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How to Ditch Bad Habits—and Bad Relationships
Represent staff

Julie Sahlein is a psychotherapist with The Fostering Connection, a New York-based group of therapists who volunteer to treat foster children for free. She talked to Represent about how to stop destructive habits and move past toxic relationships.

Q: Why are things we know are bad for us so hard to give up?
A: When people in our lives have failed us, we may give up trying to get our needs met by other human beings. If we can manage our emotions through drugs, alcohol, eating, starving, compulsive sex, cutting, even obsessive exercise or work, we get the illusion of control over our lives.

We turn to our addictions instead of to human relationships because we want to protect ourselves from feeling hurt or let down by others. Our addictive behaviors give us the false sense that we are in control of our lives when, in fact, our addictions are in control. Some addiction experts believe that addiction is the opposite of connection.

For foster kids, relationships have not been safe. So it makes sense to substitute solitary activities for people. The problem is that the addictive behavior makes the bad feelings go away temporarily, but doesn’t help the person resolve those bad feelings. As soon as you stop the addictive behavior, the painful feelings are right there waiting for you.

And the solitude stunts your growth. It is necessary to have an emotionally safe relationship with an adult for kids and teens to continue growing emotionally. All human beings need nurturing relationships with other human beings in order to keep growing.

Q: How do you find a replacement for a destructive habit or pattern? How do you stop yourself from going back to the bad thing?
A: You remind yourself that you’re hurting yourself and making your life harder. A useful question to ask yourself is, “What can I do right now that would be good for me?”

You can learn to be more aware of how you feel. Sometimes it helps to say out loud, “I am about to do something that will harm me because I feel out of control.” That can help you stop and think to hit the pause button. Count to 10 or take five deep breaths.

Imagine what someone you care about might say to guide you, or imagine what you would advise a friend or a younger sibling to do. That can give you perspective.

All of us tend to be more vulnerable to self-destructive behavior when we’re not feeling our best. Ask yourself the four questions in the HALT acronym: Am I feeling Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If you’re angry or lonely, you should try to text or call someone before you act. (If you’re hungry or tired, eat or rest.) If you can’t reach anyone, sit down and write out your struggle as completely as possible: “I really feel like getting high; I feel so bad right now, but I need to remember how bad I feel after I come down. What would I tell my little sister to do? I wouldn’t let her use drugs because I love her.”

Give yourself one hour before you do the bad thing. In an hour, the difficult feelings may have passed.

Something I suggest to my patients is to come up with a list of three activities that make them feel better so they don’t go back to the destructive action. Examples are watching a funny video, taking a hot shower, running, or calling someone.

Q: How else can therapy help?
A: Sometimes the painful feelings ARE too much for one person to bear alone. When you share those feelings with a therapist, it can feel like each of you is carrying half the burden. Over time, you start to internalize the feeling of value and worth you get with the therapist even when you’re not with them.

Often people rush into self-destructive behaviors because they’re afraid of feelings like anger, disappointment, hurt. The therapist can help show you that you can survive feeling those feelings.

image by YC-Art Dept

Q: How do you build on success and not backslide?
A: One reason the AA model (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) works is because it forces people to remember their vulnerabilities or weaknesses. Remembering and staying connected to your weakness is actually strength.

You have to remember and expect that there will be strong pulls back to drugs, fighting, cutting, whatever it is. It’s good to set up healthy alternatives like exercise, relaxation time, and socializing. Too much time alone can make you feel depressed or anxious, which makes you likelier to relapse. It’s a good idea to build a fair amount of structure and human contact into your life to keep you from relapsing.

Q: What about when the destructive element is a person? Why do abused kids so often end up with abusive partners?
A: We are all powerfully drawn to what is most familiar, and that includes familiar things that harm us. It’s partly because abuse tears down your self-esteem. Even if part of us thinks we deserve better, abuse victims don’t fully value themselves, so they don’t prioritize their well-being.

If you’ve been abused or neglected, as most foster kids have, you haven’t been shown how to love yourself. You may be pulled toward unhealthy relationships as you get older.

Deep down, we believe the mistreatment was our fault, that we deserved it because we weren’t pretty enough, smart enough, good enough. We were somehow inadequate. So we get a boyfriend who abuses us in ways that remind us of our father, for example, and if we CAN be pretty enough, smart enough, a good enough girlfriend, we will prove that we were good enough after all. When we get involved in toxic relationships we are trying to heal ourselves.

But it’s not going to work because, in fact, the other person is abusive because of their own issues. It really has nothing to do with us and our imagined inadequacies.

Q: If the original abuse was by a family member, should you break ties with them? Forgive them?
A: True forgiveness is often a long and painful process. You need to mourn the relationship you would have liked to have had with the person but didn’t. You need to feel the grief of the loss; there are no shortcuts to forgiveness.

Most people find that they feel peace if they can let go of anger and resentment, but that doesn’t mean you have to see the person. Forgiving a person who has harmed you has to co-exist with valuing your well-being and protecting yourself. Forgiving someone because you understand, say, that they abused you because someone abused them, doesn’t mean you let them hurt you more. Forgiving the person isn’t the same as saying what they did was OK.

You may decide you can have some relationship but limit contact and limit what you share. It sounds hard, but people often intuitively do this; you know who you shouldn’t spill your guts to. Trust needs to be earned gradually. Hold out for repeated positive experiences with the person over time. That’s the only way you’ll know if an abuser has really changed.

If you keep giving someone a chance and they keep letting you down, it makes sense to cut off contact, at least for a while. You shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t forgive the person. There’s no one right path to healing. Learning to trust and respect your own feelings is an important part of becoming healthier.

Q: How do you leave the pain behind?
A: If you continue to have positive experiences in your life, you may be less invested in that pain. A skillful therapist can help you accept that what happened happened and that you can’t change it. Then you can focus on what’s good in your current life and work on developing more in your current life that feels good. If, over time, your rage does not lessen, you may want to ask yourself if more vulnerable feelings like hurt and sadness are hiding underneath the rage. Anger fills us up and makes us feel more powerful, so it may be our preferred mode of hurting. But you heal the most when you deal with all the feelings.

It’s worth it to go to therapy and revisit the old pain so you can heal. It takes so much energy to avoid your pain that you’re robbed of energy that could go toward moving forward in your life and getting new, healthier relationships. Avoiding your pain is exhausting.

I don’t know why, but human beings need other people to heal. Even the strongest, smartest people need that connection.

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