At this stage in my life, to say that I’m a creature of habit vastly understates the case. As my wife will resignedly confirm, I could stay home 52 weeks a year, eating the exact same breakfast 365 mornings in a row, going to the same office at the same time every day, heading off to the gym on the same weekly schedule, spending time with the same cronies and colleagues, and never grow bored. In fact, you might say that my habits are perhaps the most comforting and intimate companions in my life.
Of course, my habits didn’t always seem such fine things. In my twenties, I wanted to suppress all the telltale habits of my ethnic Bronx origins and cover them over with the high gloss of a cooler, hipper, more self-contained persona. To me, my native tendencies were really all bad habits that I needed to unlearn and shrug off so my “real” self could emerge. So how did I get from that neurotic, self-hating younger self to a reasonably contented, if still highly flawed, sexagenarian approaching his dotage? Part of it may be the rewards of whatever modicum of insight and self-awareness I’ve achieved over the years, and a larger part may be the good sense to marry someone who—most days—seems genuinely fond of my habit-loving nature. But what contribution did all my experiences in psychotherapy make to my current sense of contentment? Perhaps less than they might have.
According to Steven Stosny, the author of this issue’s cover story, psychotherapy too often fails to help clients like myself make changes in their lives because of the blind spot at its core: it undervalues the central role our automatic responses play in our lives. Romantically infatuated with the idea of psychological revelation—aka the therapeutic “breakthrough”—therapists too often ignore the fact that a life’s worth of habitual behavior often trumps, for good or ill, all the insights and emotional fireworks that we like to see as the key to therapeutic “progress.” As Stosny puts it, “Except for saints and literary characters, enduring change rarely happens as the result of being knocked off our feet by a psychological whack upside the head. Perdurable change is gradual and mundane. It occurs by extending, supplementing, and altering the habits that shape perspective and drive behavior. First comes the hard work, then comes the epiphany.”
Now in my predotage years, I’m more and more inclined to agree with Stosny. I’ve come to think that human habits—the familiar routines, customs, and mannerisms by which we organize our lives—more truly reflect who we are than the showtime personalities we present to the world. Habits are the scaffolding, the underlying structure of our lives. We don’t just have habits—our habits have us.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.