maladaptive patterns.  What would you be doing instead?  Where would you be?  How would you look?  Who would you be with?  What else would change?

Set yourself up for success

Change often takes us outside our comfort zone and requires something new from us.  Gather around you any supports and resources that will help you accomplish your goals.  Identify and learn any skills needed for change.

Identify potential obstacles to change and ways to overcome them

Few paths are without bumps along the way.  Knowing this, why not spend some time preparing for the possibilities and arming yourself with some coping strategies? What typically trips you up and how can you do things differently to keep yourself on track?

Take small steps toward change to build confidence and momentum

We can easily become overwhelmed by biting off more than we can chew.  Picking smaller, more reasonable objectives that you are likely to master can help engender hope that will keep you going through the tougher times ahead.

Anticipate triggers for backsliding and ways to cope when they arise

Is boredom your Achilles heel?  Do friends or family exert peer pressure on you?  Are there certain environments or situations that tend to bring out your maladaptive behavior patterns?  In the early stages of change, you will probably need to avoid your triggers as much as possible.  But, as you build confidence and skill, you can begin to generate strategies so that you can persevere even when you encounter temptations.  If you do backslide – and we often do – forgive yourself, pick yourself up and get back on the path as quickly as possible.

Notice and celebrate your efforts toward positive change

Hard work is supported through encouragement and we may be the only ones who notice or appreciate our own changes.  Learn how to pay attention to your own little victories and reward them.  Acknowledge your efforts and be aware of the ripple effects that occur in your own life and those around you.

If you are struggling with maladaptive behavior patterns and feeling stuck, it may be time to consult a psychologist.  You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.  For help in the Kansas City metro area, take a look at our local resource listPlease also visit my Kansas City local resources website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

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