Before you can change something, you must first understand it. In this case, we’re talking about relationship patterns. Although we can and should take behavioral actions when making efforts to change, there is something to be said for the change that comes from committing to a process of self-reflection and understanding over time. Without the depth of understanding why we do what we do, we may wind up making a lot of short-term noble resolutions but find ourselves feeling self-defeated when we continue repeating old patterns.
A Quick Summary of My Last Post
This article is the sequel to my last post, What We Repeat Is What We Can’t Defeat. Last week, I detailed the origins of how we form our relationship patterns. All of us have them, and even the most enlightened among us are not fully aware of how these patterns are running our lives.
I explained how cultural context and family history shapes our personality before we’re born, and how once we’re born we form our relational style based on the interplay between interpersonal experiences (especially with caregivers) and our unconscious feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. From this interplay, we develop concepts and expectations about our selves and others, and so we repeat our history in the present without much awareness that we’re doing so. We do this unconsciously so that the present conforms to what we know and can be predicted, and even as an attempt to resolve and heal earlier wounds.
In this post, I want to offer some premises for readers who are interested in undertaking the difficult process for becoming aware of their relational patterns. A lot of what I share here is information that is far easier to understand on an intellectual level than it is to actually feel and put into practice. Like anything significant worth understanding (and really, is there anything else more significant to understand than our selves and our relationships?), this takes time, commitment, a willingness to endure some unpleasant feelings, and a lot of patience.
What follows is not a how-to list, or a do-it-yourself manual. Instead, I outline some basic premises that form a useful foundation for approaching a unique and personal journey that belongs to you.
Premise #1: You Can’t Do It Alone
You can be the most insightful and evolved person on this planet, but there is no getting around this one. You will need to discover your relational patterns in relation to other people. This means experiencing yourself in real time, face-to-face, in the messiness of an actual relationship. The only way out is in.
No amount of thinking through this on your own or looking up information online will substitute for the experiencing the process of the very thing you are trying to understand. The reason for this is because relational patterns evolve out of a series of spontaneous moment-to-moment of interactions, and so a relationship – especially a therapeutic relationship – can provide a reflection point for the spontaneous moments you unconsciously experience. Scientific research supports the role of the therapeutic relationship as a major factor in what leads to change in psychotherapy.
No one (or therapist) can make you change. You ultimately have to be willing to take responsibility for your own development and enter into the process of self-understanding through a relationship.
Premise # 2: Increase Self-Awareness
Most of us believe we are more self-aware than we really are, but did you know that researchers say most of our minds operate outside of our awareness (various estimates range between 95 and 99 percent)? Despite the evidence, this is always a tough one to sell, particularly in a self-deterministic culture.
Acknowledging that you react to your mind more than you reflect on your mind’s process means you have to challenge the self-concept that you spent a whole lifetime building (no wonder people would rather read a ‘7 Steps How To’ Guide – it reinforces the notion of self-determinism). Developing awareness begins with the willingness to get curious about your mind, and why you do what you do.
Increasing the capacity for self-awareness is just as crucial as experiencing your relational patterns in a real relationship over time. In fact, they go hand-in-hand. One will not work without the other. And while some people believe that ignorance is bliss, just ask any therapist and they will tell you that what you don’t know can hurt you.
Premise #3: Increase Tolerance for Bodily Experiences
One suggestion I often give to others who want to understand their relational worlds is to get used to tuning into their bodily experience as it is actually occurring. For example, right now, see if you can take a full scan of how your body feels without changing how you are positioned. You should notice at least one sensation you were not aware of (e.g. a tight tension in your shoulders). See if you can do the same with your emotions, though this may be more difficult to label than identifying a bodily sensation.
Like any exercise, you will probably need to build up a tolerance over time for sitting with sensations and feelings, especially when they are unpleasant. But with time and regular practice, you will likely feel less overwhelmed by what you discover. The ability to develop tolerance for your experience will further propel your self-awareness, and it will also help with the rest of the ideas offered in this post. If you deal with post-traumatic stress, you may also be interested in exploring this topic further by reading this article written by a psychiatrist about how trauma is stored in the body.
