Why The Habits We Learn During Teenage Years Never Really Leave Us

by Dane Phillips

I was groggily drinking orange juice from the carton one morning when something strange caught my eye. It was a blur, just on the edge of my vision, hovering along the border of my waking consciousness.

It was small, unobtrusive and unclear. It was my pinky. And it was poised a good inch away from my beverage, as if I were having high tea with the queen of England. Really, I was drinking from a cardboard box and standing in the kitchen in my underwear.

It made no sense, until it did.

When I first started partying in high school, we used to play a lot of drinking games. We'd sit around a friend's dining table while his parents were out of town, or we'd gather around a bed in a motel room we'd rented with a fake ID. We'd turn drinking into a competitive sport, as all novices do.

Due to our locale, the games were relatively simple. Most involved a deck of cards, and an increasingly convoluted set of rules that we generated instantly and enforced arbitrarily. It was great.

Whatever the game, situation or company, it always ended in uncontrollable laughter and semi-controllable vomiting. They were happy times.

But one rule seemed to come up most often, and it was the emasculating "pinkies out." Whatever we were playing, participants would have to drink with their pinkies extended just beyond their beverages, fancifying our consumption from our red solo cups and Natural Lights.

The same went for the tequila and the 151 shots that inevitably ensued. The punishment was to drink again, which usually led to forgetting the rule again, which led to drinking again. All of this led to sleeping in the fetal position in a bathtub.

These games went on until college. Weekend after weekend, we all got in the habit of drinking with our pinkies out, even when a game wasn't being played or the rule wasn't being enforced. It became a habit that defined our social group, and it was so automatic, we all stopped noticing.

But that was well over a decade ago. And yet, drinking my morning orange juice in my 30s, as I prepared to put on a shirt and tie and go work in an office with adults, I realized I still had my teenage habit.

That was troubling.

Of course, even though drinking in that fashion isn't exactly manly, it's not the worst habit in the world. I don't floss in public, huff paint or send people cat memes.

But that's not the issue. It's what the practice represents.

It shows that something I did for a couple of years, during a formative time in my life, has stuck with me infinitely longer than I could have expected. And it has done so largely without my noticing.

So, what other habits have I unknowingly retained? More importantly, are they nearly as harmless?

Behavior becomes ingrained, and it does so to such an extent, it evolves from "habit" to "personality." It's no longer simply what we do; it's who we are.

For example, perhaps some of us used jokes as a defense mechanism during our awkward teen years, so we're still doing it at the company Christmas party.

We learned to play our parents against each other to deflect the attention away from our own suffering, and now, we do it to our colleagues.

We made a habit of breaking the hearts of our lovers before they had the chance to do the same, and now, we have a solitude we created without any recognition of its construction.

This could be a problem.

But more important than any of these acts is the fact that they went unnoticed. We spend 24 hours a day with ourselves, so how could we be so lacking in self-awareness?

How did our friends and family never call us out? How did a jilted lover not inform us of our shortcomings via a controlled fire on our front lawn?

Well, it's the same reason I drank with my pinky out for so many years: Everyone was doing it, so no one noticed.

Friends, family and lovers are used to your sh*t, so they forget to inform you you're an assh*le. Or if they do, it's non-specific, in a general "you're a terrible human being" way.

We let this impact us for all of 11 minutes before getting on with the business of being us.

For me, even when my social circle evolved, my eccentricities became such a part of who I was, they were accepted, forgiven or ignored. So they remained.

Due to this phenomenon, organic change can be hard to come by. Only active self-improvement can guarantee results. We have to hold a mirror up to ourselves, while also insisting that friends, family and partners do it for us. And this is crucial, because few habits are as harmless as how we hold our glasses.

It's much more likely to be how we hold ourselves, how we treat those we disagree with and how we interact with people from different ethnicities, genders, socio-economic groups, sexual orientations, religions, political ideologies and nationalities.

We may very well have become hardwired to act in a way not representative of who we truly are, or at the very least, who we aspire to be.

We may act in a way that hinders our progress, rather than generates it. We may have held onto beliefs, opinions and habits that should have been left in our past long ago.

Fortunately, even though old habits die hard, they do die. Or they can, if they are starved of reinforcement and approval. We can surround ourselves with people who challenge us to be better versions of ourselves, rather than iterations of our past, or copies of a social construct.

We can force ourselves to interact with strangers who will be much more inclined to comment on bad habits or outdated thoughts. We can look in the mirror each day and demand we improve upon the person we saw the day before.

And if we do all of this, we have a chance to achieve what should be everyone's goal: to leave the world in a better place than when we found it.

Following that recent swig of morning orange juice, I refocused my aforementioned efforts. I tried to pay closer attention and work a little harder, and I did make a few positive changes. I even had a drink to celebrate.

And this time, I'm happy to say, my pinky was almost touching the glass.