Breaking the Patterns That Keep You in a Rut

Breaking the Patterns That Keep You in a Rut May 12, 2024

When Lauren, 50, described her self-destructive behaviors during a counseling session, it seemed clear that she was in a rut and not working on her goal to stop smoking and become healthier. She seemed defensive whenever I brought up the topic and yet complained about coughing and feeling worried about her lungs and the possibility of developing lung cancer one day.

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 a 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 requires diligence and patience, but will soon become second nature.

First, she counsels readers 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. In Lauren’s case, her triggers for smoking seemed to be stressed related to her two high school aged children and balancing her work and family life without much support from her partner, Kevin, who worked long hours.

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.

After reviewing the steps in this article with Lauren, she renewed her commitment to stop smoking so that she can live a long, healthier life. She sat down with Kevin and they worked out a schedule where he would be responsible for transporting their children to practices for sports and games two days a week. He also agreed to take over the grocery shopping.

In the long run, working on getting out of a rut requires reflection, insight, and often being more assertive with loved ones. Oftentimes, women have difficulty asking for what they need from partners. During our last counseling session, it was obvious to me that Lauren had made great strides in her goal to reduce stress, stop smoking, and to practice improved self-care. She had visited her primary care physician and discussed smoking cessation. And Lauren was working out a a local gym on the days that Kevin was responsible for their children after school. She was taking pride in her new fitness goals and her ability to assert her needs to Kevin and to carve out time for self-care.

Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020.


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