Have you ever recognized a harmful habit that your loved one has, but cannot seem to change? The importance of changing this habit may seem so, so clear to you. You may see its direct negative impact on your loved one. You may even roll your eyes thinking about them making the same habitual mistakes over and over again.
It’s frustrating! I know! You want to help your parent, friend, significant other, or other loved one. I’m here to remind you that you can only change your own habits. Never someone else’s. When we become overly frustrated about not being able to herd our loved ones toward what we perceive to be the “right” direction, we are causing ourselves well-intentioned but unnecessary suffering.
I want to help you recognize this suffering and unravel this stress by teaching you about habit formation and behavioural change. As usual, I’ll use a personal example!
Photo by Believe in Your utopia
What are you trying to change in someone else?
This is the easiest place to begin since it is what is most prominent.
I’ve been trying to change my parents’ cleaning habits for several years. My mother works full-time at a retail store, and my father works from home on various international business projects. We live in a house that (in my opinion) is too large for a family of four.
Our house has been in an unkempt state ever since we moved in 8 years ago. I still remember the movers saying to us at the time, “How can you have so many things?” as they piled boxes upon boxes in the basement.
It’s true. My parents have an extremely difficult time getting rid of old things. This is understandable given their past experiences. So, from when I was in grade 9, I started obsessing over helping my parents to declutter and tidy.
What are your beliefs about changing others’ habits?
I’m going to talk through my own experience, but I invite you to think about parallels to your own experiences and think about beliefs about changing others that you hold.
”They will change their habits if I model better habits!”
The pattern was always the same. I would identify an area of the house that was cluttered (but with items that were not mine), and invite my parent(s) to go through the items with me.
”They are just having a tough time. My role is to help them to clean, and eventually they will be able to do it for themselves.”
A few years later, I was helping my mother clean and organize her incredibly messy master bedroom and vanity for days at a time. Multiple times a year. I was going on cleaning “rampages” – cleaning the entire house by myself because no one else was bothering to do it or was willing to help me because they were too tired. I thought, maybe if I cleaned the house and showed them how nice it was to live tidy, they would maintain it.
”Their mess is my mess and I am personally responsible for their bad cleaning habits. When the house is a mess, I’ve failed to help them.”
These past few months, I found myself breaking down and crying and screaming about how messy the house always was and how no one seemed to want to revamp their cleaning habits. Each and every time I cleaned, the mess would come back with a vengeance. I started to personally identify with my parents’ failure to maintain a clean home. I grew resentful.
They don’t bother to clean anymore because they know I’ll eventually break down and do it for them.
It didn’t make sense to me. My mother was talking avidly about how she wants to sell the house this summer so we can downsize and live more simply, and yet there were no plans to clean, to declutter, and to…well, make the house presentable enough to sell.
She spoke for hours about the stress she’s experiencing at work, about the uncertain housing market, and how she longed to live in a house she actually felt the family could maintain.
”If I keep repeating the same logic, they will eventually see the err of their ways and change.”
Like a broken record, I always said the same thing:
Mom, of course you are constantly mentally exhausted. You come home from a stressful day at work and it is not even like a home. If your living space is this cluttered, of course your mind would feel tired. A home after work could be a place of rest and tranquility, but here, it seems more like a catalyst for more stress.
Your loved one’s resistance always seems to catch you off guard because it is usually either dismissive or emotionally charged.
Nah, it’s fine. I’m tired because work is difficult. I know where everything is anyway.
Why is the state of the house always MY fault? I work a full-time job. Your father should be doing most or AT LEAST HALF of the housework. He works from home! He NEVER helps me!
Recognize your belief statements, radically accept that you have believed them, and remind yourself of how come they may not be true.
From the above, I can find a couple of belief statements that are likely generalizable for others’ experiences.
a) They will change their habits if I model better habits.
The problem with “if, then” statements is that they assume a causal effect. If I model better habits, the only sure effect is that I can maintain those better habits for myself.
Your loved one may tell you that they feel inspired by your endeavours to create positive habits in your life. I’ve gotten that one before. However, whether or not they themselves will be able to change their habits is not at all associated with whether or not you are doing it.
All habit formation begins with the person themselves making the conscious intention to make a change in their habits. According to Lally & Gardner (2013), this is called “pre-initiation”. However, intentions do not always translate to performance.
Just because my loved one says they are inspired by my healthy eating habits/fitness regime and want to change their own health habits does not mean that they will.
However, that is not to say that it won’t help at all! According to Deci & Ryan (2000), receiving support for habitual change from loved ones can increase one’s intrinsic motivation to repeat a favourable habitual behaviour.
b) The best thing I can do for them to help change their behaviour is to show them the positive result of the habit change until they are able to do it for themselves.
