Dropping the Things We Don’t Need
The beautiful thing about this process is that it creates rationality and reason in seemingly irrational behaviors. It gives you the space between you and your habits so that you can choose the activities that will support your wellbeing not undermine it.
- Samantha Attard, PhD, Doula
Eating ice cream straight from the container for dinner; meditating; writing down things you’re grateful for; and scrolling through Instagram in bed.
Which are the good habits, and which are the bad ones?
We probably all know how to label them. We love to judge one as healthy, one as unhealthy. We find one praiseworthy, the other shame-inducing.
Here’s what we don’t talk about in the science of habits: whether good or bad, these habits came from somewhere. Habits don’t magically appear. It’s not like a cold. There is rhyme and reason to the habits we have, and many times, our habits are born of a situation, experience, or logic that was right at the time.
Maybe eating that ice cream for dinner reminds you of “treat” nights with your mom when you were growing up. Maybe scrolling through Instagram is a way to delay having to go to a job you dislike. Maybe you have a habit of skipping exercise when you’re stressed, but that’s because when your sister was in the hospital for 4 months, you had to give up your favorite exercise class to be with her.
These habits are coping mechanisms. They’re created because they helped us navigate the world in a time of crisis or trauma. Often these habits are so normalized from our families, friends, or society at large, that we don’t question them. They feel like the default, not the exception to the rule.
If you have habits you’re not proud of, or habits you know you want to change, the first step to doing so is to get curious.
Ask yourself: when did this habit start? How did this habit help me in an earlier time of my life? What did this habit *give* me that I needed?
Have compassion for the answer. Have compassion for the past version of you that needed this coping mechanism, or didn’t know any better. Then you get to ask yourself: does this habit still serve me? What is it giving me? Is there somewhere else I can get this same support?
For example, if you have a habit of treating yourself with huge lattes when you’re tired (you got into the habit when your kids were newborns1 and 2 and didn’t sleep through the night), could you use essential oils like eucalyptus or energizing breaths like kapalabhati pranayama (breathing sharply out through the nose and a passive inhale) to wake yourself up instead? Could your constant tiredness be a call to arms to change how you sleep, because you’re not in the same “emergency” state that your body was during that time of your life?
The beautiful thing about this process is that it creates rationality and reason in seemingly irrational behaviors. It gives you the space between you and your habits so that you can *choose* the activities that will support your wellbeing not undermine it.
You can recognize the importance that these habits have had for you, and just like Marie Kondo in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” asks you to thank the old clothes and books you’re going to give away because you no longer need them, you can do the same for these habits. “Thank you, ice cream, for reminding me of those fun times with my mom. Now, I choose to honor her another way.” “Thank you, Instagram scrolling in bed, for showing me how I *don’t* want to live my life and being the wakeup call that I needed.”
To make this process the most powerful it can be, you need to bring curiosity and compassion.
Look at your past self with kind eyes, not judgement. Get curious about what was happening to yourselfhim or her at that time. You can ask the five why’s: (first ask “why do I do this habit?,” Answer yourself, and then ask “why?” to that answer. Repeat 5 times or as many times it takes for you to get to the fundamental reason.)
With this inquiry and compassion for the answers, you start to unlock the grip that these old habits and traumas have on your body and mind. What fills that void are creative solutions and new ways to approach old problems.
So what’s one habit you’d like to change? When did it start? Why? With compassionate compassion and curiosity, you can see this habit in a new light, one where it’s not tied to your identity, and you can move forward with how you want to show up in the world, one day at a time.
About the Author
Samantha Attard, PhD. is a regular contributor to The Thirlby. She is a nutrition PhD, yoga instructor, doula, and Ayurvedic coach. Happy Healthy Human was born when Sam was in grad school at UNC Chapel Hill. She was doing research into diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, and realized that people need personalized nutrition and medicine in order to achieve their best health. Sam dove into Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine - ancient traditions that prize personalization and prevention. She began to use these principles as an Ayurvedic coach, labor and postpartum doula, and yoga instructor, at workshops and retreats with clients like Seventh Generation, Georgetown Medical School, and WeWork. Sam's happiest when she's outdoors in a garden or near the ocean.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.