Changing Habits: What Keeps Me Stuck In Old Ways?


There are problems in my life that I have been conscious of for a very long time, but haven’t yet found the capacity to fix. I reflect on these old ways and old patterns, and I can clearly see the unnecessary pain and suffering they have caused me.

Yet I remain stuck in them.

Even while knowing they are wrong and ineffective, I keep doing them. Repeating them. Again and again. And each time the pain and suffering comes back. And I say to myself, “Okay, that’s the last time. Fuck that. Never again. I’ve learned my lesson now.”

But, for some odd reason, I do it again. And again. I act as if I enjoy the pain, even though I know I really don’t. I act impulsively. Automatically. Like a programmed robot with no sense of choice.

These patterns in my life seem to be really sticky. They are deeply rooted. I’ve thought of countless ways I can try to correct them, but my efforts have so far remained fruitless. It is almost as if there is another part of me that I can’t change. And perhaps there is.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying. Not yet at least. Maybe I need to dig deeper. Maybe I need to ask myself better questions. Maybe I need a new perspective. Maybe I just need to be more patient. Maybe I just need more experience. Maybe I need to “just do it” and habituate myself to failure until it means nothing anymore.

If there is a solution, then I know that it’s going to take some time, effort, and dedication. I’m well aware of the myth of overnight success, and as a 22 year old I don’t expect to have everything work out my way all of a sudden.

Upon reflection, I’ve noticed that there are some things I need to consider about these “old ways” (ways that seem so persistent throughout my life), and how these relate to personal development more broadly.

I can only focus on one major change at a time.

Not only can I not change everything overnight, but I also can’t change multiple things all at the same time. Making a conscious change in your life takes up physical and mental resources. The more resources you allocate to one conscious endeavor, the less you can allocate to another.

Trying to change everything all at once is only going to spread your resources too thin – and then nothing will get accomplished. Therefore, it is important to focus on only major change at a time.

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

– Anais Nin

We are multi-faceted beings. Therefore, simple solutions (while desirable) aren’t always the correct ones. Occam’s razor says, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

It’s good not to over-complicate our problems, but at the same time we can’t ignore the details of our plights if we truly want to get to the root of them. If we think too simply, then we won’t develop the proper focus to overcome our bad habits.

The truth is our life can be broken down into many different components:

  • Health
  • Relationships
  • Career
  • Finances
  • Education
  • Psychology
  • Religion/spirituality

Sure, they are all intertwined and interrelated. For example, working on your health may increase your confidence and self-esteem, and that can then spill over into your relationships and career. But it is important that you don’t try to conquer the whole world all at once.

If you are the kind of person who has never went to the gym on a regular basis, then you should really just focus on that for your first 2-5 weeks until it becomes a more common habit. Once that becomes more second-nature and automatic, then you can shift your consciousness to other aspects of your life that you want to adjust. This basic rule applies to any kind of habit change.

The point is that you go step-by-step, building yourself bolt-by-bolt, and not trying to transform yourself in one desperate swoop.

Again, these things take time, effort, and dedication. Personal development is an ongoing process with no clear beginning or end. Often you just have to take life one step at a time, because any other way will just get you flustered and frustrated.

Lesson #1…

Some aspects of my life have been relatively “stagnant,” because I’ve been busy focusing on other aspects of my growth.

This is one reason I am still stuck in some old ways.

However, I can try to better overcome these old ways by focusing on them on a 1 to 1 basis. It’s OK to put some goals on the back-burner while I work on others, because working on them all at once would spread my physical and mental resources too thin.

I’m addicted to certainty and familiarity.

Certainty and familiarity are powerful forces. And even when I’m focused and I have a clear idea on what the right thing to do is, I often still snap back to old habits because they are already built so strongly into my brain’s wiring.

Familiarity gives us a sense of security. I repeat the same old patterns because I know ahead of time what will happen. The same can’t be said for new patterns, where the results I get may be more unpredictable.

The problem is that these old patterns become “just good enough” – and trying something different (even if it may be better) can have short-term costs and growth pains that we aren’t willing to pay for.

But if I want to change something, I have to be willing to pay those short-term costs. That means embracing uncertainty and the occasional pain and failure. I can’t expect to dive into something new and hit a home-run right away. Rarely do things work that way.

“The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

– Steven Pressfield

Facing uncertainty and fear is required for any kind of personal change. It is precisely when we face these fears that we learn something about ourselves that we hadn’t known before. And it is only after we get that new-found knowledge about ourselves that we are able to make the appropriate changes to our life. We experiment, we push boundaries, and we end up with a more expanded view of ourselves then one we had previously. But to discover these new boundaries we need to be willing to step outside of our “comfort zone” of security and familiarity.

Lesson #2…

Any type of personal change is going to be met with resistance. But instead of allowing this resistance to inhibit my growth, I will embrace fear and uncertainty as a sign that I am expanding and testing my boundaries.

A deep part of me identifies with those old patterns.

Sometimes I look back on these old habits and think this is just who I am. Then I remember that I am always changing whether I take conscious control over this change or not.

When I say “this is just who I am,” I’m really just reinforcing old habits by deciding to identify with them, and therefore I continue doing them. In many ways, I am giving myself permission to repeat the same mistakes.

But, looking more closely, who I was 10 years ago was a remarkably different person than who I am today. And who I am today will be remarkably different than who I will become 10 years into the future. When I learn to embrace this dynamic and changing self I find it easier to drop older habits and adopt newer ones. Change is natural, and self-change becomes a constantly unfolding process.

Some people however choose to cling to these old patterns not just because they fear something different, but because they think these old patterns are their “authentic self.”

I believe that to accept our “authentic selves” is to accept our nature as beings who are in a constant state of flux. The belief in a static self is illusory. But it has consequences. When we cling to these old ways, we suffer. When we can’t let go of our past selves, we never learn or adapt. And when we fight the changes that we really want to make, we unintentionally inhibit ourselves from happiness.

“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear . . . . It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to. “

– Marilyn Ferguson

Letting go of past beliefs and habits is tough. There’s no denying that. It requires that we begin to see ourselves in a different light. However, many of us become too stubborn to let go of our old identities. For some odd reason, we want to change the world so that it fits our view, but we don’t want to change ourselves in the process.

It doesn’t work that way.

Lesson #3…

We need to let go of old beliefs and habits that no longer serve our interests. It doesn’t have to mean that we are being inauthentic or changing our “core self,” it means we are taking conscious control over who we really are and how we live our lives.

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