Healthy habits are learned in the same way as unhealthy ones – through practice.
— Wayne Dyer
Human development from childhood through adolescence to adulthood involves socialization of an individual from diverse social institutions. As a child develops in terms of cognitive, behavioral and social domains, some unhealthy behavior patterns or personality traits might be acquired that lead to undesired consequences in adulthood. Primarily, there is a significant role of family, peers, media and educational institutions in shaping the personality and behavior of individuals. Problematic behavior or habits may be reflected in anxiety, which can force us to give in to addictions that are not only harmful for us but for people around us. Bad habits may jeopardize our lives, taking a toll on our health, both mentally and physically and wasting our time and energy.
Here, the point to note is, as all behaviors are learned, they can be unlearned as well. Unlearning is the process of discarding something from your memory, forgetting it or putting it aside. Unlearning can be a difficult task but following are some of the techniques, which can facilitate in unlearning toxic childhood behaviors.
This method facilitates the systematic understanding of how toxic behaviors affect individuals. The first step is to identify the target behavior and setting goals. These goals should be SMART i.e. specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound; otherwise, they may not be achievable. Self-monitoring involves qualitative monitoring that pays careful attention to the quality of things that the person experiences, like feelings, emotions and attitudes during the behavior, and quantitative monitoring that involves counting things related to behavior, like assessing the frequency of a habit. An example could be of a chain-smoker. While self-monitoring, the individual may list down anger, nervousness or peer pressure that act as stimuli and trigger the behavior of smoking and other data monitored could show how much time was spent and how family responded or could have been affected from that behavior.
Through self-monitoring, an individual gets a more accurate representation of the bad behavior and its consequences, which may have gone unnoticed otherwise. It is important to keep small rewards at each step of the monitoring process as it keeps the individual motivated till the end. An important concept in behavioral psychology is that ‘rewarded responses are repeated’. The principle of ‘extinction’ can also be applied here, which states that a bad behavior can become extinct if a reward associated with that behavior is no longer given.
Choose a Substitute
The individual might realize and acknowledge unhealthy behavior within themselves, but find it difficult to let go of old habits. This behavior may be tending to some needs, hence one can introduce a new behavior that offers a similar reward. In this case, one can list possible substitute behaviors that are healthy in nature. For instance, a young housewife who complains repeatedly about household chores may actually be seeking attention. This issue can be resolved if the housewife is counseled to adopt a creative hobby that generates positive attention from friends and family, thus fulfilling her primary need. One can create a positive habit to replace a negative habit providing the same reward.
It is always better to unlearn together. When you team up, you hold each other accountable and also celebrate the tiny victories on the way to success. People who exercise or diet together find it easy to unlearn unhealthy habits and adopt a healthier lifestyle. In today’s digital era, one can download available applications that help track progress related to set goals.
This is a simple strategy which states that if you commit to a goal for 21 days, it develops into your habit. If you continue doing it for another 90 days, it becomes part of your lifestyle. The golden rule for changing your behavior is to remain committed to it and persevere. Remember, “We are what we repeatedly do.”
Surround Yourself with Role Models
Unhealthy habits that are learnt in childhood are sustained in adulthood either because one is surrounded by people exhibiting similar behavior or due to limited exposure to role models with a healthier lifestyle. It is very important to have a realization that one’s behavior is creating zero-value in their life, as this information helps motivate the person to change their course of action. One way of unlearning bad habits could be by surrounding oneself with role models who can aid in improving the quality of life.
Visualize Yourself Succeeding
It may be very hard to leave a bad habit but if the person imagines leaving it and becoming a better person, they may be able to visualize a future where family and friends are appreciative and commending the effort. It may push the person to seek ways of avoiding the habit. HH
The writer is a Lecturer of Anthropology at National University of Medical Sciences (NUMS).
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