Dear Portia: How Do I Stop Desiring Bad Stuff?

Dear Portia,

How do you stop wanting what you REALLY want, when what you want isn’t good for you? How do you create desire for something you should want, when really you are craving the opposite thing?


Dear Craving,

When I was in my teens and twenties, I drank at least a can of Coke every single day. I liked having Coke. I loved the taste, it felt like a treat, and it was just one can of soda.

As vices go, it wasn’t one.

I do not like change. I’ve had the same breakfast nearly every day for eleven years. But one day, because of some persistent headaches, I decided to quit daily soda.

To my surprise, quitting the Coke really helped my whole body, not just the headaches. I started drinking more water, and realized I’d always been dehydrated. My chronic chapped lips healed. My digestive system worked better.

Also, I’m slightly hypoglycemic, and pouring a can of sugar into my body every day did not help.

The longer I went without Coke, the less I craved it. But I’d still have one every so often.

A few years ago, I had a Coke after a year of no soda. To my surprise, it tasted disgusting. It also made my body feel horrible.

My taste has literally changed.

Desiring Bad Stuff Is Easier than Treating Ourselves Well

Besides teaching me that tastes do change over time, and that cold-turkey isn’t always the best method for changing habits, I learned something else. Fun “treats” weren’t as fun as they seemed.

I liked Cokes because having a sweet drink in the middle of the day felt like treating myself kindly. I really struggled with treating myself kindly. Cokes were easy. They were cheap, and they made me feel great…except for the headache, dehydration, and sugar coma.

Actually treating myself kindly—by getting enough sleep, eating well, changing my self-talk, and having boundaries—none of those cost a dollar or came in a can.

Or, take games on my phone. I love them because they give me a sense of relaxation without having to actually do something hard, like get permission (from myself, my husband, my kids) for time to myself. Five (or thirty) minutes later, I feel like I relaxed.

Except I don’t actually relax. Phone games leave me tense and jittery.


That kind of self-talk is not helpful. because taking care of ourselves takes bravery, discipline, and energy. If it were easy, I’d already be doing it. And if I hate myself, and speak to myself in all caps, I’m less likely to be kind to my fragile soul.

Actually taking care of myself (rather than escaping my life with bad habits) doesn’t happen by doubling down on shame and self-loathing.

To answer your question, Craving, the single most effective thing I can do to desire the stuff that’s actually good for me is to be relentlessly, ridiculously kind to myself. Even—and especially—when I’m doing crap I know isn’t good for me.

For me being kind about bad habits means:

I stop shaming myself for being human

It’s hardly unusual to want stuff we’re not supposed to have and not want the stuff that makes our teeth shinier. Paul was talking about this two thousand years ago.

We’re not alone in making poor choices. So maybe we could stop flagellating ourselves when we do? Your habit might not be ideal, but it’s pretty darn normal.

I accept myself

I’m a little obsessive about time—I feel a need to be relentlessly productive and on-the-go. Ironically, I am also kind of a slowpoke.

For years, I tried to make myself go faster. I hated being late and feeling flustered all the time. Speed up, I told myself. Quit lagging!

But the older I get, the more I’ve accepted that I just move slowly. It is a releif to realize that slowness is not actually a problem unless I don’t give myself enough time.

I’ll be honest, I got a little jittery reading your question, Craving. Because there’s wanting things that clearly aren’t good for us (say, struggling with cutting), and then there’s your garden-variety self-loathing, wherein we don’t want to be ourselves.

Desiring to be someone other than the person God made us the biggest bad habit of all.

Discerning the line between good and bad desires can be a tough theological call, especially for my brothers and sisters who are more conservative (this is code for talking about homosexuality). I can’t know whether your desires are healthy or not. But I think that considering your theology about desire is a healthy part of the process of discernment. No matter what our theology is, if we can’t ask terrifying questions out loud, we have a hard time being honest with ourselves and with Jesus.

I practice compassion about my circumstances

In Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, she speaks about how experiencing trauma as a child directly led her to food addiction and obesity and poorly defined boundaries.

Most importantly, she names how hard it is to change those patterns—even though the trauma took place decades ago, and she understands that she doesn’t “need” those coping mechanisms any more.

I used to look at my bad habits:

  1. In isolation, without considering how they were ways of coping with trauma and
  2. without acknowledging that finding wholeness is a life-long process, not an instant reversal.

We do violence to ourselves if we assume we can ‘move past’ trauma like you avoid bad traffic. It’s okay to admit you’re not ready to let go of unhealthy ways of coping. Better to be relentlessly honest with yourself than to keep shaming yourself for changes you simply don’t have bandwidth for.

I get curious about the habit

If I’m having no luck dropping a habit, I try to accept reality: I have a bad habit, and I’m not ready to quit it. And then I ask God for help figuring out why, and whether that’s a terrible decision. And then I notice how the habit makes me feel.

The truth is, most of my truly bad habits don’t feel great.

Ignoring my family and responsibilities and creative work to play Angry Birds does not help me live deeply or fruitfully.

Overspending places me in debt, which is scary.

Eating poorly means I get migraines or stomach aches. Not getting enough sleep means I’m cranky and tired the next day.

The more I pay attention to my body, my mind, my wholeness, the easier it is to make better choices. Only if I’m escaping myself and my life do I overlook the consequences of easy-but-unhealthy escapism.

I get help

Therapy. Therapy, therapy, therapy, therapy (or rehab, or al-anon, or medication). Some habits are dangerous, and some traumas run deep. Getting help is a sign of great wisdom and bravery.

The demands of what is beyond us

I’m going to leave you with my favorite quote. It’s from Bruce Kramer, a man who write about what he learned from living with ALS. “How shall we grow into the demands of what is beyond us?” he asked.

Sometimes, it feels impossible to make better choices. But if we give ourselves permission to grow into the discipline slowly, if we cheer ourselves on and have reasonable expectations of our growth, if we are our own biggest fans and seek wholeness over perfection, we will be surprised by our capacity to face life with bravery, dignity and joy.


Heather Caliri
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