Breaking the Habit: “I Can’t Help Myself”
Sometimes you find yourself dangerously close to a piece of cheesecake. It inches even closer to you, begging to be eaten. “I can’t help myself,” you find yourself saying, as if an extra-terrestrial being has taken hold of you and forced down the cake.
This reminds me of a troublemaker I went to school with whose yearbook quote read: “Lead us not into temptation. Just leave us alone. We’ll find it.” Kicking the cheesecake habit is hard. But it is not impossible if you will it.
Even though they say that bad habits are hard to break, Charles Duhigg, in his recent book, The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote.
We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that, “Your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.” It needs to be fortified.
If repetition is the key to habit then recalibrating behaviors and doing them again and again in a different way becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but still do-able. Research done at Duke University shows that 40 percent of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866) was a Talmudic scholar and the first Gerer Rebbe, a Hasidic sect popular in Poland. Many stories and legends have evolved about the Rebbe’s piety and knowledge. Martin Buber, in Tales of the Hasidim, shares a well-known story about the Rebbe.
When his mother died, he followed her bier, begging for forgiveness. He spoke to his mother’s coffin, “In this world, I am a man who is much honored and many call me rabbi. But now you will enter the world of truth and see that it is not as they think. So forgive me and do not bear me a grudge. What can I do, if people are mistaken in me?” Perhaps he understood that those who came to her funeral were doing so out of honor for him, taking away from his mother’s honor. He apologized.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir did not posses any research from Duke University, but he did spend a lot of time contemplating the battle of good over evil. He warned his followers: “There will be many and grave temptations, and he who has not prepared himself for them will be lost.”
You cannot prepare yourself for temptation when you are standing in front of it. You will not have had time or forethought to form the good habits you need to overcome desire. Imagine going to Siberia in the winter. Only when getting there do you realize that you need a coat. Ill prepared, you cannot stay.
But this would never happen because we check the weather before we travel. We can also check ourselves before we enter a situation that we suspect will present a test of our willpower. Temptation, according to the Gerer Rebbe, is something we prepare for precisely because he believed that temptation is a test: “It shows what within you is dross and what is true metal.” When your temptation level feels like jello, it’s time to remember Rabbi Yitzchak Meir and remind yourself that you’ve got nerves of steal.
Temptation is overcome by forming good habits and repeating them. That’s true when it comes to speaking well of others, praying, giving charity, studying, exercising, visiting the sick, and spending time with our families. We know where temptation lives, but research now helps us understand that we can knock on another door.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list here.