How long does it take to kick a bad habit out the door? What about the time to establish a new habit – a good one?
Old patterns have a way of reemerging in our lives when we’re under stress or overtired. My less-than-welcome (personal) examples including eating too much, or forgetting to eat altogether. Then there’s not exercising, and not sleeping.
Might I add that if the kids are around – there’s yelling over minutiae? Consider me an Olympian on that score, and yes – overreacting can become a bad habit just like anything else.
Other bad habits may include relationships – family, friends, lovers we think we can’t live without. But habits are patterns that we repeat. They are learned.
They can be unlearned.
Survival with teenagers required that I stop the yelling; I was ruining basically sound relationships with my relatively rational (and adorable) adolescent sons. Worry and fatigue were causing my spillovers; I talked things out with them more than once, I wrote out my frustrations, and I taught myself to take a breath, and more frequently, to just say no.
That meant no to whatever it was they wanted that I couldn’t handle. And no to my own reactive tendency to feel guilty or helpless, and then yell.
Once I reprogrammed myself, we lived an improving picture. But other bad habits? People as bad habits?
What about the parent or sibling who does nothing but criticize – to the point that their behaviors undermine everything you’re trying to accomplish, and the person you want to become?
What about the woman who is toxic in your life but you keep going back to her? Or the man you met a few months back, and though you know he’s married, you’re convincing yourself his marriage won’t last?
According to PsychCentral, sources say that actions can become habits in 21 to 28 days, in other words three or four weeks. Other research indicates that the time it takes to establish a new habit is two months (66 days, to be precise).
My own experience is somewhat different. I can break a good habit in a matter of two days. To re-establish that habit? Four days, maybe five – and then I’m fine. But anything involving other people? The complexities of relationship?
Then 66 days doesn’t cut it. In fact for some relationships, a lifetime hardly seems enough.
Habit vs Addiction
When I think about the studies referenced above (the article cites M.I.T. researchers among others), I wonder if we’re making proper distinctions between habits – and addictions. The article in PsychCentral uses the terms interchangeably, and we know that doesn’t represent reality.
We also know that addiction isn’t defeated with a dose of “will power” or “just say no.”
According to Dictionary.com, a habit is
an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary
whereas addiction is
the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma; abnormally or compulsively dependent
It might also be worth including the definition for dependence:
reliance, trust, confidence – especially for support or help
When it comes to more mundane bad habits – procrastinating when it comes to the dishes, to laundry, to making the bed; or flipping on all the lights without even thinking – I wonder if saying good riddance to bad habits is a matter of time (3 or 4 weeks) or repetitions.
It’s all about neural pathways and conditioning, right? So which is it? Does it depend? Where does motivation (therefore psychology) fit into the picture? How variable are individual experiences?
How Long to Get Over a Breakup
A toxic relationship with a parent or other family member? I’m not going to tackle that one here. Suffice it to say I’ve lived my own story, and know that it’s a battle – no matter how many ways you try to deal with it.
But what about romantic partners? What if my longing for a particular sort of man who is wrong for me becomes a habit? Is it easier to break up and heal if I can pinpoint the offending (negative) characteristics? What if the elements of my need (and his responses) suggest addiction?
In my own experience – years of relationships (and marriage) as well as years alone – the time to get over a man is widely variable. I’ve healed from long affairs in a matter of weeks. I’ve taken a year or more to feel better after relatively short-lived relationships, when they involved serious emotions and intentions.
Marriage and divorce, with children? Again, another story. Not about aspects of attitude and behavior that are entirely within your control.
- For someone you date a short time, perhaps you re-orient in a matter of weeks.
- For someone you marry – no matter how brief the marriage – the legalities, the stigma, the public aspect makes healing longer.
- For someone who betrays you (or your beliefs), however you define that, perhaps it’s a matter of the consequences you’re living through, and how foolish you feel as a result of the betrayal. Again, if we’re talking marriage, it’s never as simple as a prescribed timetable.
But I was speaking of habits – not just a relationship. And we grow accustomed to being part of a couple, to saying my “husband” or my “wife,” my “boyfriend” or my “girlfriend.” We assume a higher social status from those appellations (come on – admit it), and many of us feel genuine security in going to bed at night with another person at our side.
We fall into rhythms of cohabitation, of social acceptance, of sharing our lives in the framework of relationship.
Can habit keep us in an unhealthy relationship? Or do we hide behind habit, when what we’re really feeling is fear?
If At First You Don’t Succeed – Try, Try Again
I’m confident that my own bad habits can be broken, and replaced with good habits. For me, like I said, as quickly as in four or five days.
When it comes to relationships, that’s another matter. We suffer the complexities of our own psychological makeup, and the changing picture of other aspects of our lives – our health, our finances, our location, our family situation.
But dependence is not addiction. Dependence is not interdependence. And habits – even in relationships – are very often good ones.
When it comes to what keeps us going, I say we try, try again – until we succeed. If we don’t try, we’ll never succeed – whether it’s breaking a bad habit or creating a good one. And with this approach, hopefully, we’ll take the time to examine our patterns, looking to repeat what works well, and good riddance to bad habits or relationships, when all they do is wreak havoc.
- Do you know your bad habits?
- Do you know your good ones?
- How long does it take you to establish or break habits?
- How well do you transform or break away from the toxic relationship?
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