I always told myself that I never wanted to be like my mom. Growing up I watched her cater to my dad only for him to lie, cheat, and abuse her throughout their entire marriage. There was always a part of me that resented her for that. I could never understand why she didn’t leave him – until I got into my first relationship.
Initially, he was everything I wanted but two years into the relationship things began to go downhill – fast. He dropped out of school, started selling drugs, and got arrested more times than I could count. Then came the lying and cheating. You would think that would have been enough for me to end the relationship. Yet somehow, I let him convince me that it was my fault he was unfaithful. That it was my fault I wasn’t good enough to keep him around.
I’m sure I convinced myself that it was my fault he hit me too. That I shouldn’t have upset him. And when he promised to never do it again, I believed him. After watching my parents' relationship, I should have known better.
You might have heard the expression "children are like sponges". Research has shown that the period of time from conception until the age of 7 or 8 is a very critical developmental period. During this time our minds are very moldable and absorbent, soaking up information from everything and everyone around us. The information we take in during this time shapes our thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, self-esteem, self-image, values, and personality. Everything from the words we hear on TV to the experiences we have with our family of origin forms our core foundation. We build on this foundation for the rest of our lives.
As children, we also learn by modeling and we often model, or repeat, what we learned growing up. You may have wondered why women often date men who remind them of their dad. Or why people who experienced trauma as children are likely to experience trauma as adults.
You may have also heard the expression "children are like wet cement". This comes from the idea that once our core beliefs (also known as our blueprint or programming) are formed they are very hard to change. If you've ever tried to break a bad habit, repeating pattern, or limiting belief you know just how difficult it can be. And sometimes, we end up creating the very thing we tried to avoid.
So why do people remain in dysfunctional relationships – even though they are clearly unhappy? Why do we create the very thing we are trying to avoid? From the outside, it doesn’t make much sense. No one who grew up in a dysfunctional family or has been traumatized wants to repeat these experiences. And for someone in an abusive relationship, it should be easy to walk away – right?
We repeat what’s familiar. Even though we know it’s dysfunctional and not working well, we repeat behaviors because they feel familiar and we know what to expect from them. We are creatures of habit and often choose what's known over what's unknown. Even though it might be painful or uncomfortable, there's a sense of comfort. Many of us have also learned to thrive in dysfunction and chaos, to the point dysfunction and chaos become our new normal.
We repeat what we learned as children. The beliefs, coping skills, and behaviors we learned in childhood become deeply embedded because we learned them when we were in that critical developmental period in which our brains weren’t fully developed. And after years of using them, they are hard to change (hence "children are like wet cement").
We repeat what was traumatizing in an unconscious effort to gain mastery over it. If you felt rejected, unloved, or powerless as a child, you may recreate experiences and relationships where you feel similarly in an unconscious effort to change the outcome – to heal yourself by gaining acceptance, to prove that you are loveable, or to feel in control. But instead, we tend to choose partners and friends who treat us as our parents did and confirm the beliefs we already have. We end up in a repetitive pattern, thinking "this time will be different". But we continue to choose people who are unfit and the cycle continues.
We think we deserve to suffer. When we experience trauma or any other negative experience in life, we often internalize those experiences and take it to mean that we are bad or to blame for what has happened (even though a lot of times what has happened has nothing to do with us). Our self-esteem is impacted and we believe that we are unworthy and deserve emotional pain, abuse, and failed relationships. And what we believe, we attract.
We repeat what we don’t repair. Unfortunately, many dysfunctional relationship patterns are learned and passed from one generation to the next. And we will probably repeat them until we heal the underlying issues and feel lovable and worthy of being treated with the love, respect, and kindness we deserve.
What fires together, wires together. This refers to the way neurons in your brain create stronger, more efficient, and more familiar pathways the more you think about or do something. We’ve all experienced this when we practice a skill. For example, the more you practice shooting a basketball, the easier it becomes to score. The brain also creates connections between our feelings and specific situations, people, and places. For example, if you’ve ever had the experience of smelling a certain cologne or perfume, which then causes you to think of a specific person because he or she wore that same cologne or perfume. In the same way, we repeat maladaptive patterns (of thinking and behaving) because those pathways are the strongest.
If you were abused or neglected as a child, the neural pathways for those relationship patterns were strengthened and your brain became accustomed to them. This may cause you to seek out relationships with a similar pattern without even realizing it. It's as if we’re unconsciously trying to re-do these experiences, so we can feel in control or fix what we couldn’t fix as children. We unconsciously think that this time if we can be lovable or perfect, we won’t make the same mistakes – and thus avoid the abuse or rejection we endured as children.
It’s not that you can’t break old patterns – you can. The challenge is the more you’ve done something, felt something, or thought about something, the stronger those neural connections are – and the harder they are to break. When we talk about “changing our programming" we really mean forming new neural connections so that new thoughts and behaviors become our new normal. When you choose to respond differently or think differently, you create new neural pathways and with repetition, those can become your new way of thinking, feeling, and acting. As with any new behavior, it takes time to become a new habit.
If you find that you are still having difficulty changing your beliefs or reprogramming yourself, consider doing the Breaking the Cycle Package. Click here for more information.
With Awareness Comes The Power To Change,
Confessions of a Therapist