There’s no such thing as a bad habit

I’m gonna make a controversial statement here:

I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “bad” habit.

Before you holler, hear me out.

Let’s start by defining a habit. I often say a habit is something that you repeat. According to dictionary.com, habit (n.) is “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.”

So here’s the thing… as human beings, we won’t repeat an action unless it serves us. Repetition is born from usefulness. If a behavior isn’t useful, we simply won’t do it over and over. This is the basis of evolution and it’s the basis of how we work.

Let’s go over some examples of people’s “bad” habits and how they might possibly be serving a purpose:

The habit

How it might serve you

Biting your nails

It calms you down.

Tensing your shoulders up towards your ears

It makes you feel in control.

Slouching

It feels easier than sitting up straight.

Fidgeting when you’re nervous

It helps diffuse nervous energy.

Holding your breath

It allows you to process a situation for a moment rather than being fully present in it.

Smiling all the time, even when you’re not happy

It provides a mask to whatever emotion you’re feeling that may be uncomfortable.

Forward head placement (craning your neck)

It makes you feel more expressive. Or perhaps like you can get somewhere sooner. Or maybe it just feels easier.

Using upspeak or vocal fry (here’s an interesting article on both)

Perhaps you’ve been surrounded by these habits and linguistically they help you fit in. (There’s a big debate over the reasons for both!)

Having read through this table, take a moment to ask yourself:

“What are a few of my ‘bad’ habits? If I dig down, can I find a way that they might be useful to me?”

Coming up with some ideas? Perhaps you’re starting to agree with the big argument:

There’s no such thing as a bad habit. What we can ask ourselves instead is what has this habit been good for, and by contrast what might this habit be not so good for?

I’m a voice and movement teacher, which means I’m in the business of helping people recognize the patterns that aren’t serving them and encouraging them to learn more useful patterns. I’ve watched time and time again as students and clients beat themselves up about their ‘bad’ habits. It’s time to put a stop to beating ourselves up. I offer this mindset shift because it allows us to be much more compassionate about changing our patterns.

So next time you’re lucky enough to discover a habit you weren’t aware of, notice whether the “Oh no, I suck I suck I suck” response comes up. If it does, shift your attention instead to the question of how this habit has served you. Once you’ve acknowledged the usefulness of the habit, you’re free to realize that it may no longer serve you and to make the decision to learn something new. Next, you can begin to practice your new habit. Try to practice without getting attached to being perfect right away. If you allow your process to go from awareness to making a new decision to practicing, it’s possible to completely skip the self judgment part. It’s possible to completely skip labeling ourselves as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’

Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that mindset shift sound worth it?

bieber craning neck
See, even Bieber cranes his neck! 😛

So I highly encourage you… let go of thinking about your habits as bad. Instead, focus on awareness of what they are, how they serve you, and whether you might like to change them. That’s the efficient, valuable work you can do. The self-judgment thing is an unproductive extra.

As I always say, it’s all about all about doing the work with less effort.

Being Versus Doing

My junior year of college I studied abroad in London at the British American Drama Academy. It was awesome and I had this amazing dame of a teacher Sheila for Shakespeare class. One day after I’d been working on my monologue in front of the class, Sheila said to me “Elissa, go find the book Being Not Doing and read it. That’s what you need.” I nodded vigorously, but the truth was I had no idea what she meant. All the same for some reason the moment stuck in my brain. Three months later when I was back at the University of Southern California I remember thinking to myself: “Sheila wanted me to read a book. Was it called Being versus Doing? Doing and Being? Am I supposed to do or be?? I’m confused!!”

It took me years to finally understand what she’d been saying to me. I must have been up in front of the class reciting Desdemona with manufactured emotion, a pushed voice, and forced gestures. Sheila wanted me to be more and do less.

Sheila and I. London, 2005.
Sheila and I. London, 2005.

In the voice and movement classes that I teach now, I talk a lot about the definition of what I believe vocal and physical training is for:

Voice and movement training is about exploring the paradox of how much we have to DO and how much we can just BE.

Here are two other ways of saying that:

Voice and movement training is about figuring out what we have to do, and letting the rest of it be easy.

-or-

Voice and movement training is about economy of effort.

I led an exercise with my class the other day called “I Want You To Look At Me” that brings this paradox forward really clearly. In the exercise, one person at a time stands up in front of the class. Their only task is to say to individuals or the group “I want you to look at me” or “Please look away.” Other than that, their job is to stand there, make eye contact and be. Turns out, it’s one of the hardest things in the world. A bunch of junk comes up in this exercise. If you’re a fidgeter, you’ll likely start to fidget. If you have a tendency to lock your knees and lean back, neutral alignment tends to go out the door. A really common one is the nervous smile. This one happens to have been a personal habit of mine, and it was coming up very strongly for one student – she couldn’t stop smiling. So I offered:

“Notice that you’re smiling and see if it’s possible to let that go.”

She proceeded to start moving her lips all around, working hard to try not to smile. I waited for a bit to see if that would release, but when it didn’t I offered next:

“Maybe instead of trying not to smile, just let the smile go.”

It worked. Doing is trying not to smile. Being is letting the smile go.

Here’s the thing:

We don’t call ourselves human doings. We call ourselves human beings.

There is so much happening in our body, and subsequently in our voice, that we don’t need to monitor. It’s when we start trying to do so much and control our experience that it starts to feel strange or come across as inauthentic. Ironically, that’s when we think we have to do even more to ‘fix’ it. When the actual solution is to do less!

Yes, there are absolutely things we need to do when we’re onstage. If there’s a script, we have to say our lines. If there’s a piece of music, we have to hit certain notes at a certain time. If there are physical tasks we’re supposed to do, we need to do them. But if we do our tasks with habitual tension or excess effort, we’re overshooting the mark. We want to do what we have to do with the greatest ease and economy of effort. More being, less doing. Just like Sheila said.

Sheila passed away four years ago. If I could talk to her right now here’s what I’d like to say:

“Sheila, thank you for the book recommendation. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly which book you wanted me to read, but I get completely what you were saying. I am thinking of you and sending you love. Rest in peace. (And send me an Amazon link when you get a chance.)

P.S. Here’s a song that I really like to help you remember to balance your doing with your being. Have a dance party today and enjoy 🙂