Note: In October, I’m doing a month-long treatise on habits. All of the posts will be found here if you’d like to read them in order.
Yesterday I talked about how habits work. Knowing this information is key, because in order to break bad habits, you must break the cue-routine-reward chain.
In my post on my bad habits, I shared that I’ve been working on two things: chewing the inside of my mouth, and eating too fast. The latter was easier, so let’s talk about that first.
The cue is obvious: the feeling is hunger; the place is sitting down to eat a meal. (The reward is obvious too: satiety. A full belly. Everybody loves that!) But as I began watching myself, I realized that when I eat alone, I don’t eat quickly. Having my family around makes me feel as if I have to hurry. There is always a baby that’s going to run out of patience and need me, or a preschooler that will choose the dinner table as the battleground to test her daddy’s limits… the stress of that is what makes me eat so quickly. I doubt mealtimes will become very peaceful overnight… it will take time for my youngest children to mature. In the meantime, I developed a couple of tricks to slow myself down.
One, I made a rule that I cannot have my fork in my hand while there is food in my mouth. Once I put the food in my mouth, I have to put my fork down until I swallow. This makes me chew a bit longer. Then, I pick up my fork to get another bite. What I used to do is get my fork-full “ready” while I was still chewing the last mouthful. That’s no good. It’s like having your foot on the gas and the brake at red lights. Easy, trigger.
I could buy an electronic fork that lights up and vibrates when I eat too fast, but I’d rather save the $50.
And, I eat pizza with a fork. Because I can put down some pizza.
The other bad habit, chewing my mouth, is much harder. After spending a few days paying attention, I realized that I do it when: (cue) I’m feeling anxious or stressed about some future event. Interestingly, I am always sitting when I bite too. That’s another cue. I don’t bite when I’m doing housework, or cooking, or walking, or playing outside with the kids. It’s when I’m sitting down. So perhaps it’s nervous energy. Now, when I start biting, I take it as a cue to get up and move.
I don’t know what the reward of biting one’s lips and cheeks could be. It’s painful sometimes, as well as very unattractive. Perhaps chewing itself is pleasurable.
Regardless, it doesn’t matter. Now, when I get the urge to chew, or notice myself doing it, I do a few of the following things:
Immediately write down on paper what’s on my mind, what’s bothering me. I get a glass of ice water and sip it through a straw to keep my mouth busy (this is surprisingly effective, even better than chewing gum, leading me to wonder if mouth chewing is a sign of mild dehydration…). I get up, if possible, and go outside for a brief walk. I apply lipstick or lip balm so my lips feel moisturized. I take deep breaths and relax my jaws, blowing out through my mouth.
Most of the time these new, better habits work beautifully. But occasionally? Not so much. Last weekend is an example. I had done so well all week that the inside of my mouth had healed up nicely. I was proud of myself. But on Saturday, I kept noticing myself slipping into the old habit of chewing. I felt as if I literally could not stop myself. At this point it was becoming an exercise of willpower (which is a bad way to break bad habits!).
First I popped a piece of gum in my mouth. Then I began to think about what was bothering me so much that it had my intestines all in a twist, causing nervous tension all the way up my digestive system, leading to rabid mouth chewing.
Turns out I was feeling very anxious about an upcoming event. I really wanted to be at this event, but I was worried about seeing someone there who I would rather avoid (and lest you think I’m a shallow ninny, this person has literally threatened my wonderful husband with death. This is a borderline individual). I was feeling conflicted, to say the least, and I was also worried about breaking the news that we weren’t going to the kids, who were looking forward to going. I was also feeling resentful about missing it because of this other crazy person’s presence.
I talked with my husband about my feelings and he agreed, and suggested a different plan of action. We took the kids to the park for a lovely hike and play time, and everyone was happy.
And my lips aren’t bleeding. So all good.
Do you have any bad habits you’re working on breaking? How did you do it?