“I gotta tell you, every one of my relationships feels like I’m in a relationship with someone from my family-of-origin. It’s literally like I walk blindly into all the messed-up-ness of my family that I’ve wanted to let go of, forever.”
“My husband is as moody as my mom was , my best friend has no emotional space for me- all she does is vent, and in my workplace I feel invisible. My colleagues’ input means more to the boss than mine does, and my kids, they are just raging with anger. How did I get here?”
Vanessa comes in, and before she even sits down on the sofa, she blurts of all this out. I can sense the desperation in her voice, and the intensity of her daily struggle. Vanessa is a graphic artist who has always been a creative. She was always looking for the art in everything, and it’s partially what got her through the chaos she grew up with; she would draw, she would dream, she would create. But today, as a 40 year old mom, wife, worker and community member, she’s hurting, and her hurt is ready for some healing.
And, like Vanessa, we all carry invisible burdens, roles and patterns from our younger years that we easily slide into as swift as a baseball player skids right into home-run.
If this resonates, you may be wondering:
Why do you repeat dysfunctional relationship patterns when you’re always left feeling hurt? Why is the woman who had an overbearing mom do the same to her children, raising them in a stifling environment? Why do children of addicts (alcohol/drugs/food) marry addicts?
Why do men who had emotionally distant dads become just as cold and disconnected with their own children? Why do some people end up in one unhealthy relationship after the other? Why do some people end up in one codependent relationship after another? Why does a woman with an emotionally distant mother repeat the same pattern with her own children?
Why are people who were surrounded by moody, erratic or emotionally unstable family members drawn right back to those relationships; be it at work with a constantly critical, irate boss, a cold, dismissive neighbor or a series of friends who betray them again and again?
And if you see a part of you in one of the above scenarios, you’re not crazy. You’re normal and there’s a reason you got into these relationships. And, right here, we will highlight why that is so, and what steps you can take to shifting those patterns.
There’s a phenomena called “what fires together, wires together” which refers to the fact that more frequently you engage in a behavior, the neurons in your brain “fire-off” and create stronger, more efficient, and familiar pathways in your brain connecting the images, behaviors, beliefs, sensations and emotions with that experience. This is why when you walk into a candle shop and smell the whiff of the scented candles, you’re filled with warmth- because your loving grandma used to burn these scented candles. Likewise, if you were in relationships where you felt out of control, ignored, hurt, were neglected, abused or were emotionally shut down in order to be safe, you’ll unconsciously be drawn to relationships that evoke similar emotions you’ve experienced in the past.
Our minds, bodies and psyches are drawn to what feels comfortable, and what we’ve experienced in our past is comfortable. Now, think of an old tattered pair of sneakers that no longer support your feet and aren’t good for you, but you LOVE them because they have been perfectly molded to your foot shape and feel soft as a cushion when you step right into them. You get a new pair and they’re not as comfy, they take time to break into and , but they are better for you, your posture and to keeping you walking and running with adequate support.
If you’ve had dysfunction in your younger years or even in some experiences in your adulthood, you may go back to that because it’s old territory. If you were ignored, unseen and criticized in your younger years, you may be comfortable in relationships where you’re not heard, respected or protected, even though it isn’t healthy for you.
Though your psyche thinks it’ll navigate through these dynamics, and be ok, as an adult, your job is to learn and engage in newer and healthier dynamics that are better for you, though it can feel like you’re chartering “foreign territory”.
We all have a little one who lives inside of us, a younger version of ourselves who experienced life as it was when we were little. You may have an image or sense of your little one: she/he may be 5, 10, 13 or even 20. Or you may have a few ages that come to your mind’s eyes, or you may have none, but rather an emotional sense of what it was like being you as a kid. Regardless, you have a little one inside who was watching and learned beliefs of herself, those around her, beliefs about the world and those who cared for her. She learned behavior patterns and relationship dynamics that became deeply entrenched because her brain was young and that’s when the brain is vulnerable in development.
So, you may notice that an older part of you wants to say or do something, but the little kid part whips you to the side, and gets in the “drivers seat” and takes over in choosing impulsive behavior, negative thoughts or relationship choices.
In therapy we address these kind of struggle using parts work; we dont simply shut the child part down- but the adult part begins conversing with the younger part and getting to know more about it and the patterns it learned, so it can make some shifts, as an integrated self.
When inner parts are integrated, you can more easily live aligned with your values, strengthen your sense of integrity and bring your goals to fruition without getting stuck in the power loop.
When you go through an experience that was traumatic or shocking to your system, you’re left feeling confused. As you get older, there is a natural unconscious effort to repeat the traumatic experience to “replay” what happened in an attempt “understand” it, and hopefully gain a sense of mastery and control.
For example, if you had experiences where you felt powerless, unloved, invisible, rejected or criticized when you were younger, you will unconsciously recreate relationships or get yourself into experiences where you feel similar feelings- with a strong desire to change the outcome. You may do this by desperately seeking the approval or acceptance of someone who can never really give it to you, or by trying to obtain a feeling of power and control in a relationship dynamic.
This is why some people choose friends, loves, bosses or neighbors who treat them in a similar way their parents , family-of-origin or past unhealthy partner treated them, without even realizing. Once you gain awareness of this pattern, you can create a shift. I’ll address this in the next blog “4 Steps to Breaking Unhealthy Relationship Patterns.”
As we know, our core beliefs about ourselves guide all areas of our lives. We pick up core beliefs from every interaction and experience we have from childhood, and throughout our entire lives.
As an example, if your brother bullied you and your father stepped to to protect you, you learned that it’s never ok for someone to hurt you without accountability. If your friend said mean things to you and your mother helped you choose better friends to make you feel better about yourself, you learned that your value is important and others need to respect you.
Though these beliefs are false, children come up with beliefs to help them make sense of pain. For example, you may have felt that if you were “enough”, “better” or “smarter” you’d have helped dad stop his alcohol problem, you’d have made mommy and daddy’s marriage better, or your grandma would have lived longer if you required less emotional attention from your parents.
Whatever it was that you were exposed to, even if you weren’t directly blamed, you internalize your family’s energetic struggle.
If you are carrying emotional weights of shame, blame, guilt, feelings of insecurity or unworthiness, your unconscious may believe that you deserve pain, to be left out, ignored, hurt, shamed or blamed in adult relationships.
You may be reading this in disbelieve and think “why would anyone think that”, and in truth, there’s usually a dissonance between the conscious and unconscious awareness.
Reading the above may give you insight into the “why” of why you’ve engaged in patterns that go you far from where you’ve wanted and needed to be.
Now, if you’d like some tips on how to heal those patterns to create a change, click here to read “ 4 Steps to Breaking Unhealthy Family Patterns in Long Island, NY”.
*originally posted on integrativepsych.co