The reason why this statement does not hold water is because habit formation always requires the person themselves to perform a behaviour repeatedly under the same contextual cues (Lally & Gardner, 2013).
As a person performs a behaviour more and more times, it becomes more and more automatic. When the behaviour requires little additional effort to begin and is about as automatic as it can be, it becomes a well-formed habit that will then be maintained.
So, if I sit here cleaning up the house for my parents over and over again, what I am actually doing is preventing them from practicing behavioural change to develop better cleaning habits. I am continuously removing the contextual cues (the mess), which may help with their stress levels, but will not help them to change their own behaviours.
c) I am personally responsible for my loved one’s harmful habits. When they do not change, it means that I have failed as a support in their life.
This belief is one that I can see being built up from repeated rounds of frustration. This may sprout when you put in so much time and energy into changing your loved one’s habits (without seeing the results you want to see) that you have begun to identify with their negative habits.
I feel that this belief is rooted in a very damaging cognitive distortion. Namely, personalization. This is a cognitive distortion that makes a person believe that events are related to them personally even when they may be described by other factors.
In this case, the personalizing thought is,
My loved one is failing to change their harmful habits because I am not providing enough support for them. I am not doing enough to help them to change, and this is why they cannot change.
Challenging personalizing cognitive distortions begins with self-validation.
I am sorrowful that my loved one is suffering as a result of their negative habits. I wish I could do more for them to help them to change. I want them to be healthy and happy. It is okay to feel this way, and it is also okay that I am suffering. This is a common experience for many people. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion that I need.
Then, take a deep breath and remind yourself of the many factors that may be contributing to their inability to change that are outside of your influence.
Habit formation and behaviour change is difficult and takes time and lots of effort. It may not be a huge priority to them right this moment. There may be other stressors on their mind, or other problems that they are trying to work through. They may not see their habit as a problem, which means they definitely would not put forth the effort to change it.
d) If I keep repeating the same logic, they will eventually see the err of their ways and will change miraculously.
I know the feeling. You constantly say the same thing over and over about how your loved one’s life could change for the better if they only listened to you. You’re telling them exactly how their current habits are harmful, and how fantastic it will be if they change. How could they not change when the answer is right in front of them?
Stables et al. (2002) describes a national fruit & vegetables campaign that was run in the U.S. This campaign’s intent was to spur motivation amongst U.S. adults to eat more fruits and veggies by providing information about healthy vs. unhealthy behaviours.
A review of this campaign completed by Casagrande, Wang, Anderson, & Gary (2007) revealed that U.S. adults were now more informed about how to be healthy, but were not actually eating healthier.
What this means, ultimately, is that human beings can know A-Z about how to be healthy, how to reduce stress, and how to practice self-care, but this knowledge alone will not always (and in fact, will rarely) translate to sustained behavioural change.
Habit formation begins with pre-initiation. The person themselves must form the intention to change a habit.
Then, they themselves must make the effort to plan how they will change the habit. (Initiation)
After that, they themselves must repeat these positive behaviours under the same contextual cues. (Habit formation)
Finally, they themselves must maintain this behaviour over about 2.5 months before they themselves develop a well-formed habit. (Habit maintenance)
It’s not about us. It’s about them. We can support them to be sure, but with the emotional and mental distance of knowing that habit change is ultimately up to the individual themselves.
Be kind to yourself by validating your struggle, and accepting the things you cannot control.
I always believe that behind every “nagging” spouse, partner, friend, or parent, is genuine concern and love. We want our loved ones to be healthy, prosperous, and happy. We hate seeing them stressed out, struggling, and stuck in the same patterns and routines.
It is okay to feel upset when you see your loved ones suffering. Even if it is only your own perception and not reality that your loved one requires a habit change, your emotions are valid. Please try to tell yourself that this is the case! Recognize that this desire to help your loved ones to develop positive habits is a common experience in humanity.
You’ve now learned some basics about habit formation that hopefully helped you to start letting go of your personal responsibility to your loved ones’ habits. Perhaps your desire to change your loved ones is also a habit! I know it’s a habit of mine for sure. Becoming aware of these tendencies is always the first step!
Always remember to be kind to yourself,
Casagrande, S. S., Wang, Y., Anderson, C., & Gary, T. L. (2007). Have Americans Increased Their Fruit and Vegetable Intake? The Trends Between 1988 and 2002. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(4), 257–263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2006.12.002
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327965PLI110401
Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137–S158. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2011.603640
Stables, G. J., Subar, A. F., Patterson, B. H., Dodd, K., Heimendinger, J., Van Duyn, M. A. S., & Nebeling, L. (2002). Changes in vegetable and fruit consumption and awareness among US adults: Results of the 1991 and 1997 5 A Day for Better Health Program surveys. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102(6), 809–817. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-8223(02)90181-1