One of the first steps in your personal growth journey should be learning to recognize your automatic + learned emotional responses. When you recognize these unhealthy patterns, you can then begin to interrupt these negative cycles and respond in healthier and more mindful ways. Keep reading for actionable steps to begin changing your unhealthy emotional patterns!
One of the amazing (and terrifying) things that starts happening when we become more self-aware (read my post about how to cultivate self-awareness here) is that we start to notice the traps we tend to fall into time and time again. We notice our triggers, and we are better able to realize our automatic responses to certain situations. Because the truth is, as humans, we develop patterns and far too often we fall into the patterns of responding the same way over and over again without even realizing we’re doing it. And it’s not helping our growth.
So, when we do start becoming aware of our automatic responses, what can we do? As we all know, it can be really difficult to change the way we react to things, since we’ve usually been reacting the same way to certain situations since we were children. It can be really hard to change those patterns because they become habitual and unconscious.
Noticing our patterns
To give you an example of an unhealthy emotional pattern from my own life, I noticed last year that when I get upset about something, my first instinct is to run to someone else for comfort. Your instinct might be to keep quiet about it and tell no one. Neither instinct is good or bad, wrong or right, better or worse. But there are issues with both.
For me, immediately running to other people to tell them my problem and help soothe me often caused more problems. For one, I was almost always still really emotional about the situation when I would go tell someone else, which meant that I was usually not explaining the situation in a calm and rational way. Secondly, immediately telling someone else what I was going through obviously meant that I would then bring that person into the situation as well, and they would then have their own emotional reaction to it.
Challenge yourself to change
When I realized I was literally creating more problems for myself by looking to others for comfort rather than making myself feel better, I knew I needed to try to change the way I was responding. But it was such an automatic reaction – one that had been reinforced time and time again by many different people, and in the moment it would lessen my pain. So it was really hard to stop doing it. But I challenged myself to try it just once to see how things would go.
So I did. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. It was REALLY hard the next time I got upset not to immediately run to someone. It was so, so hard in the moment not to revert back to my old habits. But I remembered my promise to myself and I stayed strong, and it paid off so much that I quickly learned my lesson. That doesn’t mean I’m perfect and have never run for comfort since then, but I think twice now and I do it a LOT less than before. And it has been so worth it overall to flip these automatic learned responses that it’s a lot easier to stop myself from doing them in the first place.
Look inward first
So, I challenge you to really dive deep and examine some of the ways you automatically react when you get hurt or angry. Do you lash out at others and get aggressive? Do you run to others for comfort? Do you run from the situation all together? If you’re unsure how you usually respond, take some time to try and notice the next few times it happens. Or write in your journal and recall a recent time you were angry and then how you responded. Or, better yet, ask someone who knows you well to tell you what they’ve observed. It may not always be easy to hear, but it will really help you if you can’t yet identify your traps.
Once you’ve identified one or two, think about what a healthier alternative to the response would be. This doesn’t necessarily mean do the opposite, because the opposite is likely another unhealthy extreme, but maybe instead think of ONE baby step you can do that might be healthier than the way you’re currently reacting.
Small steps are everything
For example, instead of immediately running to tell someone when I got upset, I would challenge myself to wait one or two hours instead. The beauty of this was that of course, after 1-2 hours I had calmed down and by that time I was glad I hadn’t told anyone. By that point, I had usually lost the urge to tell anyone anyway. So if you usually start a screaming match, maybe just walk away and again give yourself 1-2 hours away from the situation instead. If you usually run away and bottle up your feelings, challenge yourself to at least stay where you are. It’s amazing what can happen when we just pull ourselves out of the automatic and into the unfamiliar. Huge changes can happen when we are more intentional.
Be patient with yourself
Of course, as with anything new you try, you will make mistakes and this won’t always work. These habits take time and tremendous energy to change. But if you start small and commit, you will be amazed at the difference even tiny changes can make. And my guess is that you will quickly realize that your automatic response is not actually serving you, but is very likely making things worse for you in the long run.
And remember, it’s never too late to change a habit. With awareness and support, you can shift behaviors you’ve been holding into for way too long. You’ve got this!