Breaking the Cycle – How to FORGE New Patterns
Figure out what’s going on.
If you want to break the destructive cycle of family dysfunction, it starts with the basic step of gathering information about family patterns by asking questions and figuring out what has been going on. It may be difficult to open up doors of communication with family members. This step may be met with resistance or anger because it is breaking the carefully followed rule of “Don’t Talk,” so consider how to have this dialogue and who to talk to. Seek wise counsel and spend time in prayer about how to proceed.
By taking this step you are deciding that you are going to stop pretending, and you are choosing to get out of the comfort zone of denial. People often insulate themselves with many protective layers of minimization, justification and rationalization over the depth of pain and dysfunction in their family. Initially, this may help a person survive severely abusive situations and this type of self-protection is necessary. But with the emotional support of a trusted spouse, friends or a counselor, it may be time to be honest about what has actually gone on in your family and face the painful realities.
Educate yourself on your family’s particular dysfunction. If there is a history of mental illness or a possible personality disorder, then read books or seek knowledge on the diagnosis that has been given. If there is a history of addiction, then educate yourself about the nature of addiction and the impact that it has on family members who live with an addict. If there is a history of abuse, then seek out books or materials that offer insight and understanding to how the trauma of abuse impacts a person mentally, emotionally or physiologically.
Own your own stuff.
As you start to recognize the patterns and cycles of dysfunction in your family, ask yourself: What impact has this had on me? Am I particularly fearful? Anxious? Am I a perfectionist? Do I enable harmful behavior in my closest relationships? Am I always angry? Am I verbally, emotionally or physically abusive to the people around me? Do I seek to escape pain in the same ways that were modeled to me? How do I deal with core issues, conflict and communication? What am I already passing on to my friends, spouse or children?
Once you are in your 20’s, you have reached an age of accountability and responsibility for your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and responses to those around you. One of the main ways that dysfunctional patterns are passed down to the next generation is the lack of awareness that many people have to their own agency long after they reach an age of culpability. Recent research on the topic of emotional intelligence now explains that self-awareness, self-regulation and self-ownership are the hallmarks of personal growth and maturity, but a dysfunctional family environment inhibits emotional intelligence and stunts emotional development.
By nature, we typically seek to blame others for our pain, our choices and our failures. And in many ways, it is a legitimate and necessary step to identify the ways that your early childhood experiences have impacted you. But “owning your own stuff” means that you begin to take responsibility for yourself in every way. This step opens you up to new ways of seeing and understanding the core reasons for your thoughts, feelings and behavior. This step means that you are beginning to understand the impact that YOUR actions have had on someone else, which is a huge sign that deep character transformation is occurring.
If your early relationships lacked healthy boundaries, then it is likely that you will bring unrealistic expectations into your present or future relationships. The difference between expectation and reality is disappointment, so if your unrealistic expectations for your relationships are not met, then it is possible that you will always be disappointed on some level with the quality of your relationships. If you grew up in the context of abandonment or abuse, then basic needs for love and security may have been ignored. Looking to your current relationships to meet those needs now places a heavy burden on someone who likely will be unable to fill those emotional gaps.
Relearning which expectations are reasonable or are unreasonable is a necessary step in breaking dysfunctional patterns. This is where “owning your own stuff” becomes an essential piece to the puzzle, because unless you know what your “stuff” is, you will always be blindsided and disappointed by others, and may have a series of broken relationships.
Admitting that you need help to deal with your family background is a step of spiritual and emotional maturity. Seeking support from your friends, church community, mentor or counselor will help you break dysfunctional patterns and cycles. Healing from family issues usually happens in the context of healthy relationships, which you may not be able to find within your family of origin. Reaching out to others means that you are ready to forge new connections and establish new ways of relating to others. Whatever wounds from your past that remain unhealed will be passed on to your present or future relationships, so asking for help is a good sign that God is at work in your life. Whatever we have in our past that remains unnamed or unspoken …. We cannot move past.
Establish healthy boundaries.
Christians tend be confused about boundaries because we do not understand the many facets of biblical love – and we had poor models to show us what genuine “truth in love” looks like. We erroneously believe that Christian love means that we are not supposed to confront sinful behavior, that we are to rescue people from their pain and act as their functional savior, that we are to allow people to sin against us or manipulate us, and that we should be emotionally and spiritually responsible for others because it is the “loving thing to do.”
Stepping back from sinful, destructive patterns of relating may feel very uncomfortable or unloving if growing up you learned that “love” meant doing everything for someone else, shutting down your painful emotions to avoid hurting someone else or striving to please everyone around you to avoid rejection or further emotional pain. Biblical love is sacrificial and full of grace, but it is far more robust than that. Biblical love confronts sinful behavior, holds others accountable, takes personal responsibility for sinful choices and responses, provides loving discipline, refuses to pretend, lie or cover up for someone else, and points people to the only true source of hope for change and rescue: Jesus Christ.
We often provide substitutes for biblical love (pseudo-love) when we relate to others, but forging new patterns of relating means that you are seeking out authentic connection with God first in response to His divine love for us (1 John), and then asking for wisdom to know how to love those around you with humility, grace and truth (Read the book of Ephesians for insight into biblical love in relationships).
This is a lifelong pursuit for everyone, no matter what kind of home you were raised in, or the quality of relationships you have had up to this point. Spiritually and emotionally mature people move towards other people with realistic expectations, they seek to reconcile broken relationships, they honestly pursue answers to core life questions with the hope of the gospel – that God is with us and FOR us – and they desire to build healthy connections with others based on honesty, mutual trust and respect (truth in love). This is one of the reasons why the work of therapy can be so rewarding and have lifelong, generational implications for our clients.