How Bad Habits Affect Self-Esteem

June 27, 2019 Britt Mahrer

Bad habits--they're pesky little things, aren't they? I imagine just reading the phrase makes you picture one of yours. Maybe your bad habit is biting your nails, or not responding to texts, or leaving the dishes in the sink. It's the thing you do that deep down, you know you don't like. But sometimes our bad habits aren't just small annoyances. Sometimes they burrow into our identity and affect our ability to build self-esteem. When bad habits affect self-esteem, what do we do?

What Makes a Habit Bad?

Bad habits often start out as something that fixes an undesired experience. By experience, I mean the thoughts, emotions, or actions that make up our daily consciousness. We experience anxiety and biting our nails somehow alleviates it. We experience exhaustion and discover that getting fast food doesn't further exhaust us the way cooking would. These habits develop as we find a thing that addresses the experience within us that doesn't feel good. (Sometimes they are referred to as coping mechanisms.)

Yet at some point, we examine this behavior and realize we don't like it. The thing that was aiding in reducing our undesired experience has now, itself, become an undesired experience. We have spent time teaching our brains that this is one of our go-to patterns, but now we no longer want to do it. Thus, we label it a bad habit and decide how to address it.

Affecting Self-Esteem

Pretend you're drawing a landscape and realize a tiny tree you initially placed in the background no longer fits into your masterpiece. First, you kick yourself for having sketched the little guy in the first place (even if it didn't seem wrong when you did it). Then, you grab your eraser and try to remove it, but it leaves a smear. You try another eraser, and another, but the smear remains. Suddenly it's all you can see, and you declare your landscape ruined. This is how bad habits come to affect our self-esteem.

  • When we identify a habit we don't like, we often jump to immediate self-judgment. "I can't believe I've developed this bad habit," we tell ourselves. "I am [insert negative adjective]."
  • When we try to break a habit and are unsuccessful, we often jump to the belief that we are too weak to stop. The more times we fail, the more the habit seems rooted within us.

Frequently, our relationship with a bad habit is not even with the habit itself–it's with the way we react to it. When we respond by labeling ourselves with stagnant definitions, we impede the ever-growing, ever-changing work of self-discovery. Our focus becomes fixated on the smear of the tree instead of on creating the beautiful landscape that fills the page. 

Managing Bad Habits

We tend to approach bad habits in three ways:

  1. Elimination–Working to remove the habit from our lives entirely. For example, members of Alcoholics Anonymous work to remove drinking entirely from their lives.
  2. Integration–Introducing new habits that co-exist with the bad habit, changing your relationship with it. Example: adjusting one's fast food habit so it's only eaten two days a week and cooking all other days. 
  3. Acceptance–Reframing a habit as a piece of one's life and learning to live with it. ("I bite my nails, it's something I don't like about myself, and that's okay.")

Which should you try? Before you decide, consider exploring the existing relationship between your bad habit and your self-esteem. A great way to do this is by examining what I call your "dialogue of judgment." The following video explains how: 

Tags: bad habit

APA Reference
Mahrer, B. (2019, June 27). How Bad Habits Affect Self-Esteem, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Britt Mahrer

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June, 29 2019 at 10:57 am

I love this article. She really hits the nail on the head.

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