How To Change Unhealthy Behaviors
Hello and welcome to episode 41 of the Men’s Self-Help Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. John Moore, and I’m a licensed psychotherapist out of Chicago, Illinois and I specialize in men’s work and men’s issues.
Now as we get into today’s pod, please be sure to hit that subscribe button so you never miss another show. Quick disclaimer, this podcast isn’t designed to act as a substitute for mental health counseling and I’m not your personal therapist.
Alrighty – let’s jump right into our topic. How to change unhealthy behaviors.
As a starting point, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.
- Do you find yourself regularly engaging in things you know you aren’t good for you?
- For example, do you drink to much, smoke too much or eat too much?
- Have you been over-buying things online, even though you know you don’t really need them – and frankly can’t afford them?
If any of this sounds familiar, welcome to the club! If we are being real about it, all of us are imperfect – and that includes me. In fact, I’ve done just about everyone of those things I just ticked off with some more than others.
And I’m saying this because in order for you to create a shift in something, like an unhealthy habit or even an addiction, you’ve got to be honest with yourself about what’s going on. And when I say honest, I’m talking about doing it in a way that is devoid of judgement and shame.
You may be wondering how can I do this? Well, hang tight because I’m going to go over all of this with you in just a few minutes as part of exploring the four keys to changing behavior.
But just for right now, I want you to think of that one thing – that one behavior – you’d like to change and just tuck it in your back pocket, because we’ll be coming back to it.
You know, I’ve been involved in field of counseling and coaching for nearly two decades and I’ve worked with just about every type of person you can imagine – from the school janitor who has found himself addicted to pain killers to the corporate executive hooked on adult vids.
Some were so poor they couldn’t afford the $2.00 bus ride to get to my office and others so rich that they pulled up in a chuffer driven car.
But regardless of their background, the common bond that united all of these people – regardless of their life station – was a strong desire to create change. And as I talk about this now with you, I’m thinking of a client I once worked with named Mike.
Now when Mike came to see me around 15-years ago, he was struggling with a series of life problems. He was in his late 30’s, overweight and hooked on booze and adults vids.
In order to get his sexual needs met – because hey we all have that part of us that needs nurturing, he’d spend hundreds of dollars on the weekend at massage parlors – and when I say massage, I’m talking about places that offer a happy endings, if you follow my drift.
Now I mentioned that last part to you not because I believe happy endings are a bad thing or that sex work is wrong. Nope. Personally, I think it’s kind of ridiculous that we criminalize that kind of thing between two consenting adults – and the keywords being consenting adults.
But I digress – back to Mike. The reason he came to see me was because there was a part of him who realized that his life was spiraling out of control. He didn’t like the way he looked, he hated how he had become addicted to alcohol, and he wasn’t happy about his relationship with video or the massage parlors.
What’s more, he was terribly in debt and was on the verge of losing his job as a fork-lift driver.
As I share some of that with you, maybe some of you can relate?
And so, Mike desperately wanted to become a new person. For him, he had gotten so depressed and accustomed to hating on himself that the man could barely look at himself in the mirror anymore.
He was depressed, lonely and even feeling a bit suicidal.
I can still hear him now saying to me: “Dr. John, please help me stop doing these things. I don’t like the person I’ve become.”
And you see this is what happens when a man like Mike comes to a person like me. They desperately hope that the counselor can magically “fix” them and make everything better.
But the sad truth is it doesn’t work that way. I mean hell yeah I wish I had a magic wand and could do an abracadabra on someone in that situation. That would be amazing! But the reality is the process of change starts with each of us – it starts with you.
Here’s a dirty little secret: Therapists and coaches can help a person to facilitate change, but the actual process of transformation begins with the individual.
So, what happens to a guy like Mike who had clearly reached a point of crisis? Can anything be done? Well, I’ll tell you exactly what I told Mike all those years ago and its actually good news.
Are you ready? Here it goes:
Crisis is the point in time when change is most likely.
Let me say that again: Crisis is the point in time when change is most likely.
And this makes sense, doesn’t it? We never really want to change a behavior if it’s not causing us problems, particularly if it brings us joy, right?
Like if you just stepped away from a slot machine after winning the $10,000 jackpot, you aren’t going to be running around saying, “Oh man, I really messed up. I just hate myself for winning all that cash. What the hell is wrong with me?
Nope – the crisis part happens when you lose the last $20.00 to your name on a poker game and realize, “Holly crap, I’m completely broke. I don’t even have enough money now to buy myself food – and the rent is past due, and my car note is late, and oh my God, my phone is about to get shut off. Why did I blow all my money on that poker game?
You see, that’s crisis. That’s when life gets real. And again, it is the point in time when change is most likely. Follow me?
All of this brings us back to our main topic – how can I change an unhealthy behavior? Well, now would be a good time for me to acquaint you with a technique called REST. Let me repeat that, REST and it stands for RELAX, EVALUATE, SET AN INTENTION and ACT.
