In honor of Mental Health Month, here’s a little parable for you. You walk down your street one morning and accidentally step in a hole in the pavement. It’s full of rainwater, and you get your shoe all wet. The next day, you walk down the same street and step in the same damn hole. This time, it’s muddy, and you have to scrape the mud off with a stick. The following day, you look down at your dirty shoe and think, “Don’t step in the hole!” Then your phone rings, you get distracted, and find yourself in the hole once more.
The hole in the pavement represents repeating negative patterns of behavior we all enact. Whether these patterns are serious, like drug addiction, or moderate, like always being attracted to the same type of person, or seemingly innocuous, like always running late, they can all be destructive to our true selves, which is to say they inhibit the people we are underneath all these patterns.
Before we delve further into how to shed them, let’s discuss where these behavior patterns come from. “First of all, having destructive behavior patterns does not mean there’s something wrong with you that you need to fix,” said Sandra Parker, a psychotherapist and social worker who practices in Denver, Colo. “Most people I know take far too much responsibility and end up feeling bad and guilty and a lot of shame.”
Parker points out that it’s crucial for us to see that we are separate from the patterns we’re following. This means the very descriptors we may use to define ourselves—like perfectionist, martyr, stoic, hot mess—are not actually integral to who we truly are. They are instead patterns we have grown around, like vines on a trellis, put in place early on by our parents, teachers, institutions, friends, and our society at large.
“We’re all still influenced by old belief systems,” Parker said. “We live in a patriarchal society, which might lead to beliefs like women need to be good caretakers or men need to be good providers.” Our influences may impress patterns on us that cause racism, sexism, antisemitism, or other intolerances. They may lead us to continually expect the worst, care too much about other people at the cost of ourselves, constantly be victimized, be emotionally closed down or defensive, or to feel too important or not important enough… The list goes on and on.
“When we have distorted expectations of how we’re supposed to be in order to be OK, we spend our lives acting out what we think other people need us to be,” Parker said. “And we never get to be who we are.”
These patterns may also develop from coping strategies we learned early in life which no longer serve us in adulthood. If a child grows up with a parent who is addicted, for example, he or she may become a caretaker—making dinner and taking on too much responsibility at an early age. While that strategy may have been necessary for survival in childhood, it may inhibit him or her from having stable relationships in adulthood.
So how do you recognize these patterns to begin with? One of the keys is to examine your family of origin and the systems you grew up with. Ask yourself some questions, and write down the answers. Did you grow up feeling loved or nurtured, or did you feel you were a burden? Were you supported to discover your gifts, or were you expected to follow a path someone else laid for you? Were you free to make your own mistakes, or did your parents helicopter over you? Once you identify your family’s belief systems, you can start to recognize your own.
The next step is to examine what feelings from childhood you’ve recreated in your adult life, whether in relationships with others or with yourself. If we are wounded as children, often times we unconsciously recreate the same wound as adults through our relationships. This isn’t because it feels good, it’s because it feels familiar. Ask yourself, what emotions are you experiencing on repeat? What are your insecurities? What is your self-talk like? These can be clues that will lead you to your particular “hole” in the pavement. And once you can see the hole, you can start working on how to step around it—or take a different route altogether.
Another tactic Parker uses to help her clients identify when their behavior is stemming from a pattern is the “intensity test.” She instructs people to rate their emotions in any given situation. If, say, someone cuts you off in traffic and you get so angry that it ruins your day, well, it’s likely that you’re in a pattern. “Anything you feel above an intensity of a two or three that last for more than an hour, it’s a pattern from the past,” she said. “When you’re your true self and in the moment, emotions go through you like a breeze. You don’t get bent out of shape, you don’t pick a fight, and you don’t blame.”
Therapy can be a very important part of discovering these patterns and working through them. Often releasing patterns will require you to create healthy boundaries, which may change or end toxic relationships—some of which may be with your family or core circle. Having the support of a therapist can help you get through it.
“It’s a scary journey. There’s so much uncertainty and fear, but in the end, there is a lot of payoff,” Parker said. “Being free of toxic patterns will make you feel happy. Which is what this process is all about.”