Starting with Step 2, you have acquired a new perspective. To break an unbreakable habit, you don’t focus doggedly on the habit itself. You change your life so that this bad habit becomes obsolete. Your new life supports habits that are good for you. In other words, you focus on the person as opposed to the habit. You put your efforts into changing the ecosystem. You build an ecosystem that will support the life you want.
Let’s talk more about the notion of ecosystem now that you are starting to examine the patterns in your life.
How are patterns formed?
A paradox of the human condition is that our tremendous ability to learn can be a great asset and a significant liability. The downside of our ability to form and reinforce habits is how solidly ingrained bad habits, including self-defeating habits, can become.
We generally don’t acquire bad habits with the intention of doing something harmful. Usually, these habits start as a coping mechanism, i.e., a way to deal with an otherwise unmanageable situation. They get reinforced through a dual action that feels like a carrot and a stick. The “stick” is the pressure and fear that drive us to react. So, we go with what we know without examining alternatives. The “carrot” is the relief and the dopamine reward that follows the coping reaction.
The intensity of the relief and reward, on the one hand, and the pain and fear, on the other hand, make a mockery of our efforts to eradicate bad habits through willpower alone.
The word “eradicate “is a good one, especially if you remember that this word stems from the Latin word for “roots.” If you think of a habit as a tree, you can see that it is connected to the ground through a network of roots. These roots not only provide nutrients for the tree; they also anchor it solidly in the soil. The older a tree is, the more difficult it is to uproot it.
Thinking in terms of ecosystem
An ecosystem means that various things work together as a whole to support each other. For instance, think about how bees and flowers work together. It takes the flowers to feed the bees, but it takes the bees to pollinate the flowers.
Thinking in terms of the ecosystem means thinking that there is interconnection, all of the parts work together. Think about the phrase “a habit that is deeply rooted.” It evokes a network of firmly planted roots that makes a tree that much harder to uproot.
To sustainably change a habit, we need to understand what this habit is a solution to, however imperfect it may be. We need to find a better solution. We need to find a new ecosystem that gives us an environment that is at least as good as the old ecosystem.
Keep in mind the image of roots as you think about the habits you want to uproot. Or another image, a stone wall, built by laying stone upon stone upon stone. It’s impossible to remove a stone at the bottom because it is held in place by the weight of the others.
These metaphors complement the metaphor I used for Step 2, the disentangling of a tangled cord. They illustrate why it is so daunting to change an ingrained habit. What makes it hard to change is that it’s interconnected with a lot of other things. It’s part and parcel of life as a whole. So, essentially, to change a well-ingrained habit, you have to change your life as a whole.
The old ecosystem keeps reinforcing the bad habits. You need to build a new ecosystem to support new habits. This is what you do with the Twelve Steps.
If you want to change a habit, it is good to avoid the people, places, and things that trigger that behavior.
Emily, who wants to stop drinking, says: “I go to the bar every day after work, and I drink with my friends.” If she only focuses on her failure to stop drinking through willpower, she overlooks other considerations that might be relevant. For instance: Other possible ways of relaxing. The possibility of finding other friends. Or, is her work a source of more stress than she can handle?
Asking these questions is not a way to find excuses for what she does. The point is to give herself a solid foundation to understand why she does what she does and change it effectively.
Little by little, she will be making changes in her life. She might develop friendships that are around something other than drinking. She might find different ways to relax. She might conclude that the job is not right for her and change jobs.
In other words, she will be changing the building blocks of her life. She will develop an ecosystem that makes it possible for her to have a satisfying life without drinking.
In a nutshell
Why do the 12 steps talk so much about life change and so little about habits that need to change? If habits are difficult to eradicate, think of them as intertwined with the fabric of your life. Keep in mind that your life as a whole reinforces them. So, you need to change your life if you want to succeed in changing these habits.