How To Break Unhealthy Patterns, According To My Therapist
Let’s face it: nobody’s perfect. We all have tendencies and habits that are unhealthy and self-sabotaging, whether we realize it or not. So, how do we become aware of what those are? And more importantly, how can we fix them?
I mentioned in a previous article that one of the ways seeing a therapist can help is by making us aware of our unhealthy patterns so we can acknowledge them and eventually break them. It’s an ongoing process and it’s hard work. But it needs to be done so we can keep growing and improving and therefore cultivate healthier relationships with ourselves and other people.
Recently, my therapist helped me realize that I was being too assertive in my relationships. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being assertive in general, but this is part of a personal pattern that leads me to be anxious and dissatisfied with my relationships.
When I need something from other people, I vocalize it. But then, I worry that I have become a burden to those I care about by being too assertive about my needs. Because I’ve basically given them this checklist of things I need in the relationship. I feel like they are just going through the motions and doing what I asked so as not to piss me off.
Is that what I want? No. What I really want is for them to genuinely care about me enough to understand my needs and work to meet them, by doing the things I asked or even going above and beyond. Now, keep in mind that I have no way of knowing if they’re just going through the motions or if they genuinely want to do these things –– so my mind immediately goes to the former.
There lies the catch: even when I’m pretty much getting what I need after I’ve said something about it, I get upset because I feel like the other person looks at me as an obligation, rather than genuinely caring about me.
By going through this with me, my therapist helped me realize that when I feel this way, it’s because I’m basically doing all the work. I’m putting in my effort because I care about the other person, and then I’m noticing that I’m not getting reciprocated effort from the other person, so then I’m telling them exactly what they need to be doing; they follow my instructions, and I get upset. Basically, I was running the show from both sides and having a relationship with myself, which isn’t fair to me or to the other person in the relationship.
So, once she helped me realize this pattern of assertion of my needs was unhealthy, my natural next question was, “How do I fix that?” The look on her face told me I wasn’t going to like the answer. And guess what: I didn’t. It sounded hard. It sounded painful. It sounded scary and it sounded exhausting. But what was I going to therapy for if I wasn’t going to follow her advice?
Your pattern may be totally different than mine –– maybe you’re not assertive enough and you let people take advantage of you. Maybe you find yourself manipulating other people. Maybe you have an unhealthy addiction. It could be any number of things. No matter what it is though, it most likely needs to be worked on and the processes will all be similar.
First, understand the reason why you need to break the pattern and what makes it unhealthy.
I needed to break this pattern because it was getting me into relationships, romantic and otherwise, that didn’t meet my needs on their own. I was forcing them to meet my needs and then feeling bad about it. You shouldn’t have to force anything, because this will always lead you to worry about whether or not the other side is completely genuine.
And this goes for any unhealthy pattern you may have. The first step to fixing it is always understanding why it needs to be fixed. That way, you will see the benefit and have a goal to work toward from the very beginning.
Next, notice the trigger and how you feel when it happens. Label it.
For example, one of my needs in romantic relationships is quality time.
I want to feel like a priority for the other person. This means that when I don’t know when the next date is or when I’ll see them next, I panic and I go into planning mode. I push the other person to make plans and tell me what they are. I put all my other plans on hold and keep my schedule clear in case the other person is free. If we don’t have set plans, I overthink and stress about when I’ll see them next, thinking that they don’t want to be with me.
Clearly, I get triggered whenever I feel that something else is consistently more important than me, and that I fall to the bottom of the totem pole for this person. I felt like I needed to force my way in, so cue the planning mode pattern so I could make sure I got the time and attention I needed. When my requests were obliged, I felt awful anyway because it didn’t feel like the other person actually wanted to spend time with me.
You can imagine how this made me feel. So now, when I go into planning mode and I’m about to say something about spending time together, I stop. I notice it. I say to myself, hey, this is your planning mode. And going into planning mode right now is not going to help you in the long run.
After you notice it and label it, you have to drop it.
This is the hard part. Drop the struggle. As you’re noticing and labeling it, you’re holding it in your hand and you’re faced with a decision. Envision your hand opening and dropping your problem.
Do not act on it, no matter how badly you want to. This is going to feel very unnatural at first, considering this has been your pattern for as long as you can remember. But this is how you heal.
Now, when I go into stressful planning mode and I want to make plans with a significant other, I consciously decide not to say anything. I let the anxiety roll off my back. I don’t bring up the topic, and I test the waters to see what the other person does in the absence of my pattern.
Finally, you’re going to have to filter.
Dropping the struggle allows you to filter your life –– keep the people and relationships that step up to the plate once you break your pattern, and drop those that don’t.
When I dropped the struggle, things started to happen in my relationship. After a few days of me not constantly badgering him to spend time with me, he asked me to make plans and suggested things we could do together. I was pleasantly surprised. And this way, I didn’t feel awful about having my needs met. Since it wasn’t my suggestion to spend time together, I felt like he was doing something he actually wanted to do, not taking care of an obligation. In this scenario, I had the best possible outcome. Dropping the struggle and filtering is the only way to find out if something only works if you force it, or if it works naturally on its own.
The catch is the opposite scenario. When you drop the struggle, you are inevitably going to find that some people or some things just don’t meet your needs, no matter how badly you want them to stay in your life. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt. You are going to have to mourn. Take the time you need to do what you need to do before completely moving on.
As hard as this sounds, it is essential to bettering ourselves and growing. It’s so easy and comfortable to perpetuate our unhealthy patterns by taking no action at all, but eventually we will realize that we aren’t truly happy and that we need something more. That’s where breaking the pattern comes in. It will help us to not only become better versions of ourselves, but it will attract people, relationships, and things into our lives that are a better, healthier fit for us. Breaking the unhealthy patterns in our lives can free us from guilt, from anxiety, from addiction, from feeling like a burden, and so much more.