What's Behind Our Habits And Compulsions?

The beginning of the year is typically a time of picking up new habits and giving up old ones. With the new year promising a fresh start, we are motivated to stick to the resolutions we have set ourselves. We are hopeful that this time round, we will have enough willpower to keep to our resolutions.

It is therefore interesting to consider that sheer willpower alone is not what ultimately helps us stick to our resolutions.

The reason for this lies in the way we think about the urges or compulsions that lead us down patterns we would rather change. Whether it is the tendency to binge on certain comfort foods, pouring another glass of wine too many or saying yes to yet another task at work when you already have too much going on, it’s easy to recognise these behaviors by the guilt that it brings afterwards. We know we’ve fallen into our compulsions by the familiar guilt between knowing what is better for us yet giving in to the urge we feel in our bodies. When the quickest way to feel less uncomfortable is to eat away our sadness, drown our loneliness in alcohol, or bury our insecurities in work, it’s often our compulsions that win out.

This is why the key to keeping to our resolutions is to listen and understand what our compulsions are really trying to tell us. Giving into our compulsions serves the purpose of relieving ourselves of the (short term) need to feel more comfortable (or less uncomfortable). The pressing need to 'feel better' is the urgent conveyance of a message about the imbalance of from our mind about our body. So while willpower will only carry us so far, it is our ability to listen to our compulsions that helps to sustain new habits.

Listening to our compulsions means that we can attend to the urges that come up in a kinder and healthier way. Instead of reacting quickly and seeking to fix some discomfort through compulsive habits, being attentive and compassionate about our needs allows us to focus on cultivating patterns which are good for our future selves. We end up becoming more self-disciplined and therefore make decisions which will serve us better in the long run.

By practicing listening to our mind and body with kindness and compassion, we learn to take pause and respond to our needs properly by engaging in decisions and behaviors that truly satisfy us instead.

The next time you notice an urge or craving to do something (buying or eating junk food, pouring yourself another drink, tuning out through mindless social media surfing), take a moment to ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Where is this urge or craving coming from in my body? (Is there a part of my body that feels particularly uncomfortable or strongly about this urge?)
  2. What is the story I am telling myself about this urge? (What is the inner dialogue or narrative that’s running through my mind in this moment?)
  3. What is this urge really telling me I need?
  4. What can I do right now to respond in the wisest, kindest way possible?

By pausing to ask yourself these questions, even if you end up not making the most ideal choice, you’ve given yourself a chance to practice listening to your needs.

The kindness and compassion you show to yourself, if only for a moment, puts you back in control of yourself rather than having your compulsions control you.


*Interested in reading more about what's behind our compulsions? Check out the book The Gift of our Compulsions by Mary O'Malley.