What’s the difference between a neurotic compulsion and a healthy habit?

Paul asks…

“I saw a website yesterday and from the looks of it, exercise and dietary habits can be classified as neurotic compulsions. What’s the difference between unhealthy and neurotic compulsions and healthy habits?”

© Lululemon Athletica

Our human minds are wired for conditioned responses.

This is of course, essential. Otherwise we’d need to learn to walk, speak, dress, etc every day.

Unfortunately, these conditioned responses don’t always serve our best interests…

At best, they can keep us in bad habits for years. At worst, they can manifest as neuroses or obsessive compulsions. Exercise and dietary habits are definitely not neurotic compulsions in themselves :-)

They’re simply examples of symptoms that can point to an underlying obsessive tendency.

An obsessive / compulsive problem can manifest in many different ways. Some people will gamble or shop, others will hit the gym or eat. But these are just symptoms of the problem, not the problem itself. Whatever the person “acts out” as a result of their neurosis is separate from the psychological issue itself.

For example, it’s not inherently unhealthy to go shopping.

Likewise, is taking exercise unhealthy because some people develop an exercise-related neurosis? No, of course not.

Is it unhealthy to flick a light switch? No of course not. Yet some people have a neurosis where they feel a strong compulsion to repeatedly flick a light switch. But the flicking of the switch is a symptom, not the problem.

To label dietary and exercise habits as neurotic compulsions would be to throw the baby out with the bath water. As humans, we have a check list of items we need to do every day, for optimum health. These include good nutrition and exercise.

The only way to keep doing those things every day is to make them into a habit — use our brain’s natural wiring (conditioned responses) to our advantage. It works like that anyway, so it’s better to make a choice about what our habits will be, rather than drift.

Let me give a more direct answer to the question:

A healthy habit is something you have consciously, deliberately added to your routine to improve / maintain your health.

A neurotic compulsion is something you act out compulsively. In practical terms, you have no choice. This is of course an undesirable state, whether the symptom is “healthy” or not. Whether it’s shopping, gambling, eating, exercising… whatever it is, this is an undesirable state because you’re out of control, it’s an unstoppable compulsion.

The power comes from being able to choose. This includes both deliberately adding health-enhancing habits to your routine and breaking your old, destructive habits and conditioning.

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Michael Kinnaird is the author of Happy Guide, the result of a 20 year exploration into what works for health and happiness.

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2 thoughts on “What’s the difference between a neurotic compulsion and a healthy habit?

  1. How beautifully you have explained the difference between compulsion and conditioning of mind due to habits! I like to know, is there some similarity between compulsion and conditioning of mind unconsciously resulting in to bad habits. If these are dissimilar then please explain if there is any some point of convergent between the two? With thanks.


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