As a marriage and family therapist, I am trained to address mental health using a systemic lens. This means that I seek to understand how mental health conditions/symptoms are related to or impacted by a person’s relationships. Thanks to attachment theory, we know that humans develop through a process of relating to others. This process has a profound effect on how we view ourselves and others. As such, we cannot ignore the interactional patterns and dynamics behind our struggles. Understanding and shifting family patterns can be essential to maintaining our health and wellbeing.
Get Clear About What Patterns Need to be Addressed
In the therapy room I take the role of process consultant; I’m there to identify negative patterns and guide the process of shifting them. Tracking a pattern has two parts: intrapsychic (what happens inside us) and interpersonal (what happens between us and others). Patterns are cyclical and self-sustaining; the more I do X, the more you do Y. These are often predictable responses that are centered around managing emotion and ensuring our survival. Emotion comes alive inside us, our brains assess our capacity to handle the situation, and we react with behaviors to deal with the situation.
The last part of that process (behavior) is where family patterns come into play. As children, we develop our coping strategies by observing how our parents respond to distress (both their own and ours). We adapt based on what was modeling for us. Children do not have the capacity to independently choose how they develop. They will pick the path of least resistance that keeps them connected to their primary caretakers even if that means adapting less than ideal ways of coping.
As we explore patterns within our family system, it’s important to identify both the strengths and struggles. Some patterns are a source of resilience, strength, and wisdom. Some are a source of disconnection, pain, and conflict. The goal is to look for patterns of closeness, distance, and reconnection. You can start by making a list; on one side write down what you might have a gained or learned from your family. On the other side, write down what you feel may have affected you negatively. If you’re married, you can do this together with your spouse as a way to team up and undo patterns from both sides of the family.
In my experience, most of the emotions and unmet needs fueling these patterns are outside of our awareness (unconscious). As you reflect on your family, it may be helpful to ask yourself what it’s like to name and identify these patterns.
Set Realistic Goals That Focus on Shifting Processes
Once we take the time to identify a negative pattern, it’s common to want to immediately uproot it from our lives. While this is completely understandably, it’s not the most sustainable way of making changes. Keep in mind that these patterns developed over thousands of interactions; we need time to re-engineer our process of relating.
While simply stopping certain behaviors won’t lead to lasting change, it may be helpful to start by identifying some “non-negotiable” behaviors that are too distressing to continue. This can help de-escalate interactions to pave the way for more lasting growth. Typically, this means focusing on any patterns that directly or indirectly threaten your relationships. It’s important to note that when I write “threaten”, I’m referring to triggers that flood us with a fear of losing our loved ones. These may be things you have experienced or things you find yourself doing that have been brought to your attention by others. If you are in an abusive relationship, it is not safe to do this type of work unless you have professional support or you can leave the relationship (DV Hotline: 1-800-799-7233).
From here, you can begin to explore your leading edge (what you know versus what you’d like to know). One rule of thumb: if it wasn’t modeled for you in your childhood, chances are you don’t know how to do it in adulthood. This isn’t always the case but may be a helpful guide. Continuing to bring awareness to your own experience is a great way to start shifting this process. At what point do you find yourself reacting? What’s happening on the inside and around you? What do you find yourself longing for in these moments? How did your family members teach you to respond to similar moments? What is one small change you could make to move closer to what you’d like to do in these moments?
Expect Patterns to Reappear from Time to Time
As you make changes, expect the process to be messy. We’re humans after all! Progress often looks like a lightning bolt; a series of peaks and valleys that have an upward trajectory. Lots of grace, mercy, and compassion are necessary to support this tough work. Falling back into old patterns is not a failure but part of the process. This is familiar to us as Catholics, how often do we come out of confession only to need to come right back within a short time? There is a humility to undoing patterns that revolves around a harsh reality: healing isn’t perfect, and we will continue to struggle. Growth is about changing the process of how we respond to our suffering, and not eliminating suffering altogether.
One way to mitigate this part of the process is to prepare yourself before it happens. Patterns often re-emerge during times of high stress when our new skills are put to the test. This happens primarily because the old patterns have become automatic coping responses. When we’re not consciously making choices about how to cope, our body will take over. Our capacity is typically diminished during these times. This makes it hard to continue summoning the courage it takes to change. So, when you notice an old pattern showing up, try to slow down your experience and interactions to allow some space for your new skills to take root. It might be helpful to name what’s happening and remind yourself of the changes you’ve made. You can leave room for new challenges by keeping things simple and making adjustments along the way.
Maintain a Balance Between Doing the Work and Celebrating Changes
Changing family patterns is tough work. We can feel like it’s a never-ending process or we can want to avoid it altogether. The reality is that we need a balanced perspective to support growth. If we focus too much on the negative, changes may not take root, leaving us feeling like nothing is good enough. If we focus too much on the positive, we may be avoiding the tough stuff and missing how these patterns are impacting us. The goal is to take an honest look at the patterns, make some changes, and reassess where you’re at after some time. Good enough is good enough; we don’t need to make things perfect. We’re all imperfect humans who struggle to be our best selves AND we can still be resilient, capable, and healthy. It is so important to acknowledge the hard work we’ve done while allowing ourselves to be human. Schedule some time to sit down and reflect on changes. Compare how you’re responding to things now versus when you first started working on these patterns. If there are patterns that seem stuck, consider this is good data to be further explored. If you’re really feeling really stuck, keep in mind that there are plenty of therapists at Alpha Omega who would love to help. Reversing generations of unhealthy patterns takes a team sometimes.
– Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Jonathan Dixon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia who has offered mental health services at Alpha Omega Clinic’s Fairfax office since 2013. He is an active member of the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy. He also seeks to inspire healing and wholeness through reflections on Instagram @deepspeakstodeep.