How I Had Unintentionally Used Kessler’s Four Steps Towards Habit Reversal in My Own Life

The book The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler explains how people can change their habits so that they stop overeating.

In this blog post, I’m not going to comment on ‘overeating’ beyond stating that I don’t think anyone is obliged to try to lose weight. But Kessler says that these principles can be used for ‘reversing’ habits in general (i.e. stopping a habit), not just habitual ‘overeating’. And I find his claim credible since, looking back in retrospect, his advice pretty much describes how I transitioned to veganism i.e. ‘reversed’ the habit of consuming animals. I’m going to explain his ideas about ‘habit reversal’ and map them to how I transitioned to veganism. I hope, of course, that this can help people who want to go vegan, but I’m sure this will be useful for other kinds of ‘habit reversals’ as well, so I hope you will keep reading even if you don’t want to go vegan or you’ve already gone vegan.

A sense of powerlessness is one of the biggest obstacles to success. If you feel you have no choice but to engage in a behavior, the arousal that drives it will persist. But if you recognize that you need not engage in habitual behavior, that sense of arousal will begin to diminish.

Yes. About six months before I decided to go vegan, I made a statement along the lines of ‘I could never go vegan because I would never give up cheese.’ Guess what? I did give up cheese, and more than ten years later, I don’t miss cheese at all (yes, I sometimes eat vegan ‘cheezes’ but if all vegan cheese imitations disappeared tomorrow it would not be a big deal to me). This sense of powerlessness probably delayed my transition to veganism.

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The first component is ‘awareness’ – awareness of the habit you are trying to reverse, and of the situations where you feel urges that you habitually (temporarily) relieve by familiar and repetitive behavior. Let’s use gouda cheese as an example. At one time in my life, I was in the habit of buying and eating gouda cheese. I bought it from a specific store in my neighborhood, and passing by that store would be a cue for me to enter the store, buy the gouda cheese, and take it home with me. Once the gouda cheese was in my house, I would often feel tempted to eat it, which led me to, y’know, eating it.

“Once you’re cued, once you have the premonitory urge, is it too late?” I asked.

“No,” insisted Leckman. “That’s the point at which you’ve got a moment of control.”

It is at that moment, he explained, that “you say, ‘Thank you. I’m aware of the urge. And now I have a moment of decision. Am I going to walk through that door and accept that invitation? Or am I going to turn away and walk through another door?'”

Becoming aware that there’s a choice to be made means bringing the setting, and your habitual response, into conscious thought.

Once I seriously contemplated going vegan, I became more aware of all of the animal-based foods (and other products) I was consuming than ever before. I’m not sure how it could be otherwise for anyone who was considering going vegan, but I’m not a psychologist.

***

The second component of habit reversal is engaging in competing behaviors.

To resist what Miltenberger calls “the pull of the behavior,” we need to develop and learn alternative responses that are incompatible with it…

…To compete successfully with old habits, this competing behavior needs to be planned before you encounter a cue. You need to know exactly how to respond when your brain receives an unwanted invitation.

I’ve said before on this blog that the best single piece of advice I got when I went vegan was to try a new vegan food I’d never eaten before every day. I kept up the ‘new vegan food’ habit for about 2-3 months, and by the end I had completed my transition to veganism. Even though I knew this worked for me, I didn’t know why it worked until I read this section about ‘competing behaviors’. That’s exactly it – trying new vegan foods is a competing behavior to eating animal-based foods I’d previously been habituated to eat.

Let’s say, as I was beginning to transition to veganism, I was shopping at a supermarket that sold gouda cheese, and I experienced a temptation to buy it and then eat it. If I just told myself ‘no, don’t buy the gouda cheese’ I would be fixating on the gouda cheese even more, which would actually increase the odds that I would ‘break down’ and buy it, as Kessler explains:

But we try to hold ourselves back. The emotional driver of wanting struggle with the desperate desire to resist temptation. Behavior-activating messages that urge pursuit clash with internal messages demanding control. Our brains become battlegrounds.

Ultimately, our decision [to give in] – to relax our struggle for restraint, to give in to consumption – becomes the only possible relief from the anxiety of a war within.

In other words, if I try to directly attack a temptation to, say, ‘buy and eat gouda cheese’ it will 1) prompt me to think even more about the gouda cheese and its taste/texture/etc. an increase the temptation and 2) it will stress me out, which means I will subconsciously desire relief by eating the gouda cheese.

Competing behaviors sidestep this. When there was a vegan food that was very similar to the animal-based food – for example, ice cream made from coconut milk instead of cow milk – the competing behavior was obvious – buy and eat the coconut-milk ice cream. But there wasn’t always a plant-based or fungi-based alternative which was close enough to whatever animal-based food I was craving. This is what makes ‘eat a new vegan food you’ve never tried before every day’ so brilliant. When I was shopping in supermarkets, instead of fixating on the animal-based foods I was trying to ‘resist’, I was looking for new vegan foods. And when I encountered a familiar old cue to eat animals or animal secretions, I could respond with ‘hey, is there a new vegan food around here that I can try to meet my daily quota’. In the process of finding new vegan foods, I learned a lot about the availability of vegan foods in Mountain View (where I lived at the time). And when I liked a new vegan food, I developed new cues and eating habits.

