Habit Hangups? Try a Contract

Habit Contracts discussed by Cat Saunders, Ph.D., counselor and author
Cat Saunders

By Cat Saunders

It’s not often that I recommend resorting to contractual means to make behavioral changes. Occasionally, though, people get really sick of stubborn habits and nothing else has worked. In that case, I sometimes suggest the use of a contract.

The idea of using contracts comes from my training in crisis intervention. I served as a volunteer at the Seattle Crisis Clinic from 1981-1983. During that time, I learned something interesting about people who were considering suicide. The Crisis Clinic taught us that if we could get suicidal people to make a contract not to kill themselves, they usually wouldn’t. Even a verbal contract over the phone was good enough to do the trick.

Apparently, if you promise someone—even a stranger—that you won’t do something, it has an extraordinary psychological power. You wouldn’t think that people who are ready to kill themselves would care if they broke a contract. However, crisis intervention experts said to try it, so I did. Fortunately, the verbal contract worked for me (and for the suicidal person) every time.

Suicide attempts are often a desperate cry for help. Obviously, people who call the Crisis Clinic instead of just killing themselves are generally seeking support instead of death. Therefore, making a contract with a Crisis worker can satisfy their need for support.

Personally, I’m always glad when someone has the courage to reach out for help. I do think it takes incredible courage to reach out if one is contemplating suicide. Of course, people considering suicide can always kill themselves later if they still want to. But a cry for help brings an opening for options.

There are always options to suicide. However, it might take someone else to help a suicidal person see those options. I know. I’ve been on both sides of suicide calls. So I know what a godsend a compassionate person can be when the darkness is closing in on you.

If contracts can help prevent suicide, they should be able to help stop a harmful habit, right? After all, harmful habits themselves can be viewed as suicidal, if you want to call a spade a spade. For example, a famous writer once described smoking as a socially acceptable way to commit suicide. Pretty grim, to be sure, but worth considering.

I consider the potential effects of anything I put in my body, from Ibuprofen to tap water (which I never drink). I think about what I ingest, so I can choose whether or not something is worth the risk of harm. One of my best friends is a former smoker. He stopped smoking cold turkey one day when he realized that every puff was a “negative affirmation” against life. He hasn’t smoked since.

Do you have any habits or addictions that might be hurtful to you? Maybe you’ve tried every trick in the book to stop, but nothing has worked. Perhaps you think you’ve learned as much as you can from your habit. But it’s still hanging around and causing you harm. In that case, maybe it’s time to try a contract.

The first and most essential part of making a contract is to select someone as a “compassionate witness” whom you trust completely. This should be someone who doesn’t judge you and doesn’t have a personal investment in your habit. For example, if you’re trying to give up drinking, don’t choose one of your drinking buddies.

If you don’t have a close friend to help, you might make your contract with a counselor, a minister, or a personal coach. Sometimes professionals are better for things like this because they can be more objective. Whomever you choose, remember that you are in charge and you are the one who writes the contract.

The second essential point is to be specific. One of my clients wanted to stop getting into relationships with women who were unable to meet his intimacy needs. He kept hooking up with women who were emotionally superficial and/or attached to another man. My client realized that this was his own pattern that prevented him from forming a satisfying relationship with a woman.

At some point, my client felt ready to have a deeper relationship with a woman. But his old behaviors were still operating and driving him crazy. His patterns were extremely difficult to break, because he was addicted to the attention he got from all kinds of women. Ultimately, however, he grew increasingly frustrated with his pattern.

One day he came to his session so fed up with his “habit” that he was willing to do anything to quit. He’d heard me mention contracts once, and he said he was ready to try one. At that point, I knew he was ready. It wouldn’t have worked if he’d tried before he learned what he needed to know about his relationship patterns. His old behaviors would simply have come back later. Or he might have switched his addictive attachment to another habit.

For my client’s contract, he specifically outlined which behaviors supported his habit. He then agreed to stop those behaviors. For example, he chose not to call or write the women who weren’t good for him. He also agreed not to accept calls from them. If they called, he would just politely say he couldn’t talk at that time.

By refraining from habitually unproductive behaviors, he prevented restimulation of his “addiction” long enough to do some inner healing. This process is similar to abstaining from a drug long enough to build some new behaviors.

Time is the third aspect of a good contract. For example, the man I just mentioned made his contract last for one week. At the time, a week was a long time for him. For your contract, pick a time period you’re comfortable with. During that time, you agree to abstain from (or modify) the habit of your choice.

Some people like to give themselves as “grace day” before the onset of a contract, in order to overindulge in their habit one more time. If that helps you psychologically, do it. Having a binge before beginning does not necessarily mean you’re not ready to give up your habit. It might just mean you need an extra hit of disgust with the habit, in order to give you more enthusiasm for stopping. I’ve tried it both ways, and both ways can work.

This brings us to a fourth and very important component of contracts. Be reasonable! Specify behavior changes and time segments that you can actually follow through with. It’s essential that you create a contract at which you can succeed. You can always “stiffen up” the contract later.

The first week my relationship-challenged client worked with his contract, he nearly went nuts. However, a week later he was back in my office, high on the success of having met the conditions of his contract.  At that point, he was able to add additional specifics to help him break the pattern even more effectively.

The important thing is that he did this one step at a time. It’s much better to be too lenient than too restrictive. Too many rules stimulates the inner rebel, which will then work against your success. You psyche does best with success. You know yourself and your patterns better than anyone, so be gentle with yourself to ensure success.

There’s something else I’d like to mention about success and failure. If you try your best to make a reasonable contract and you still end up breaking it, please don’t beat yourself up about it. Get some moral support from your “compassionate witness.” Talk about what you learned about yourself in the first round of your contract. Then work with your witness to come up with an easier agreement, and give it another shot.

By now you’ve learned how to 1) choose a compassionate witness; 2) outline specific behavior changes related to your habit; 3) set a particular time period; and 4) check to be sure your contract is reasonable for you.

The fifth and final step is to have you and your witness sign the contract. Do it for real and do it in ink. The more realistic you make the contract, the more deeply it will affect your subconscious.

When you’re working with a contract, it’s good to stay in close contact with your compassionate witness. Once you decide to let go of a habit or an addiction, you might experience some of the underlying feelings that you’ve been avoiding. If this turns out to be true for you, take it slow. Remember that feelings are par for the course in healing work. Get support, revise your contract as needed, and most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. Feel free to play as you let go!

This article was originally published by The New Times (March, 1989) and updated in June 2017.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).