Old habits die hard. Be it smoking, gossiping, raising your temper, pointing out others’ flaws, avoiding responsibility, or getting defensive, when something becomes familiar and comfortable, pathways get set up in the brain and it becomes a knee-jerk behavior.
Here are a few tips on how to change a bad habit and be a better spouse, family member, or friend:
1. Become aware of the problem. When I was training to be a marriage and family therapist at USC, one of the things we would do is film sessions with families. Then we would sit down with the families and let them watch the tapes. It was amazing how many people would look at the videos and say, “I can’t believe I do that! I can’t believe I say that! I can’t believe I make those faces!” It had been tough for them to see before because their behavior was so habitual and normal. Therefore, when you discover or are confronted with something you do that hurts somebody else, don’t ignore it.
2. Be honest with yourself. Whether you have figured it out by yourself or it was pointed out to you, you have to acknowledge that you have hurt someone else. You need to take a good look at yourself and admit you have a problem. That’s the only way you’ll change your actions.
3. Apologize. Apologizing doesn’t just mean saying, “I’m sorry.” It needs to be followed by, “What can I do to make up for it?” The answer you get in response will help you find a way to make things right. Furthermore, you can’t apologize and then do the same thing again. Repeating the hurtful behavior makes your apologies meaningless.
4. Think before you speak. Before words come out of your mouth, ask yourself, “What do I really want to convey? How will he or she interpret what I say?” Anticipate people’s sensitivities. Take time to figure out what you’re going to say in a tactful manner, otherwise, button your lip. Not everything that is true needs to be spoken.
5. Show empathy. Instead of saying, “I don’t really understand why they’re getting so upset,” put yourself in your loved one’s shoes and feel what he or she is feeling. One thing I used to do in private practice and still do with couples on the air is have one person defend the other’s point of view. For example, if a husband comes home and isn’t very cuddly and friendly, his wife has to adopt his perspective. She might say, “I had a long day at work and, on top of that, there was horrible traffic coming home.” And then I do the reverse. If a husband is complaining about why things aren’t neat when he comes home, he has to take on his wife’s point of view: “I had x number of things to do in addition to taking care of the kids, so I couldn’t make everything perfect.” It’s amazing what a difference showing some understanding can make. Just the look on the other person’s face when you defend why they do what they do is priceless. (Just for fun, try playing this game tonight with your spouse!)
6. Control your temper. When you’re about to fly off the handle, remember the old “count to 10″ trick.
7. Practice, practice, practice. It takes about 30 or so repetitions to create a new habit, so stay with it. As you probably know, one of my hobbies is shooting pool. What’s fascinating to me is how if I miss a shot and try to do it again thinking I’m doing something different, I’ll hit it the exact same way. I have to set up the shot seven or eight times until my brain sees it differently. We’re like that with everything – it takes repetition for your brain to set down a new pattern and become comfortable with it.
8. Listen when others speak. Instead of getting defensive and assuming everything is a criticism, allow other people to help you recognize certain ways you could improve. Unless the person is downright mean and nasty, listen to them. You may think they’re putting you down when they’re really trying to lift you up.
9. Remember that relationships have to be a win-win. If one of you loses in a relationship, you both do. Always trying to “win” an argument is only going to cause more hurt. For example, when a woman’s husband doesn’t want her to stay at home with their kids, I tell her to say how much more relaxed, loving, and available she’s going to be, and that she’s impressed with him as a man even though it’s going to be a little scary without the extra income. That way it’s a win-win: he feels elevated and so does she. If you can’t fix it so both of you feel like you’ve won something, then put the issue away and come back to it another day.
10. Believe in yourself. You have to believe that you actually can change. Trying is no good – you have to do it!
11. Remind yourself that you want this. You either want to be a better person or you don’t. It’s that simple.