Dear Lauren,

Let’s say someone has been doing or thinking something for a while now and they know it does harm even though it may feel good to do or think that thing. How do they stop that? How can someone change a habit or their thought process?

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

I’m assuming that you’ve determine the action/thought is indeed harmful. How can you change it?

Step #1: Build up your belief in you. If you feel like a soggy piece of stepped-on, crumpled-up, used-up tissue sitting out on the driveway in the rain, you ain’t gonna be changin’ NO habits! Weak, broken, used-up people can’t change themselves. First they have to get strong enough to change themselves.

You have to know, with certainty, that if you are here on this Earth, then God deems you worthy and good at your inner core. God only allows worthy-and-good-at-their-inner-core people to walk the earth.

In order to feel better and better about yourself, you have to be of service to others.

Then, you have to use that “I am GOOD at my core” secure knowledge to help other people. Yeah, you heard me. In order to feel better and better about yourself, you have to be of service to others. So smile at your neighbor, give your seat to an aged person on the subway, give a little kid a nice “Hello!” It will add to your feeling of “I’m good and I’m here to do good on this Earth.”

And, of course, you’ll only be able to give to others if you take care of yourself. So part of this whole process includes: (a) figuring out what you love to do, and; (b) doing it! It doesn’t help you to figure out that you love Zumba if you never go to the classes. It doesn’t help you to figure out that you love learning Torah with a partner if you don’t set up the learning time. It only helps you, once you’ve figured out that you love to play basketball, if you get out on the court and PLAY!

This week I was in session with a client who has depression. And he commented, “That vase on your table has a really beautiful shape.” I was so excited to hear him say that. If he can notice nuances of beauty around him, he’s on his way to exiting the clutches of depression (as much as he can exit a biologically-based disease).

The next step to making yourself strong enough to change is noticing all the good and all the beauty around you. My father called our house the other day. “Hello,” he said. “Just letting you know that I am looking at a lovely sunset. Bye!” That’s the kind of noticing beauty around you that will make you a stronger person. And sharing it with loved ones is even better.

Once you’ve done all the aforementioned steps, notice what it is you’re doing that’s harmful. Then formulate what it is that you would rather do. Be specific. You can’t say, “I don’t like wearing my bright red mini-skirt to work, so I just won’t.” You have to be specific: what will you wear instead? And how will you feel about what you would rather do? Will you feel alright with it? If you just say, “When my brother hits me, I’ll just take it and not scream at him,” that’s not going to work. You’re going to be in pain and you’ll eventually take that pain out on somebody or something. Make sure you’re okay with your plan B. Make sure it’s actually doable. If your plan is to dispose of your red mini-skirt, you have to have another skirt you really love to wear instead.

Replace the negative action/thought with another, positive action/thought.

You have to set up your life to replace the negative action/thought with another, positive action/thought. You can’t just NOT do something or NOT think something. You have to do a positive action or thought instead. If you want to stop smoking, you have to start another fun and healthful activity to do instead, with the same frequency as you smoke.

Of course, you also have to figure out what the root causes of your doing something harmful are. Otherwise, you’ll stop doing one harmful thing and fall right into doing another. Or fall right back into doing the same one again. For that, I’d say you’d probably need a therapist who can help you uncover root causes. Once you understand the root causes, they tend to have much less control over you. Once they have less control over you, YOU get to take control of your own life again.

I remember watching the movie about the life of Loretta Lynn when I was a kid. (She was the “First Lady of Country Music,” for those of you not from the South.) The most poignant part of the film is when she decides, in front of an audience of 10,000 people, that she just needs a break. She says something like, “My life is running me instead of me running my life, and I can’t go on like that.” Then she faints and is carried off the stage.

Don’t wait until you faint and have to be carried off to take control of the harmful things you are doing to yourself. I hope this article will help you control your life, so your life doesn’t control you.

Finally, there is one more immensely powerful tool you have in your arsenal: in Judaism, we believe that if the burden is too heavy for you to bear, you can give it to God. You can ask God to take away your habit. Just keep asking Him, and help will arrive – and you won't feel alone while you're going through the process. So, you do all the steps I listed above, and don't forget to enlist God's help by praying on it and praying on it.