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Many people want to get rid of an unwanted behavior. Maybe you want to quit smoking, or stop eating too much. Maybe you want to stop yelling at your kids, or getting in arguments with your co-workers. Or maybe you’re trying to shape someone else’s unwanted behavior. Perhaps you’re a parent, and you are working with a kid who is struggling. How can we help change behaviors that are hurting us?

Often, we try to just quit the bad behavior. We try to “white-knuckle” it. We think that if we just had enough strength or willpower, we would be able to stop. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, what usually happens is that people can’t “just quit.” They might do fine for a while, but eventually the unwanted behavior comes back. This can lead to a lot of discouragement. People can lose heart.

So, what’s the answer? If “white knuckling” it doesn’t work, what CAN help you change an unwanted behavior? Here’s the key: To stop an unwanted behavior, you have to (1) understand the benefit the unwanted behavior is giving you; and (2) find a healthy replacement behavior that gives you a similar (or better) benefit. Let’s unpack each of those steps.

Understand the Benefit

The first step is to understand the benefit the unwanted behavior is giving you. Sometimes this is tough to do. We might feel so negatively toward the unwanted behavior that we can’t see any benefits of the behavior. If that’s your experience, I would ask you to sit with it a bit and see what comes up for you. If there was absolutely no benefit to your behavior, it probably would have stopped on its own a long time ago.

For example, let’s say you want to quit smoking. What benefit is the smoking giving you? Maybe it’s a way to relax, or distract yourself from your problems. Maybe the smoking provides you with sensual pleasure. Maybe it’s a way to take a break at work, or connect with co-workers. Be patient and sit with it. What good thing does the unwanted behavior provide you with?

Find a Replacement 

The main reason that just stopping an unwanted behavior doesn’t work, is that we haven’t found a suitable replacement behavior to provide us with the same benefit. When you try to stop the unwanted behavior, the benefit stops, and you feel worse than you did before. So, you go back to the unwanted behavior.

The key is to come up with a healthy replacement behavior that does just as good of a job (or perhaps an even better job) of providing that same benefit as the unwanted behavior. If you can implement a suitable replacement behavior, the benefit keeps going, which removes the need to engage in the unwanted behavior.

Back to the smoking example. Let’s say the main benefit of smoking was to relax and experience sensual pleasure. What are three healthy ways that you could get the same benefit (i.e., relaxation and sensual pleasure)? Maybe you could get a massage. Maybe you could consume a healthy alternative (e.g., chewing gum, coffee) that would provide a similar benefit. Maybe you could read a good book, or meet up with friends. Remember, the key is that the replacement behavior has to provide the benefit just as well or better. Be honest with yourself about this. If the replacement behavior does a shitty job of meeting the benefit, you are likely to go back to smoking. The replacement behavior has to really work.

Discussion

What do you think of the two-part process of replacing an unwanted behavior? What has helped you in the past to change an unwanted behavior? Where do you get stuck?

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