Now as a matter of full disclosure, I didn’t make REST up. It comes to us from the world Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT -and it was conceptualized by the American psychologist, Dr. Marsha Linehan. If you want to know more about DBT, be sure to check out episode 33.
Now as we go over REST, keep in mind that this technique can be used as part of a change process. It isn’t designed to instantly stop an unwanted behavior or magically fix it.
Instead, REST can be used as part of finding the motivation to put you on the path to change. Does that make sense? I just want to be clear about that because anyone who says they can instantly fix any type of habitual or addictive problem is yanking your chain.
OK, let’s get to it:
Step One: Relax
For this particular key, I need you to go back to that one thing I mentioned at the start of the podcast you want to change. It could be your relationship with alcohol, it could be some other substance, or it could be a behavior.
And what I’d like you to do is project a thought bubble above your head. Yep, a thought bubble – kind of like what you might see in a comic book. And inside of that bubble you’re going to place the image or words of that one thing you are trying to change.
If it helps, take a deep breath and hold it for the count of four and then release.
Once you’ve done this, all I want you to do is observe that bubble. Yup yup, just observe it. If you are struggling to come up with an image, it’s OK to pull out a pen and paper and write down the word that represents that thing you want to change. For example: Alcohol, gambling, smoking, video – you get the idea.
The idea here is to create emotional distance from that one thing you want to change.
If this feels a bit strange to do, that’s fine – just go with it. There may be part of you who is resistant to this kind of thing because it feels too woo-woo. No problem, but I’d still like you to go with it and see how things shake out.
By engaging in this step, you are employing a powerful tool called mindfulness. Think of it as your very own super-power. Remember, all we are doing is observing. Follow me?
If you are wondering how long you should be holding this mental image, there is no right or wrong answer. Since our goal is for you to simply observe – devoid of judgement – the amount of time will vary. For some people, reaching a place of non-judgmental observation takes only a few moments. For others, it can take several minutes – or more – because the object itself is emotionally charged.
Your subconscious will let you know when you’ve reached the right place. If you need to pause this part of the pod and come back to it – that’s fine and dandy.
Once you are ready, let’s move to step two.
Step Two: Evaluate
Now that you’re able to evaluate this behavior you are holding, it’s time to evaluate. Notice I said evaluate and not judge because there’s a big difference between the two.
When we judge, we make a determination about a given behavior and its almost always negative. And honestly, do you really need to lay anymore guilt upon yourself? Of course you don’t because all that does is make you more likely to engage in that undesired behavior because it lets you escape from the guilt.
When we evaluate, we simply look at something objectively to determine its value. Here’s an example. Let’s say in my thought bubble I have projected a hamburger with fries because every night I’ve found myself eating fast food and it’s become an unhealthy habit.
In looking at that mental picture, I’m simply going to think about what value that behavior is bringing to my life. Some questions to ask as part of this step include:
- Is it helping me to look physically fit?
- Does it make me more attractive?
- Has it helped me to move closer to my goals or further away?
By evaluating a behavior instead of judging it, the behavior itself has less power over us? Does that make sense? Now here’s the thing with this step. It is important to not over analyze. All you want to do is assess this thing in your life from the vantage point of 30,000 feet. If you are using a microscope, throw it out guys because it’ll shoot you down a rabbit hole.
At this point, we aren’t trying to solve the problem. All we are doing is evaluating it’s value in our life? Does that make sense?
Now hang with me because in just a few moments, we’re going to go over the other two steps.
Visit Better Help using this link for a very special offer to the listeners of the Podcast.
OK, so you’ve done step one and projected that thing you’d like to change in your thought bubble and you’ve also taken care of step two, which is simply observing it and evaluating it’s presence.
Now we’re going to move to step three, which is:
Step Three: Set an Intention
And with this one, you you’re going to be doing pretty much what it suggests. I have found step three works best when it is verbally stated and then followed up by writing it down.
Here is an example of setting an intention:
I want to move closer to stopping my relationship with video.
Notice I didn’t say: I’ll never watch video again. You see, if your intention is something like that, you are forcing your mind into corner. And with bad habits or even addiction, we don’t want to do that because there can be a part of ourselves who rebels. Call it a younger version of the self or even what Sigmund Freud described at the ID. And the ID is devoid of time and space. It only wants what it wants – whenever it wants it – and it doesn’t like taking orders.
Real quick, I remember the first time I tried to change my relationship with cigarettes and ultimately end smoking. The more I told myself “I want to quit” the more I felt myself wanting another cigarette. And the reason for that is because it turns out the word “Quit” makes the subconscious mind feel like it’s giving something up, like it’s being punished.
It was only until I shifted my intention – I shifted my language did I find lasting change possible. I was able to do this by creating the following alternative intention:
I want to move closer to stopping my relationship with nicotine.
Do you see what I did there? The words MOVE CLOSER aren’t as scary. Moreover, I hacked into my brains Nucleus accumbens, an area of the pre-frontal cortex, known as the brain’s pleasure center. And in my hack, I introduced the possibility of change without freaking it out.
