As a pediatric psychologist and parent coach, I often tell kids and parents in my practice that you get better at the things you practice. As you repeat thoughts (positive affirmation or negative self-statements), habits (making the bed every morning or snoozing the alarm), or skills (sewing or writing), they become second nature. That includes all things—the healthy and the unhealthy stuff.
How you learn
People learn in a variety of ways. Classical conditioning is learning that happens unconsciously. A behavior that is paired with a reinforcer encourages that behavior to be repeated. Operant conditioning is learning through a series of rewards and punishments. Verbal learning involves your communication through signs, pictures, words, or symbols. Observational learning happens through observation and imitation of others. You also learn by trial and error, insight, and punishment.
You learn then integrate this new information into your daily life. However, often you repeat cycles even when you told yourself that you wouldn’t. Think about the way you parent. How often have you said, “I won’t yell at my child,” yet found yourself doing it time and time again? The cycle repeats itself, leaving you to wonder, Why do I do this?
Conditioning and reinforcement
This repetition goes back to all the ways you learn, including conditioning and reinforcement. It also involves the pleasure of the reward and the pain of the punishment. When you try things out, wait for the outcome, and then develop insight into why you did or didn’t do something, you learn more about the world, others, and yourself. Some people learn these lessons immediately, while others second-guess themselves. How quickly you learn or don’t learn from your actions is often tied to the earlier messages you received.
Has someone ever questioned you: “Do you really think that person is a good friend?” or “Are you really going to eat that?” These seemingly innocent remarks often heard from one’s own parents, one’s family of origin, or people in authority plant seeds of self-doubt and second-guessing. Thus, you don’t truly learn how to make good decisions. You are more concerned about what other people think about your decisions. It is difficult for learning to take place when it is done through fear of judgment and when the reinforcer involves the avoidance of pain, humiliation, or punishment.
Also, the cycle repeats when you attempt to relive a past experience to make it right. Perhaps you want a different ending or to gain a sense of mastery over the situation. There could be a desire for closure, insight into the other person’s behaviors, or a better understanding of yourself.
Breaking the cycle
Whatever the reason, these all play a role in the repetition of cycles. Here are some ways to work through them so the cycles you are engaged in actually benefit and help you, rather than hurt you.
- Make a record of patterns of behaviors. You can do this through video recording, journaling, or sharing your journey with others (i.e, podcasts, blogging, social media).
- Determine your triggers. These are things that really grind your gears and things that you have an exaggerated emotional or mental reaction to beyond what should be expected. You can ask: “What is this reaction I’m having to this event? Is it really about just this event or all the events that look like this one?”
- Understand your responses to these triggers. What do you do when X happens? Why did you respond in that way? Is this an expected reaction? Would others respond in this same way given similar circumstances? Would you like to respond differently, more adaptively? It is important this is done in a non-judgmental manner that is free from shame. Remember, you are working toward understanding yourself and your patterns of behavior better. This process is not about cultivating shame or breeding guilt.
- Develop a hypothesis. Brainstorm the underlying reason behind your behavior patterns, triggers, and responses. When did this start? When do you remember thinking this thought? What is your earliest memory tying you to this particular emotional, mental, or behavioral reaction? How did others treat you in those moments? What messages are you telling yourself about this person, situation, or event? (A mental health professional can also help you with this process. Find a therapist in your area)
- Is this belief or behavior serving you? Be honest and ask yourself whether holding on to this pattern of behavior and engaging in this cycle is serving you? Are you a better human being because of it or does it deplete and chip away at you?
As you uncover those triggers and patterns of behavior, you can begin to unlearn the things that hold you back. Keep in mind, if you can learn to engage in unhealthy patterns, then you can unlearn them too. It is never too late for you. Healing is possible.