The Penalty for a Bad Habit? The Bad Habit.

Assay: One of the things that strikes me most, in my study of habits, is the poetic justice of habits.

As you may (or may not) remember from your high school English class, “poetic justice” is when a punishment fits the crime. In Dante’s vision of the Ninth Circle of Hell, a fiend punishes the sowers of discord and schism by continually splitting apart their bodies. Or a criminal sets an illegal trap, but then gets caught in the trap himself.

There’s a real poetic justice about habits. The reward for a good habit…is the good habit. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in “New England Reformers,” “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

Even more striking is the poetic justice of bad habits. As a friend said to me, “I feel too anxious to tackle my bad habits, but my bad habits are what make me anxious.” One survey found that some women who worry about their finances use “retail therapy” to feel better—they shop in order to cope with their anxiety. Gamblers who worry about money distract themselves by gambling. When procrastinators fall behind, working on the task makes them so anxious that they have to stop working in order to feel better; as someone wrote on my blog, “I feel anxious because I’m not getting anything done, so I get a massage to feel better. But I don’t get anything done, because I’m busy with things like getting a massage.”

In his memoir about his weight loss, Never Goin’ Back, Al Roker describes the morning he promised his dying father that he’d lose weight. Later that day, he recalls, “I was so upset about my promise to lose weight, in fact, that I had two grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches for lunch.”

Although some people assume that strong feelings of guilt or shame act as safeguards to help people stick to good habits, the opposite is true.

Guilt and shame about a bad habit can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better—by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place. Which is where the poetic justice kicks in.

By contrast, people who feel less guilt and who show compassion toward themselves in the face of failure are better able to regain self-control — and therefore, they’re able to resist indulging in the bad habits that make them feel bad.

Instead of viewing our stumbles as evidence that we’re weak or undisciplined or lazy, we can see our stumbles as part of the habit-formation process. Telling ourselves things like, “It happens,” “We’ve all done it,” “I’ll act differently next time,” or “What I do most days matters more than what I do once in a while” helps us learn from a misstep, and do better next time.  That kind of self-encouragement is a greater safeguard than self-blame.

Do you ever find yourself feeling worse because of a habit that’s meant to help you feel better? (Along the same lines, here are six mood boosters that often do more harm than good.)


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  • Penelope Schmitt

    The Buzzfeed question illustrates what a culture hero you are, Gretchen. GREAT!

    Oh, overeating and overeating more because I feel bad about it has always been a trap for me. Totally. It’s a kind of despair. “See: you’ll never make it” is pretty much the message. But because these bad habits are so often escape from anxiety or self habits, they are our ‘go to’ places. How long does it take, to really crave a good long walk, even though a good long walk usually makes me feel better, and better about myself, for example? This is where the tiny, obstructive rebel part of my personality just gets in the face of good sense. I hope to overcome it some day!

  • Rachel

    Does everyone do this? Because I’m not sure I do. Maybe I cut myself some slack and don’t expect perfection. This phenomenon reminds me of the “what the hell” effect: I’ve always screwed up, so what the hell, I might as well screw up some more.

  • This was such a timely article for me. I am extremely health conscious but also easily controlled by my sugar cravings. My goal to eat healthily and avoid refined sugars often leads me to overeating food in that very same category. Which, as you point out, leaves me with feelings of guilt and shame. I still haven’t found a “trick” that will help me with this pattern of avoiding and then overeating. It is more likely to occur when I am sad or stressed, when my self-control is quite weak. From you research and experience with habit-formation, what tricks help in those moments of personal weakness?

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a BIG and important question.

      It takes almost a whole book to explore it! Better Than Before tackles those issues.
      It’s hard to answer in a few sentences, you raise so many significant and related matters.

  • Nicola

    Well this is ridiculously appropriate to my current struggles. I have a massive problem with procrastination, often to the point of just not being able to see the point in getting up… which seems like a really terrible thing to even think now that I put it in writing. but anyway, I guess thanks for pointing out that it’s not just me.

    Also, on a completely different topic, I’m curious as to why you used the word “Assay” at the start of your post rather than the word “Essay”?. So far as I know (but feel free to tell me if I’m wrong), the current usage of the word “Assay” relates mainly to the testing of metals or other materials to determine composition, where as “Essay” means a short piece of writing. (Having just googled both, I do note though both have a older usage of “to attempt”).