When you set your intention – verbally and then in writing – you are shifting your mindset slowly and gradually. And in my experience that is how lasting change happens, when we make adjustments incrementally and not instantly.
As part of this step, I encourage you to spend some time with your intention. You may want to mediate on it or you may want to write it down on a sticky note and slap it up next to your computer screen. Think of your intention as planting a seed.
And of this all goes back to that magic wand deal – that abracadabra thing I talked about before. Of course, if I’m addicted to alcohol, or nicotine or food or whatever it might be, I’m going to want to experience immediate results.
But let me ask you a question: When you’ve gone for instant results in the past, how did that work out? How long did that change last? Probably not long, right?
That’s why setting your intention and then spending time with it is so important. It plants the seeds of change.
OK, the final key or Step Number Four
Step Four: Take Action
With this one, we’re moving from a place of thought to action. And one of the best ways to do this is to start off with the question WHAT.
In other words, what is one small thing you can do to create change with a given behavior. Here’s how Mike used this step. He asked himself:
What’s one small step I can take to change my relationship with alcohol?
And when he asked himself this question, he realized that part of the reason he drank at home was because he was feeling bored and lonely.
And so, at night, when he came home from work, instead of sitting down on the couch and having a few glasses of scotch, he decided the one small thing he could do was 30 minutes of cardio at his local gym. This allowed him to be around people, which chased away the loneliness, and allow him to do something good for himself.
What he didn’t do was say, “I’m not going to drink anymore.” Nope, actually it was just the opposite. Instead, he left open the possibility that he could still drink. But here’s the thing and it kind of relates to physics.
Action encourages more action – in other words motion continues to accelerate on itself until something stops it.
Using that what question as part of step four, taking action, you might ask yourself:
What would it be like if I chose to an apple instead of a donut? What would it be like if I used my imagination when I self-pleasure instead of video? What would it be like if I spent 5 minutes reading an article about nicotine addiction, instead of instinctively lighting up?
You see, it is the WHAT question that infuses the shift and sparks action.
So, how did this look for Mike? Well, simply put, he started to build momentum and accelerate the change process. He thought to himself, “If I can do cardio at night and not drink, what else can I do?”
And that’s when the wheels really started turning for him. He joined a support group for others struggling with alcohol abuse. He began creating change around the things that were robbing him of his self-esteem, like how the booze was making him feel crappy and how adult imagery was cheating him out of meaningful intimacy.
Now here’s the deal. Some of these realizations happened as part of counseling, where we used a strength-based approach to help him draw upon his own to empower change. I’ve put a link to the website positive psychology to help explain this more so be sure to check it out.
With all of that said, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that his transformation was fast or that he Mike didn’t experience some setbacks. He absolutely did. But you see, that’s how change works. It’s a series of starts and stops, slips, and falls, until ultimately, we are on the path we want to be.
Does the REST technique work for everyone? Of course not. This is just one approach. Nothing ever can be guaranteed. But I will say that once we plant the seeds of change, it has a funny way of happening.
So, what’s going on with Mike today? Just to be straight up, I’m not 100% sure because the last time I ran into him was around three years ago. It was in front of Water Tower Place, in a stretch of land called “Chicago’s Magnificent Mile”.
He was waiting for a cab and shouted out to me as I walked into the building. At first, I didn’t recognize him because he looked so different. I mean yeah, he had aged but honest to goodness the guy looked great. He had lost weight and managed to keep it off.
He looked well rested, and I could even see there a little sparkle in his eyes. Long story short, we did the hello thing and shook hands. But before we could do any real catching up, his cab had arrived. Seconds later, he was gone.
But you know what, I didn’t need Mike to tell me how he was doing. It was obvious. I mean, you could just tell that the gift of change had visited him. That’s pretty amazing, you know?
Alright, before we close out this pod, let’s recap the four keys to changing unhealthy behaviors:
Step One: Relax
Step Two: Evaluate
Step Three: Set an intention
Step Four: Take Action
If you are interested in a workbook that contains a handout on the REST approach, along with other DBT techniques, I’ve put a link in show notes to the DBT Skills Workbook on Amazon.
We covered a lot in today’s show, don’t you think? Not only did you learn about a technique to create change around unhealthy behaviors, but you also learned a brain hack.
I’d like to take a moment to thank the website FEED SPOT for listing this pod among the top 100 podcasts for men.
And folks, now would be a good to for me to say that if you loved this show or any of my past podcasts, please take a moment right now to leave a review on whatever platform you may be listening. It only takes a minute – because it’s like this. The more people who leave a review, the higher this program shows up in the listings.
You know there’s lots of ways to reach me. You can visit website, Guy Counseling Dot Com – and there, you will find a number of articles I’ve written, along with a form to fill out to get my newsletter.
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So, there we have it, another show. Make it your goal today to put a smile on someone else’s face. I hope you have an amazing day!