How We Become Stuck in Dysfunctional Habits: A Guide to Getting Unstuck

by Aug 3, 2016

Usually articles on habit formation appear around the New Year. I figured, why wait! After all, there’s no rule that says you must stop or start a habit only after the new calendar year has begun. We all have old habits that we have tried to break, or new habits that we have tried to form, but they just didn’t take. In this article, I will unpack the hidden forces behind what makes habit formation (or cessation) successful, and share some ways you can start to put all of this into practice starting today – or whenever you choose to begin. After all, it ultimately comes down to (the very real power of) choice. The good news is, it is never too late to form new habits! 

How Habits Are Born

As with many things learned in therapy, one of the best ways to change something in your life is to first understand it’s origin and it’s purpose. A habit, by definition, is a behavior that occurs routinely, and more often than not, is occurring at the subconscious level. Habit formation begins with a triggering event that jumpstarts the brain into autopilot mode; For example, walking into the kitchen and before anything else is even consciously registering, the body gravitates towards the coffee pot. Next is the actual behavior, or the actual habit – the making of coffee. Finally, there is the reward that cements the formation of the habit – “Coffee gives me energy,” let’s say. Now remember, a “reward” is not necessarily good or bad. After all, we are “rewarded” by our bad habits too. That’s why they have stuck around with us! In this context, we refer to the outcome as a reward because it increases the likelihood that we will repeat the behavior again.


When we engage in behaviors that require our thoughtful consideration in order to make a decision, we are using our prefrontal cortex.

Prefrontal Cortex

Conversely, when we are in autopilot mode, as is the case with habits, a region known as the basal ganglia is doing the heavy lifting.

Basal Ganglia

So when a behavior becomes routine, or habitual, the brain has off-loaded the work to the basal ganglia to free up space and energy for more important problems and tasks for the prefrontal cortex to think about and work on. Think of it this way, the brain creates habits so that it can free up more space and energy for other mental activity. Can you imagine your morning routine taking longer, simply because each tooth that you brushed required an important decision that you needed to devote time and energy to? This would be absurd!

Changing Habits

Now that we understand a habit’s cycle and structural origin, we can begin to change things up. First, let’s look at our trigger, being in the kitchen early in the morning, with an empty stomach and heavy, crusty eyes, triggers us to move to the coffee pot like a moth to the flame. We are in basal ganglia mode! Instead of pairing that trigger with the behavior that gives us the chemical reward of coffee to stimulate us into an energetic state, we need to pair that trigger with a new response. We need to generate an intentional response that will, at first, require us to give thoughtful consideration to alternatives. This is how we switch the habit back over from the basal ganglia to the prefrontal cortex. But remember, this switch is not automatic, it will take conscious effort and (the very real power of) choice!

You can start with a simple slogan to remind yourself that you are trying to form a new habit; Perhaps you say to yourself, “Start with something different.” Now the brain is given a problem without the automatic solution of habitual coffee making. The prefrontal cortex can wake up, and work up different solutions:

  • “I could take a cold shower”
  • “I could do 20 push ups”
  • “I could go on a morning jog”
  • “I could simply go outside, open my eyes up wide, and take 10 deep breaths while stretching up towards the sun”
  • “I could spend 20 minutes catching up on emails”
  • “I could do literally anything other than mindlessly brewing coffee like the zombie that I am!”

Now we have paved the way for the successful birth of a new habit, but we’re not there just yet.

Follow Through and Reward Yourself

Reward Yourself

Recall that in order for a habit to survive it needs three key ingredients: 1) The associated triggering event that is paired with following behavior, 2) The actual behavior itself (the habit), 3) The reward that increases the likelihood that your brain will want to engage in that behavior again when presented with the same triggering event. In other words, when we look at our example, we will need to find an alternative behavior (the reward) that will give us the same, or a similar end result that coffee will give us. In this case, it would need to be a replacement behavior that invigorates us and leaves us feeling energized. If we go through all of that work to break the habit, but instead of taking a shower, or doing pushups, we decide to go back into bed and daydream, there will not be a high likelihood that we will be rewarded for this new behavior; put another way, daydreaming will not give us the same result as coffee. But going on a morning jog just might do the trick to give you that needed energy in the morning, before the body is relying on having food in the belly (and subsequently, the brain) to get you started with your day. Only you will know whether or not your reward is effective.

What About Dysfunctional Habits In My Family or Relationship?

So, you thought this article was going to help you get unstuck from dysfunctional relationship patterns did you? I will have to write that article later on this year. In the meantime, everything you just read holds true and can be applied to behaviors in your relationships. Take some time right now, if you choose, to think about a habit in any one of your relationships that you would like to change. Now think about where you learned that habit from. What is the reward that you get from engaging in that habit? Why has this habit stuck around for so long? More on this later – don’t forget to check back in! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go reward myself with a cup of joe ๐Ÿ˜‰

 Related Articles:
Motivation – Tips on Getting Started
Every Bite You Take: Nutrition and Mental Health
The Science of Happy Couples

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD, and specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His clinical specialties include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, therapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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