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In order to truly break a habit, we need to fully understand exactly what a habit represents. In other words, habits are complex due to the fact that they are a part of our personality or character. Here, the habit functions as an active component of our lifestyle serving commonly a multitude of functions or needs. In other words, there are always two sides to a bad habit: one which is maladaptive, but the other serving some sort of “need”.
Giving up the symptom, or bad habit, is a loss and often leaves the individual feeling vulnerable or anxious because the underlying conflict then becomes exposed and uncomfortable. This dynamic helps to explain why often times the habit fails to extinguish and, although the person feels like a failure, another part of them feels protected.
In the addiction literature, another way of conceptualizing this aspect of the habit is referred to as the “psychological addiction” aspect of the bad habit. The underlying and typically unconscious aspect of the secondary gain is never uniform. Depending upon the personality of the person, such unconscious explanations could range from desires to be taken care of to unconscious guilt and subsequent self-punishment, low self-esteem, and attention seeking—just to name a few.
In order to fully conquer a bad habit, the individual must come to terms with this aspect of the habit to fully master its representation and eventually let it go and perhaps find healthier ways of managing the anxiety. In many cases, psychotherapy is needed to help determine this aspect of the habit and assist the person in working through the process of change. Other modalities for change, such as Life Coaching with a Mentor is also an option and is a more integrative approach.
To further complicate matters, however, as in the case with smoking or drug usage, there is an additional component of a physical addiction, where the body craves the substance when it becomes absent. This is often why breaking a substance habit requires medical consultation in order to advise the patient in how to slowly wean the body.
Preventatively, assisting your child in developing healthy habits early paves the road for healthier functioning along the developmental path.
Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.