Bad Habits or Coping Skills?


Folks tend to feel quite a bit of shame when they talk with their medical providers about their ‘bad’ habits. 

How they: 

  • Drink too much 
  • Watch too much TV or mainline Netflix
  • Vape or smoke 
  • Use recreational substances 
  • Eat mostly takeout or pre-prepared foods 
  • Don’t exercise regularly
  • Have a sketchy sleep schedule….

You get the idea. 

Perhaps you too have a few habits you keep to yourself as best you can. Maybe you’ve shaded the truth with some wishful thinking. When I’ve sat in the patient’s chair, or on the doctor’s table, I have too, to be honest. 

On the other side of things, as a doctor, I don’t see any habits as ‘bad.’ To my mind, there’s no reason anyone should feel ashamed of their behaviors. These are the things that have gotten you to where you are! 

Instead of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ habits, I see behaviors that are more helpful in the short term, and those that provide long-term benefits. Sometimes these overlap (people who enjoy movement get immediate benefit while they’re engaged in their preferred activity, and reap the long-term physical and mental health rewards)… and sometimes they don’t (alcohol is enjoyable in the moment, and can cause misery the following day, and potentially serious long term health effects). Sometimes those bad habits are actually coping skills.

The truth is that nothing you do doesn’t serve some purpose or other. Every single behavior you carry out is rewarding in one way or another.* 

Does that mean it’s not worth exploring these behaviors and replacing them with habits that do support long term health? 

Not at all. Once you recognize a behavior pattern as maladaptive, or causing you more harm than good, it’s absolutely appropriate to start making some changes. 

AND, if you’re not ready to make changes, it does mean that it’s okay to let go of any shame or guilt you have around a behavior and call it for what it is. A valid means of coping for the time being.  

If someone says ‘I’m not ready to let [habit x] go’ I don’t fight them. 

We’ll talk through some information (so that you can make an informed decision), and then we’ll see what other areas are up for changes: 

  • You’re not up for diet changes, and can you add in a 15 minute walk after your mid-day and/or evening meal? 
  • The glass of wine at the end of the day is non-negotiable. Can you eat something before you drink? Maybe be mindful and fully present during your drink? 
  • Smoking is what’s getting you through the workday; can you do some gentle stretches in the morning, or add in a veggie at each meal? 

Although our culture tends to teach us that berating ourselves is an effective way to improve ourselves, in my experience shame and fear are rarely (never?) effective tools for sustainable long-term change. The shame also hurts in some very real ways. 

So instead of piling harm on top of harm, why not make some room for ease and possibility. Maybe you can practice gratitude towards the past you who started in on that habit, because at the time, it was the best they knew how to do. 

And, of course, if you’re not sure what next step to take to find a new way of doing things, let us know! 

*Whether you’re consciously aware of why they’re rewarding, well, that’s an excellent reason to get thee to a qualified counselor ASAP. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we have some great ones over here at Ancora! 

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