Are there other competing behaviors which could help someone effectively transition to veganism? I’m sure there are, and if you’ve transitioned to veganism, feel free to comment on competing behaviors which worked for your transition. I’m an ardent enthusiast of ‘try a new vegan food every day’ because it worked for me.

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The third element of habit reversal is formulating thoughts that compete with, and serve to quiet, the old ones … We can introduce ideas that countermand others … We can remind ourselves of our goals … Or we can repeat statements of self-efficacy: “I don’t have to respond that way; I can respond this way,” or “I can do this; I can control this.”

Under this third principle, I’d add a concept that the book mentions multiple times: ‘counterconditioning.’ ‘Counterconditioning’ is turning a ‘yum’ into a ‘yuck’. Kessler says:

Developing negative associations, which is sometimes called counterconditioning, has proved useful in reducing tobacco use … One colleague told me that every time he felt tempted to smoke, he put his nose into a jar packed with cigarette butts and inhaled deeply. The negative association with that act has helped him move from abstractly recognizing that he should stop smoking because it’s bad for his health to a deeply felt understanding that this product is not a friend but a detested enemy.

I think putting a nose into a jar packed with cigarettes butts is extreme, but I’ve never been addicted to tobacco; maybe this guy really did need such an extreme measure to quit smoking.

When I was transitioning to veganism, I combined both more intellectual thoughts, such as reminding myself of my values and how eating animals conflict with those values, and addressing urges to eat animals and animal secretions by calling to mind disturbing images and sounds to mind (factory farming provides an overwhelming abundance of inspiration to that end). In other words, I combined both rational and irrational thoughts to countercondition myself.

And it worked very, very thoroughly. It was quite awkward to write about myself being tempted by gouda cheese, because even though I recall that it was tempting to me a long time ago, right now the thought of eating gouda cheese evokes a very powerful ‘YUCK’ reaction. Non-vegans often assume that the hardest part about staying vegan is the temptation, and I try to explain to them that no, I’m no longer tempted because I’m counterconditioned. Since they haven’t been counterconditioned, they can’t put themselves of a mindset of someone who is counterconditioned against consuming animals (and frankly, I probably wouldn’t have been able to imagine having this mindset before I became counterconditioned myself).

My counterconditioning is so strong that, even if someone persuaded me intellectually that consuming animals is okay after all, I would still remain vegan for the same reasons that I refrain from other yucky foods. In order to start eating animals again, I’d either have to be totally desperate for food (which would also lead me to do things such as, say, eating feces), or I’d have to be persuaded that eating animals provides such a great benefit that it would be worth the effort to reverse my counterconditioning, which would probably require me going through all of the steps in this process again.

My counterconditioning – my powerful ‘yuck’ to consuming animals – also means I sometimes act very irrationally when talking to other people about veganism. It also makes it difficult to be around people who are eating animals and animal secretions – I mean, I tolerate it for the sake of my social life, or when it happens at a workplace, keeping my job, but it is irritating.

***

The fourth component of habit reversal is support … Ultimately, the choices we make are ours alone, but supportive family, friends, colleagues, and health professionals can make a big difference … Of course, you must find the right kind of support. Otherwise, your support system can work against you, endorsing the type of behavior you’re trying to reverse … If your support system does not reinforce your goals, you’re better off going it alone.

When I transitioned to veganism, I did not have social support. But I also did not encounter much direct hostility. It helped a lot that I was living away from my childhood home for the first time in my life and was completely responsible for preparing my own food (as well as doing my own laundry, keeping track of when the car needed an oil change, etc.). I think it’s fair to say that I ‘went it alone’.

And more than a decade later, I would say that dealing with other people is still, by far, the most difficult part of staying vegan, especially since our society is overall vegan-hostile.

Everyone’s social situation is difficult, but for most people contemplating veganism, at least in the United States, the social support situation is going to be somewhere on the bad-thru-completely awful spectrum. Sorry.

However, I think there has been an overall improvement since I transitioned to veganism, mainly because there are more vegans around than before. More vegan options are more clearly labelled in more places than a dozen years ago, mainly because there are more vegans around. Many more people have a clue about veganism, mainly because they are more likely to have interacted with vegans. And one is more likely to meet and socially connect with vegans because there are more of us than before.

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So there, I took the steps for habit reversal that Kessler originally intended to stop ‘overeating’ and then use my transition to veganism as an example of how these same steps can be used to change a different habit. Hopefully, anyone reading this who wishes to reverse a habit of theirs, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with eating, has found something helpful here.

1 thought on “How I Had Unintentionally Used Kessler’s Four Steps Towards Habit Reversal in My Own Life

  1. Pingback: I Recently Lost Weight by Eating Less. How Does That Compare to What The End of Overeating Say? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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