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Further, I think one of the big problems is that our rational minds EASILY grasp the ‘karma’ of doing right and good habits. If we save, we will have money in the bank; if we exercise, our bodies will become stronger; if we eat a moderate amount of healthy food, we will be an appropriate weight and our general health will improve.
    So why can’t we do what we obviously should, for a better life?
    Well, None of these connections give INSTANT payoff in easy pleasure. Feelings of integrity and even endorphins are great, but they are not ‘in our faces’ and the flow from action to consequence is not immediate. The payoff can take weeks, months or years.
    On the other hand, a lot of our worst habits have to do with instant gratification or stimulation of our pleasure centers (even and especially gambling, I understand)–and cravings for these fleeting and spiky pleasures seduces us over and over again. Our minds literally have to jump over the obstacle presented by ever-in-our-face temptations to just have one little snort, or tell ourselves that if we eat standing up the calories don’t count or some other absurdity.
    Learning how to keep our minds focused somewhere on the other side of that glittering, succulent, aromatic, ecstatic, exciting NOW thing . . . . that’s the challenge.
    I sure look forward to finding out what you have learned.

    • Gillian

      As you often do, Penelope, you have hit the nail on the head. It seems to be part of the human condition to prefer the pain of short-term gain over the gain of long-term pain. Even when we are fully aware of the negative long term consequence of a momentary pleasure, we still can’t resist. We simply ascribe far more importance to now than we do to the future.

      This is an issue I have been struggling with in a different sphere. I am trying to grasp why most of the population are not prepared to accept the fact that we humans are fouling our own nest by our consumptive, wasteful, emission-spewing lifestyles. Very few are prepared to make any sacrifice at all to start working towards solving a problem that has the capacity to destroy civilization. From anything I’ve read on the subject, it seems to be exactly the same problem as we face dealing with bad personal habits – now matters, tomorrow will take care of itself. So frustrating on both levels!

    • Kate

      So true Penelope! Thanks for a helpful way to look at it

  • Suzie

    Congrats on the Buzzfeed thing! wonderful. 🙂 I just ordered The Talking Parcel for my daughter (and myself!) based on one of your previous remarks on your blog. I found a used copy of it since it’s out-of-print.

    Also I read Why We Get Fat since you have mentioned it so many times. (Wish I had read it before!) It was an epiphany for me. I am a poster child for working out, watching calories and not losing weight -for years (about 20 lbs overweight.) I was constantly ravenous, and ate largely carbs. Already succeeding- not hungry all the times and losing lbs, less brain fog. (Although it’s very hard to find “allowed” foods! What are your go-to snacks/meals may I ask?) Thanks very much!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that you ordered The Talking Parcel! I don’t know anyone else who has read it, and I LOVE it. And so happy to hear that you found Why We Get Fat useful, too.

  • phoenix1920

    It feels inherently wrong to think of negative consequences from not overcoming a bad habit as “poetic justice”. We are all imperfect and so many bad habits stem from underlying faults each of us have within us. However, as a part of our humanity, while we must battle to overcome our faults and bad habits, we will never completely succeed. For this reason, I don’t believe we should think of the negative consequences as “justice” simply because we haven’t reached perfection and defeated all of our bad habits. Yes, there are times when we will suffer negative consequences because we do have a bad habit and looking at those times may provide more of an impetus to change our ways.

    In life’s journey, I find that in trying to defeat my bad habits, often the battle itself is more important than the result. Am I making strides? For example, Benjamin Franklin kept a virtue chart and despite all of his efforts, he was never able to achieve his ultimate goals. I think he even wrote once that a speckled axe was best and that one should allow a few faults in oneself,if nothing else but to keep one’s friends in countenance. But you have to keep going.

    In other words, if perfection is impossible but the negative consequences of not achieving perfection is “poetic justice”, it reminds me of that Thomas More quote “For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

  • Jeanne

    This harkens back to your idea that the things that make us happy don’t always feel good, and its reverse – the things that feel good don’t always make us happy. The bad habit wouldn’t be bad if it wasn’t bad for us. But it feels good, so that’s why we do it. When we try to stop or even think about stopping we feel bad and want to feel better. So we do what makes us feel good. Not only poetic justice, but also a vicious cycle.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    For some reason this post just grabbed my attention today–because I’ve been flirting with departures from my healthy eating regime, perhaps?
    Maybe ANOTHER way to put this a bad habit is like


    When I was smoking, smoking made me feel really bad, and it seemed like only another cigarette could make me feel better. I knew perfectly well that was the physiological truth, but it took me a very long time to overcome. Bad habits seem to defy all logic.

  • Agnes

    But similarly, the reward for a good habit is *just* the good habit (usually). People start exercising with the idea that they will lose weight, and when they are thin, their lives will magically improve in every other way. Exercising has a set of inherent rewards (better physical and mental health, stress relief), but they don’t usually include major weight loss. And that often causes people to give up exercising. And even those rare people who manage to lose weight discover that all that’s changed is their size.

  • lljk

    Just a quick proofreading edit—shouldn’t it be array “of” choices?

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  • S_ifat

    This idea was the one I loved best in BTB. I thought about it for days- the habit is the reward! The habit is the reward! How come I never thought of it like that? It changed a lot in keeping my habits, which can be tricky for me as I’m a rebel 🙂 but this idea really resonated with me

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that this struck a chord with you!

  • Naz

    God help us reign in Gretchen!