Premise #4: Self-Observation and Meaning Making
When you are experiencing strong feelings with someone you have a relationship to (e.g. feeling that they have ‘wronged’ you), try searching for how your mind, feelings, and body, automatically make meaning out of this experience, as well as how it is connected to certain memories that form beliefs about yourself and others. This can be incredibly difficult to do. For some people, it may be better to start by reflecting alone after a conflict, or with a therapist, and later practice in real-time.
What you will begin to realize over time is how your past contributes to how you experience your present. You will begin to identify patterns where certain emotions and behaviors are paired with certain unconscious memories when they’re activated. The more aware of this you become over time, the less force these patterns will exert on you in the moment.
You will likely still feel the instinctual reaction you’re used to, but it will lessen in intensity over time and you will begin to make more educated choices. It is also helpful to remember that the past influences the present for those you are interacting with as well – that they’re not just reacting to you.
Premise #5: Reflect on Your Partner History
At some point, you will want take an inventory of your partner history. What common themes run through your past relationships? Which emotional patterns and triggers repeat? In what ways do the partners you select resemble the caretaker of the sex or sexes you are attracted to?
According to Harville Hendrix, a couples therapist and relationship expert, the qualities our parents had that we are attracted to in our partners are often not obvious or based on appearance (though sometimes they can be). Instead, it is based on whether or not the person is an emotional ‘fit’ with our caretaker(s) emotional makeup.
Consider the following example…
A heterosexual female who grew up feeling excluded by how her parents paid more attention to her sister siblings and neglected her emotions when expressed them may believe that honest expression don’t work in relationships. She may later be drawn to men who are unobtainable, recreate feelings of insignificance, and she may withhold communication. If that same woman also happens to carry emotional qualities of the man’s mother that still affect him, there will be a mutual attraction. Some people believe this is what “chemistry” is made of.
This doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t be with partners who mirror the shadow of your caretakers. It does suggest, however, that there is often an opportunity in these situations for working through relationship patterns, depending on you and your partner’s readiness to do so. As I suggested in my last post, relationships that work heal childhood wounds, while relationships that are in conflict reengage childhood wounds.
Premise #6: The Work Is Ongoing
Reworking relationship patterns might be the most challenging thing you will ever do. As you know, it takes time, experience, and ongoing reflection. It requires the willingness to self-examine, the ability to increase self-awareness, dig up the roots of your personality, experience feelings and memories that are not pleasant, remain honest with yourself and others, take new risks, and ultimately make room for new ways of experiencing your self in relation to others.
Because life often brings up new and unexpected parts of our history, the work is ongoing. Haven’t you ever seen the same movie several times over a long period of years and developed new perspectives? It is because you got older, matured, and developed new ways of seeing an old story. Our own stories – the movie that is our life – needs this ongoing reflection too.
There are no easy answers. In fact, the answers on this journey make things harder, at least for a time. Everyone who undertakes this journey at some point realizes this, and must decide whether this path or the usual path will bring greater long-term difficulty.
Premise #7: Not Becoming Aware May Have Greater Consequences
The analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, once said “what you resist is what will persist.” In other words, when it comes to your relationship patterns, you can either learn to use them or be used by them. Either way, your patterns are still there, whether you commit to becoming aware of them or not.
Perhaps the most important reason to become aware of our patterns though is for the same reason that we inherited the patterns we have – relationship patterns are passed down to the next generation. And although there is no such thing as perfect parenting, and conflict will always be inherent to the human condition, there is something quite special about undertaking the journey to understanding why we are the way we are.
When we become aware, and when we make room for new ways of being in the world, we model hope, responsibility, mindfulness, and a commitment to ourselves and each other. We challenge the unexamined instincts that so often perpetuate excessive suffering in our world. We teach our children that we make mistakes, but that we are still whole people worthy of love. We model for them the very experience which they will later need to draw upon as they age and their patterns also become more obvious.
Essentially, we do for everyone that which we deserved to have done for us.