Do you find yourself reacting to stress in the same way over and over again even though you know it’s not helpful? Do you find yourself in the same unhealthy relationship patterns? Can you see your little one picking up on your habits? These are called patterns or cycles and there’s a reason for them.
The way we are today is a combination of our experiences to this point in our lives. We have learned to react a certain way, to think a certain way, and to do things a certain way from the people around us. We’ve learned both healthy and unhealthy ways of living our lives through these experiences.
Since we learn these patterns of being, we can also unlearn our behaviors, ways of thinking, and habits. Let’s explore how we learn our patterns and then we’ll explore how we can unlearn them.
We learned how to be in relationships from observing and modelling relationships we had with our earliest caregivers.
The family you grow up in is the place where you learn to become who you are. It’s where you learn how to communicate, how to process your emotions, how to get your needs met, and how you form your values and beliefs. Most people carry what they’ve learned through their family with them through their lifetime which is how patterns are created and cycles are continued. A child who watches their parents make certain choices are likely to make the same or similar decisions.
If you grew up in a family that had challenges with abuse, poverty, addictions, was not able to provide you with life skills as a child, was not capable of showing you love or meeting your needs then you may experience challenges later in your life in these areas as well as you develop friendships, relationships, and a family of your own.
For example, you grew up in a house where conflict was avoided, you more than likely describe yourself as someone who doesn’t like conflict, and in your relationship you will find it confronting when your partner starts to get frustrated.
Or, if it was modelled in your family that emotions were not to be seen or heard, it is likely you will have difficulty recognizing your emotions, managing your emotions, and communicating how you’re feeling.
Generational patterns create ways of being in relationships.
Our thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, and values can all be handed down from one generation to the next. That means that we learn how to “be” in the world from our parents who learned from their parents who learned from their parents and so on. We pass these patterns on consciously and unconsciously through our words, actions, and attitudes.
If you saw your grandmother and mother carry all or the majority of the household responsibilities you will learn that it is a woman’s responsibility to carry the household responsibilities. If your partner has learned the same, this pattern will continue. If you saw your mother and father equally carry the household responsibilities while your partner saw only their mother carry the burden of the household responsibilities, then conflict is likely to arise when it comes to (likely unconscious) expectations of the woman in the home and in the relationship.
Say your father’s father yelled every time he got upset and your father yells every time he’s upset then it’s more than likely you, especially in times of stress, probably yell too (especially if you are male). It is an automatic reaction. Or, you may seek a partner who tends to yell as a reaction to highly stressful situations.
Generational patterns will continue to move through families and cultures until they are consciously stopped by unlearning the old patterns and learning new healthier ways of being in the world.
Unlearning your no-longer useful behaviours
Unlearning behaviours, thoughts, and beliefs that no longer serve you or are harmful to your relationship is important as a parent. Just like you learned these ways of being in the world and in relationships from your parents, your child will also learn from you.
Here are some ways to work through your family cycles and generational patterns so they can help you opposed to harming you:
- Become self-aware. You need to realize you’re engaging in harmful behaviors before you can fix them! You can do this by journaling or talking it out with a trusted person (like a therapist). When you find yourself having an exaggerated response to something you can ask yourself: “What is this reaction I’m having to this event? Is it really about just this event or all the events that look like this one?” We can call these triggers. You are trying to figure out what triggers you.
- Understand your responses to your triggers. Once you’ve discovered what your triggers are, you can explore your responses to your triggers. You can ask yourself, “What do I do when X happens?” “Why did I respond that way?” “Do I always respond this way?” “Is this how other people would respond in this situation?” “Do I want to change my response?” Ask yourself these questions without attaching any shame or guilt to the answers that come up. You’ve already learnt that these responses are learned responses – they’ve been ingrained in you without your consent and they have no bearing on who you are as a person!
- Take responsibility for your feelings. When you take responsibility for your feelings and behaviours, you allow space for change and healing to occur. This could look like acknowledging that you have beliefs that don’t serve you, no longer blaming others for the way you react, or no longer making excuses for your behaviours.
- Reframe your perspective. Take care of yourself, set boundaries, and ask for what you need. Your triggers are telling you that you are needing something. Listen to what they are saying. Brainstorm the underlying reason behind your behavior patterns, triggers, and responses. You can ask yourself, “When did this start?” “When do I remember thinking this thought?” “How did others treat me in those moments?” “What messages am I telling myself about this situation, or event?”
- Make a choice to change. You know your patterns aren’t helping or serving you but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to change anything. It can be hard work unlearning what we’ve done for 20+ years and starting new. Be honest with yourself if you’re ready to make some changes at this time or not.
- Make the change. Now is the time to replace your old reactions with new healthier ones. Now is the time to shift your beliefs to serve you and keep you safe. Elicit the support from your network as you do this work. Reach out to a trained professional, like a therapist, who can help you navigate the murky waters of change and hold your hand while you make it to the other side. Give yourself grace if it takes longer than expected or you take a step back. You are only human.
You’ve been acting, responding, and thinking the way you do for a long time. Some of the patterns you’ve developed are healthy, and others are harmful. As you uncover the triggers for your patterns of behaviour, you can begin to unlearn the things that hold you back. Unlearning leads to learning new ways of being that keep you safe and contribute positively to your relationships.
Julia Nowland is a qualified relationship therapist with a curious mind and unwavering optimism. She’s dedicated to helping you develop the relationships you deserve. From individual therapy and marriage counselling to online courses and couple kits, Julia is there to help you revitalise your relationships, so that you can live a life filled with love and fulfillment.