Many of my clients sit down in my office and complain that they are stuck in a rut. It may not be full blown depression, but they just can’t find pleasure in day-to-day activities, their job, or their relationships. Kelly, 43, is a teacher and she’s married with two teenagers. She often says that she wants to feel better but doesn’t know where to start.
Kelly put it like this: “I’m not really old enough for a mid-life crisis but I just can’t get my groove back after my dad died last year. I tell myself that it wasn’t fair that he died in his mid- sixties. On the surface, my life is good with a family, home, and job. But I rarely find joy in daily events and tasks and I don’t seem to be able to finish projects that I start. This leaves me feeling disappointed in myself and discouraged so I stay home rather than go out with friends or my husband.”
In an April article for The Gottman Institute’s blog, Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart offers readers advice on how to disrupt the negative patterns so many of easily fall into. Approaching the subject from a psychological perspective, she analyzes the ways in which we learn — that is to say the ways in which we are conditioned to fall into transgressive cyclical behaviors that reinforce themselves over time.
Dr. Lockhart essential belief is that negative learned behaviors are just as easy to develop as positive one. Indeed, she describes repetitive, learned behaviors as the product as a sort of practice that can be channeled to positive ends. Engaging in repetitive thought processes, for example, can follow one of two tracks: “positive affirmation or negative self-statements,” according to Dr. Lockhart.
The natural conclusion that she draws on the ways that we can effectively condition ourselves to reinforce and then repeat positive, productive behaviors is quite liberating. We have control over ourselves, and our thoughts, actions and characteristic behavioral traits can be improved and made positive through practice.
Dr. Lockhart then outlines five practical steps to enable “breaking the cycle.” She writes that “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.” Her five steps require diligence and patience, but will soon become second nature.
First, she counsels reader to “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).” This initial step will open the door to those that follow.
Next, Dr. Lockhart asks that people identify their “triggers,” or as she puts it, the “things that really grind your gears and things that you have an exaggerated emotional or mental reaction to beyond what should be expected.” Identifying triggers will unlock the next of Dr. Lockhart’s five steps: understanding your response to your triggers. Step three may be something you do every day, such as overeat or spend too much time sleeping.
Step four is “developing a hypothesis.” In other words, reflect on your patterns of behavior and thought, including your history of these patterns, as a way to better evaluate that root causes of any negative cycles that have formed. And finally, Dr. Lockhart suggests that unpacking these issues will help lead to a better understanding of whether and how these learned behaviors serve you — or work against your personal growth, emotional health, and ultimately your happiness.
Finally, Dr. Lockhart offers step five which is to ask yourself: “Is this behavior you are engaging in serving you? Also, do these behaviors make you a better person or hold you back from being your best self?
When I went through these five stages with Kelly, she was able to identify spending too much time on social media as a negative behavior which had increased since her father’s death. Next, one of her main triggers was feeling tired and sad about her loss which caused her to want to connect with people online rather than in person. Her hypothesis then became “Since my father’s death, I’ve felt sad about losing him so I increased my screen time and thought that would feel better. In reality, I feel more isolated and lonelier.”
After engaging in this step-by-step analysis, Kelly was able to set a goal to cut screen time down to one hour a day (from three hours), add one hour of physical exercise such as walking or riding her bike, and to spend more face-to face time with family and friends. As a result she was able to get out of her rut, felt more connected to others, and her mood became more positive over time.
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry