Bad Habits: We all have them. Some we readily admit to having; others, we may not even know we have. One thing’s for sure, it is somehow quite easy to recognize someone else’s bad habits. And it is REALLY easy to come up with ways to ‘fix’ those bad habits that belong to someone else.
Problem is: the only person who can actually change a habit is the person him/herself. No matter how much you love someone – or how bad you know the habit is for that person, you cannot MAKE that person stop the habit unless he/she wants to stop. You can push, prod, penalize and bribe; but you cannot make someone stop smoking, stop drinking, lose weight, stop leaving shoes in the middle of the floor, stop biting fingernails, stop leaving the toilet seat up, etc., etc. – unless he/she decides to do it. I ought to know. As a wife and mother of three sons, I have done my share of the pushing, prodding, penalizing and bribing. Time and again I have learned that if a person does change, it is ONLY because he/she saw a need to change, had the desire to change, decided to change and then put the effort into making the change. So really, truly, it is a fact of the human condition: only the person him/herself can change a habit – not me, not someone else, not some program, not some professional, not some drug. It really comes down to a personal desire and choice on the part of the person who has the habit.
All this might seem obvious. And you would think that I have already learned this lesson enough times to understand it by now. But, alas! Not so! See, not so long ago, I was really, REALLY, intent on changing what I considered to be one of my son Joe’s worst habits. But in his case (I am thinking it was because he has a disability and in the world of disability, things are supposed to be different), it was called a bad ‘behavior’. And the ‘experts’ had convinced me that this ‘behavior’ had to be ‘modified’ to become a more ‘socially appropriate behavior’. So I guess I sorta lost track of just who was in charge of changing said behavior.
The behavior that was to be ‘modified’ is hugging. If you have read this post, you know that Joe has a long history of ‘inappropriate’ hugging. And you know that I have spent many years trying to get him to stop this behavior. Yep, I pushed, prodded, penalized and bribed with all my might – to no avail! It was frustrating for our whole family, including Joe. I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that Joe enjoyed hugging too much and he had NO desire to change the habit. This was a bit of an ‘AH-HA! moment’ for me: If Joe didn’t see the habit as a bad habit and if he did not choose to change the habit, it would NOT be changed! His Opinion / His Desire / his Choice.
You see, it doesn’t matter that Joe has been labeled with a disability. He is a human being, privy to the same human condition that we all share. No one else can MAKE him change his habits – even if they are labeled ‘behaviors’. Only he can choose his actions. Disability can’t take that power away from him. His mother can’t take that power away from him. No one else can ‘fix’ Joe’s ’behaviors’. That right, that responsibility belongs to Joe.
I feel the need for a disclaimer here: I realize that sometimes the things we do (habits / behaviors) are reactions and are not intentional actions. Sometimes the reason for a “behavior’ can be very complex. And sometimes a person has much less control over their own behaviors. My thoughts here, in this writing, are in regard to behaviors that we are aware of and that we can consciously control.
Furthermore, as explained in my previous post, I realized (with Starfire’s help) that Joe’s hugging is directly linked to his amazing gift for making real heart-felt connections to other people. And as I have come to appreciate Joe’s love for people and his ways of engaging and uplifting others, I have become more accepting of his hugging habit. I have vowed not to stand in Joe’s way. I have tried hard not to interfere or overreact when he hugs people. Well, it hasn’t been as easy as all that and I still had some learning / growing to do . . .
Although I knew that Joe was giving hugs as a means to connect to people, This habit was bothersome to me. He still hugged even when it made the other person uncomfortable. He would hug the same person seven or eight times in the space of an hour. And his hugs were still ill-placed with strangers. But by now I had learned my lesson well. I cannot ‘fix’ Joe’s habit. He is the one who must choose to make a change. So I held back . . . Until I just couldn’t stand it anymore!
Joe and I were running errands. It was one of those days that was crammed with lots of stops around town to take care of minor obligations. I took Joe along because it was his day off from StarfireU and he enjoys this sort of thing (there are lots of people with whom to interact!). It had occurred to me that in recent outings with Joe, he had really been hugging strangers a lot. There was a bunch to accomplish that day and I have to admit, I was a little short on patience. I just didn’t think I could deal with Joe hugging everyone we came in contact with. So, I decided to talk to him about it ahead of time. I told Joe that people who didn’t know him probably didn’t want a hug from him. I explained that most people are more interested in a conversation than a hug. I told him that if he wanted to make new friends, this was best done thru conversations. He listened but didn’t say much.
We first went to Meijer’s to shop. As we were standing in the check-out line, Joe (predictably) started talking to the person behind us. Joe pulled a topic out of the air that had no relevance to the moment and he pretty much started in the middle of the story. SO of course, the person was confused and looked to me to fill in the blanks, which I did. Then the three of us had a pleasant conversation. I can’t remember where we stopped next, but pretty much the same scenario played out two or three more times. I was thankful that Joe wasn’t hugging and was trying to have conversations instead. But, his attempts at starting a conversation left me filling in the blanks for him; and it was becoming annoying (did I mention that I was already ill-tempered this day?). By the time we were at the cashier window picking up our order at Wendy’s, I had pretty much lost what little patience I had started with. As I was paying, Joe leaned forward in the front passenger’s seat and said to the lady in the window, “Lauren Amos is having a baby!” And the Wendy’s lady said something like “Oh, well good for her.”
OK, I said to myself as we drove away, Thant’s it! I can’t take any more of this! So I took a deep breath to gain composure and calmly began explaining, as gently as possible, to Joe how best to start a conversation. I told him that he needed to talk to the person about something they would be interested in. We know and love Lauren Amos, but the Wendy’s lady didn’t know Lauren and couldn’t care less about whether Lauren was having a baby. I talked about how to start at the beginning of a story. We had about half an hour drive to our next stop so we talked about things he could talk about with people that they would be interested in. I told him if he couldn’t think of anything better, he could always talk about the weather – lots of people do that and we are all a little interested in the weather. We practiced a few opening lines and our conversation drifted into other topics.
We arrived at the cell phone repair shop and walked in together with our cell phones. As I showed my phone to the man behind the counter, another customer walked in. He stood near us as he waited his turn. I noticed Joe watching thid new person. And, as the repair guy walked away with my phone, I braced myself for whatever mid-story, nonsensical line Joe was about to deliver to this poor unsuspecting sole. “How you like the weather we’re having?” Joe confidently asks. I’m pretty sure my chin hit the counter as I watched an extraordinarily normal conversation take place. By the time we left, the customer, the repair guy, the repair guy’s helper, Joe and I, all had a wonderfully fun conversation as we all took turns with the banter around the weather, cell phone cases, and dogs that chew cell phones. When my husband picked up my repaired phone the next day, the repair guy told him what a great guy Joe was.
Here is what Joe taught me that day: Joe likes to hug, but that ‘behavior’ is just a means to connect with people. What he really wants is the connection and engagement. He can learn new ways to get what he wants. He wants the person to like him and if a conversation is the best way to accomplish that – well then, by gosh, he will use a conversation. If he can improve his conversation starter skills with some new ideas from me, he’ll even give that a try. He can understand explanations and weigh them in his mind. He can take suggestions, practice new techniques, and use them. OMG!! All the tactics I have tried over the years to MAKE Joe stop the hugging were fruitless. I was so focused on getting the behavior to stop that I spent little time trying to understand why the behavior was happening. I didn’t ask, “What does Joe want?” I was too busy pushing, prodding, penalizing and bribing to consider offering explanations, suggestions, techniques or tools. One respectful conversation with him helped Joe decide for himself that, sometimes, he wants to talk instead of hug. His Opinion / His Desire / His Choice / His Effort!!
And one afternoon helped me understand that Joe does not need me to decide what his bad habits are or to try to ‘modify his behaviors’. He needs me to pay attention to what he wants or is trying to get and then to support his efforts in getting that by giving him information and some ideas to try. Isn’t that what any successful intervention program gives? Not force – Not bribes – Not punishment – Not Belittlement . . . SUPPORT to do what the person has chosen to do for him/herself!
I don’t need to fix Joe – I need to fix me!
Since this time, I have noticed that the less I interfere with Joe’s encounters with people and, the more I support him in starting conversations; the better his conversations are. The less I try to control Joe, the more he controls himself. He is more confident and HE HUGS LESS! But don’t worry; Joe hasn’t stopped all hugging – just most of the I-want-to-connect-with-you-but-I’m-nervous-and-don’t-know-what-else-to-do hugs. There are plenty of hugs for those occasions when a hug is definitely called for!
I will admit that this is a journey and I am still learning – I have some pretty tough, deeply ingrained, BAD behaviors to Fix – of my OWN, of course!