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Hamstrung by Habit

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 97 - March 2004

My neighbours across the road where I live are a youthful early-retired couple. Nice people, with a nice dog and firm views on just about everything. They are both free as air and yet, to my lasting amazement, they do their weekly shopping on Saturday mornings; in my experience the worst possible time for the purpose. They set out fairly early and come back laden with bags and battle-weary, complaining about the crowds, a near miss with a traffic warden and the rudeness of some people in the car park. Once I ventured to ask them whether shopping on a weekday wouldn't be less bruising and possibly quicker. "But we've always been shopping on a Saturday morning", said the husband, "ever since we were first married thirty-five years ago."

And that was that. What caught my ear was the categorical sound of the word 'always', implying that any long-standing habit was its own automatic justification, and that although my neighbours had brought up their children and acquired grandchildren, were no longer working and had all the time in the world to go shopping on a weekday, that thirty-five year old habit could not be broken. "Watch out for clients who start sentences with 'We always' or 'I never'," my tutor used to say during my training, "They tend to be rigid and are scared of change." Indeed! Since then I've found time and again that the 'always viz. never' person is not so much imprisoned in mechanically maintained habits as clinging to them, for security, for the reassurance of the familiar, however uncomfortable that may be.

Yet like all kinds of bondage, sticking to the familiar can be positively harmful. Take, for instance, clients whose difficult family problems could be solved by better communication, but who refuse even to consider that possibility. "In our family we never talk about anything that matters," is one of the saddest statements I get to hear in my work, for it invariably suggests alienation, lack of openness, long black sulks instead of a willingness to clear the air with honesty and a pinch of humour, enduring the pain of not being understood. The image that always pops up in my mind at such moments is that of my sad client sitting in a big cage whose door is wide open, but she (it's normally a she) turns her back to the door.

How a single word, like 'never', can unleash memories. I suddenly recall the impressive family doctor of my childhood, a stately man who smoked a cigar (honest!) and did home visits (no, I swear this wasn't in the 19th century). Whenever I went down with some baffling childish ailment and our doctor arrived, my mother anxiously assured him that I had never ever produced such symptoms before. "There's always a first time", he would declare lugubriously, and I bless his memory for that phrase, because, said lightly, it's a perfect antidote to the always-never syndrome, just as the doctor's 'always' blotted out my mother's worried 'never'. Yes, there is always a first time when you can do something totally different, try another rhythm, sing an unfamiliar tune, choose another way, and the world will not come to an end. In fact both you and the world might feel better for it.

The reason why I so dislike the always-never syndrome so strongly is that it enslaves us to habit, which in itself may be good or bad, but either way it is rigid, and rigidity is the opposite of life's vital, vigorous and endlessly flexible dance. Rigidity is dead, staid and narrow. It leaves no room for creativity, experimentation or even fun. Life in a modern society already piles countless restrictions on us all; why add another self-made one? Irrespective of years, old age truly sets in with the onslaught of stiffness, and it's not surprising to note that people with rigid mental habits often move stiffly and find it hard to bend, twist and turn. As for shooing off incipient arthritis of the mind, I can recommend a question, which I once saw on an office door in Montreal. It asked, "When did you last have an original thought?" That's enough to start you thinking – with originality.

The best anti-habit true story I ever heard concerns a newly married young American woman, third-generation offspring of Austrian immigrants. She's a good cook and her husband particularly enjoys her savoury meat loaf made to an old family recipe. One day he asks her why she always cuts off both ends of the meat loaf and lays them alongside the loaf in the baking tin. Because that's how Mom always does it, she replies. Well, that's not a complete explanation, so when they next visit her mother, they ask her about it. She thinks for a moment, then shrugs and simply says, she has no idea, but that's how her own mother always does it, why not ask her? Next time the young couple visit Granny, they ask her about the cut-off ends of the meat loaf. "Oh, that's very simple", the old lady says. "When we arrived in the United States, we were young and very poor and we had a large family. All we could afford was a small baking tin, so whenever I made a meat loaf that was big enough to feed us all, I had to cut off both ends and lay them alongside in the tin. Oh, that was such a long time ago! But why do you ask, my dears?" They say that old habits die hard. Sometimes one has to speed up the process!


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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