Habits and the Uncomfortable Nature of Change

A pair of hands are shown reaching up to put new wall-paper over an older pattern.Traveling in Thailand meant adapting to changes. Like every other human, I find that difficult. I expected to miss the big things in my American routine: brewed coffee and toilets that you can sit down on. I was caught off guard by my strong reaction to the little changes. The lack of napkins, in Thai culture, made every meal a little uncomfortable.

My “good girl” habit of placing my napkin neatly in my lap is apparently indelibly ingrained in my soul. I found myself plastering my lap with Kleenex, anything, so that I could get on with my meal. On one sordid occasion, I sunk as low as toilet paper.

As a therapist, I am constantly asking the people I work with to consider making changes, big and little shifts, in their lives. “Be nicer to yourself;” “Ask for what you need;” “Use ‘I’ statements;” “Make time for yourself.” These words are easy to say, and I say them well. But my napkin addiction helps to remind me of how comfortable, how pleasantly familiar, our habits are, even our bad habits.

Humans are creatures of habit. We get hungry at certain times. We want certain things with certain other things—milk with cookies, ketchup with French fries, movies with the lights out. In Thailand I missed my many habits. I missed my mattress deeply—especially when being presented with an uncomfortable box spring to sleep on, in two different hotels. I missed having a flat sheet to protect me from the blanket. I missed cheese. I missed sandwiches—heck anything involving bread. And napkins.

I have learned, in my life, to change. I have learned not to judge myself all the time. I no longer put myself last, or feel ashamed to be me. I’ve learned to set boundaries with my time. I don’t feel guilty so much. I’m less angry, less hyper, less scared.

All of these changes took time to become comfortable. Liking and loving myself took time to feel normal. It took years.

Humans learn quickly, sometimes instantly. But we like ruts, maybe more than we want to admit to ourselves. We feel safer inside of sameness. I know there are a lot of Americans who will never make that long flight to Thailand. They will never miss a napkin. But they will still have to make major changes.

Learning to live alone after a divorce or death is difficult, but many of us have done it. Dealing with aging and our strange, changing bodies is difficult, but we do it. Learning to let go of a substance, a person, or a behavior that is harmful can be painful, but many of us have done that, too.

We are resilient and glorious creatures, even in our stubbornness and fearfulness. We endure, we transform, and we reinvent ourselves. We go on, and often we grow and gain things in the process.

I need to remember that, too, when I’m working with people. Being uncomfortable is temporary. Strangeness fades. Our love of routines helps us create new ones. We have learned to wear seat belts, to recycle, to quit smoking. These things are automatic now. We reach, automatically, for our cell phones, although we used to functioned quite happily without them.

We have learned that we have choices. We have started searching for health and wellness. We push past our discomfort and fear and turn our faces to the light. We just want to keep our napkins, our resentments, and our secret self-loathing. But we can’t. We will be challenged to surrender, to let go, to do without, to grow up. We will be uncomfortable, but not for very long.

We will find our way.

© Copyright 2007 by Anne Crothers. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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