How Do I Adult: Fixing Problematic Behavior

One thing I don’t see getting a lot of attention in terms of how to be an adult is learning to change our own behaviors, if we happen to have bad habits or such things. When we’re children we get a great deal of assistance (or pressure) from our parents/other responsible adults, but once we grow up that changes. We’re on our own.

Some people seem to treat adulthood as being somehow a “finished product,” we’re done developing now. I do not at all find that to be the case, at least not for me. I am a work in progress and I plan to be for the rest of my life. Other times I see people treating changing behavior as an adult as something that is somehow simple, not requiring a great deal of thought or effort. I have not found that to be true either. Habits and behaviors can get really quite engrained, and changing that behavior can be really quite challenging.

I am going to go through the process I use to change a behavior that needs changing. In order to have an example I’m going to pretend that I still suck my thumb, and I’ve decided that I need to stop.

1. Start noticing when I do it

Once I’ve identified a problematic behavior in myself, my first step is learning to notice when I’m doing it. This can be surprisingly challenging – the more ingrained a behavior is, the more likely it is that I will do it without thinking about it or even taking any sort of conscious notice. So this involves a great deal of watching myself and creating mental checkpoints to help alert me to the behavior. If I have good friends who are willing to help, it can be really quite helpful if they point out to me any time they notice the behavior, since I might not have. However, if you are going to ask for help this way, make sure you always respond graciously when the behavior is pointed out. Getting irritated or snippy will mess up the process. It might also help, if I am feeling particularly obsessive about it, to keep a log of when I find myself doing it.

Note: this step actually does not involve any amount of behavior modification at all. I am only trying to notice when it happens.

Once I am reasonably sure that I am noticing the behavior more often than not (trying to achieve perfection before moving forward is ultimately self-defeating), it’s time to move to step two.

2. Choose a replacement behavior

This step is incredibly important. Re-training a behavior will go far better than attempting to un-train a behavior. Plus, any ingrained behavior has a high probability of actually doing something for me, however maladaptive it ultimately is. So choosing a replacement behavior may involve figuring out why I’ve been doing the thing I need to change, so that I can choose a better, healthier behavior that will achieve the same end.

So if I suck my thumb, maybe I do it to deal with stress or sensory overload. Maybe I tend to stim with my mouth. If I were to just try to stop sucking my thumb without deliberately choosing a replacement, I would almost certainly replace it anyway. However, the replacement behavior might not be any better than the behavior I’m trying to change – maybe I would simply switch to clenching or grinding my teeth. That would just give me another behavior to try to change down the road. So instead, I must choose something else to do instead. Maybe I could chew gum, or suck on a lollipop, or get a fidget toy designed for mouth stimulation.

3. Start replacing

Now we finally get to the part where we start changing the behavior. Using the skills developed in step one, I will use my replacement behavior whenever I notice myself sucking my thumb. If I find it particularly difficult to consistently replace the behavior, I might focus on this step for a while. If I find it coming easily I may start on step four right away.

Regardless, much like step one, this step is also meant to be continuous. Hopefully each step will get easier as I keep doing it, but I do not stop working on it simply because I’ve added another step to the mix.

4. Notice the behavior ahead of time

This one is getting a little advanced. In this one, I try to start noticing when I am about to engage in the behavior, before I actually start doing it. If I kept a log in step one, it would probably become very useful now. This becomes about identifying patterns and noticing triggers – what’s causing me to suck my thumb? Is there anything that usually happens just before I get an urge to suck my thumb? What patterns can I find?

I also tend to find it the most challenging of all the steps. Often I will have started to notice ahead of time at least a little just in doing steps one through three, but managing it reasonably consistently is another matter entirely. Still, keep at it. This is how I ultimately eliminate a behavior, rather than simply correcting it when I see it.

5. Replace before it starts

Finally, once I am pretty good at noticing when I am about to suck my thumb, I would start engaging my replacement behavior before my thumb ever reaches my mouth. The end goal is ultimately to replace a bad habit with a good (or at least better) habit, so it is important to be consistent and to use the replacement behavior as soon as possible in each instance. The more I do it, the easier it will get.

In the end, I have eliminated a maladaptive behavior and replaced it with something healthier, without leaving myself with a hole in my coping mechanisms or focusing on “fighting” myself. If a behavior is particularly complex a straightforward replacement might not be enough – I may need to add extra coping mechanisms into the mix. Changing a behavior is unavoidably stressful, but if I can reduce that stress in any way, I will. Ideally the replacement will ultimately be more appealing than the problematic behavior was, though it may take time to get to that point.

What sorts of things do you do when you find a behavior you need to change?

Do you have any ideas for a How Do I Adult post? Let me know in the comments or through the Have an Idea? tab!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How Do I Adult: Fixing Problematic Behavior

  1. PK

    I so identify. I’m an NT, and to think that we’re somehow magically “done” developing makes no sense. I’m almost 50, and there are still things changing, things that need to be changed, and it’s hard.

    I just read a helpful hint that I’m trying (saw it on facebook or linkedin). It was to use computer passwords as a behavioral agent – like if you want to lose weight, make it “eatmorefruitsnveg” or something like that. I changed several passwords to the thing I want to change. And it’s interesting, because you HAVE to type these words more than once a day, every day, if you use a computer. Maybe that’ll help? I’m hoping it does for me 🙂

  2. I follow a sequence similar to yours in principle, I just wasn’t being so consciuos about it. However, I do it in a different way which is very hard to explain but quite effective, using my imagination to unroot the behaviour. Something like this: I assign visual symbols/concepts to the components of the problem behaviour (breaking it down into parts). They are not only visual though, they also represent emotions and other sensations so each “feels” a certain way. I imagine the whole behaviour sequeence as comprising these physical, colourful parts organised in a space, a bit like if you took an engine apart and arranged the parts on a piece of cloth. I then gradually get used to detaching myself from the behaviour as a whole over a period of time, while I take bits and pieces of it (the important / necessary parts) and work into other behaviour sequences that either I was doing anyway, or new replacement behaviour.

    It isn’t that much of a conscious process as it may sound like now, except I made it so now when I thought about it. It is quite likely that this can only work for me and is useless to others. It is also quite likely I did not manage to describe it very well, it is very difficult to describe the process of thinking and imagining, so I had to simplify it.

    Apart from that, I agree with you and PK above that it makes no sense to assume development stops when one is adult. I’ve also continued to develop all my life (I am in my 40s) and continue to do so, and I am also sure that the process doesn’t stop until I die:-)

    My imagination has also continued to develop and is much more advanced now compared to when I was a kid, I can use it as a strategic toolboox now (that gets new tools and upgrades by itself:-), whereas when I was a kid it was mainly an escape way into fantasy worlds.