Breaking a habit requires free will, not willpower.

How much have you beaten yourself up for not being able to make what you think is a simple change? Very few self-destructive habits require simple changes. And, rarely is breaking the habit a matter of willpower. To successfully break a habit you can start by understanding why you established the habit in the first place. You may have adopted this behavior as an emotional protection or painkiller, or to quiet fears. There are other reasons, too, but these are a few that most of us face.

The Five-Year Old You Will Always Win

I’d like to share a story of a young man who had an overeating problem. He only overate at home. At work and elsewhere he was fine. In his own home he found himself habitually overeating. He thought he had a willpower problem. The problem he did have was an unconscious repetition of a decision he made when he was five years old on how to emotionally handle his parents fighting all the time. He couldn’t leave. He couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t cry or make a fuss. In trying to find a way to feel good, and calm his body down, he discovered food helped him feel better. He was too young to solve it any other way. And, that 5-year- old has much at stake in his choice. He’s going to power that behavior with everything he’s got, which doesn’t leave much left over for new, better behavior.

Loving Your Five-Year Old’s Choices Can Turn Things Around

You will stay right where you are until you recognize that you did the best you could at the time. That’s love — for yourself then and now. Remembering what decisions you’ve made in the past that are still drawing power from your own will is key to freeing your will to choose new behaviors. Life Mechanics Exercise For this exercise, you’ll need a few sheets of letter-size paper or larger, a pencil or pen, and crayons or colored pencils. Take your time answering the below questions. You can do a few, then come back later to do the rest. Listen to yourself about what is a good pace.

  1. Step 1: On one sheet, write out the answers to the following questions: 1. What habit/behavior do you wish to change? 2. Why do you wish to change it? How does it affect your life? 3. What behavior/habit would you like to put in its place? 4. Do you remember the past situation that triggered it? 6. If you do remember, write down what you felt your choices were at the time. 7. At the time, how did adopting this behavior help you cope with the situation? 8. Does this situation still exist in your life?
  •  a. If you are, then what first step can you take to change your environment to one that supports the habit you would like to put in its place?
  • b. If you are not, then how does your current situation support the habit/behavior you’d like to put in its place?

Step 2: For this next part, think of yourself as behaving as two different people. The “Now” version, who has a better way of coping with the issue, and the “Then” version, who is still coping at the age you were when it all started. (To keep things simple, draw stick figures)

Step 3: a. On this page next to each of the two figures, write out some emotional characteristics of each. b. Look at your “Then” person you’ve drawn as they face the original situation. At the time, what other choices did you consider? Remember why you rejected those other choices and felt this one was the safest to make. c. Do the same for the “Now” version of you. What choices do you have now that you didn’t have back then to deal with the same situation? Write out the choice you would make now.

Step 4: Looking at the “Now” version of you, tell the “Then” you that the “Now” you will make all the decisions, and they can just relax. You can see that what you are doing is helping a fearful part of you realize that the threat no longer exists, and that a smart, caring adult (you) is in charge. As the days pass, you may find that you’ll need to reassure yourself that there is no need for the behavior because the danger is gone. Slowly, the emotional trigger will subside. If it doesn’t, then you may wish the further support of a counselor or a trusted friend.