Love Yourself More: 5 Rules For Breaking Old Patterns & Getting Un-Stuck

Originally published in Elephant Journal | October 11, 2014

hands-windowWe all have moments of feeling stuck and unhappy. We get stuck in patterns of behavior, in relationships that are no longer serving us, in crappy jobs that we aren’t passionate about or in uncomfortable situations that make our skin crawl.

It is easy to notice what we don’t like, but it is not always easy to change it.

Here are five rules that I have found work like a charm when I am stuck. Might as well roll into the holidays and the New Year feeling empowered!

1) Look at the common denominator—you!

It is very easy for all of us to blame things that aren’t going well on everyone and everything else around us.

We have the most trouble getting reflective and saying, “What do I keep contributing to this situation that I don’t like?” We all need to start taking some responsibility and accountability for this process. You are the only one that can change your life, right?

I use the term projection a lot. In psychological terms, a projection is when we deny the unpleasantries in our lives and attribute them to someone or something else.

For example, I have always had a difficult time with women who really put themselves together and adorn themselves with makeup and nice clothes. When I was younger I called them sluts, as I got older I just called them shallow. Really, this had nothing (okay, well sometimes the shoe might have fit?) to do with them and it had everything to do with the fact that I was extremely self-conscious and didn’t feel comfortable with my sexuality or femininity. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin; therefore, anyone else who I perceived as comfortable in his or her skin was wrong.

My insecurities turned into judgments, or projections, onto others.

We all do this, all of the time. It is almost impossible to avoid, until we start to notice that we are doing it. Usually the people or situations that make us the most uncomfortable are the ones we can learn the most from.

Take the next confrontation you have and see what you can learn about yourself. Ask yourself: What am I avoiding looking at within myself that I dislike in that person?

2) Identify your needs and start meeting them yourself.

This one is a doozy. Most everyone is looking for love, right?

If you haven’t found Mr. or Mrs. right yet it can be easy to start to feel pretty lonely and unsatisfied.

The last time I was single, I found myself moping around wishing there was someone in my life to tell me I was beautiful and ask me how my day was. I wanted someone to tell me that they loved me. I started to feel empty and unloved, which started to move into feeling unlovable. Icky feelings.

Well, I finally had enough. One morning I woke up with the same old thoughts, “Gosh I wish a gorgeous man was next to me to look me in the eyes and tell me that he loved me and that I was beautiful…” Then, for the first time, I got really annoyed with myself. I said, “Self, what are you doing waiting around for someone else to make you feel loved? Do it yourself already!” I went into the bathroom, looked into the mirror, placed my hands over my heart, and said, “I love you, you’re beautiful,” while looking into my own eyes.

Now, this may sound absurd, and it did to me at first too. It felt a little contrived and creepy to be honest. But at that point I committed to meeting my own need. I committed to self-love in a bigger way. I committed to being my own knight in shining armor and I needed to get over how awkward it felt to honor myself—and I’ve done it every day since.

About a month after my self-love practice started, a wonderful man walked into my life.

So I ask you, what are your needs and how can you meet them yourself?

3) Look closely at your family of origin: What did you learn from them that you are still playing out?

No matter what type of family system we grow up in, there are patterns at play our entire lives, patterns we are most likely still playing out.

In my family of origin I had an independent single mom. She divorced my father when I was seven and moved my sister and I a little closer to civilization (we grew up in rural Maine). My mother is one of those do-it-yourself types women who rebelled hard against her upbringing. She wanted to do it differently than her parents did and she wanted to raise strong, independent daughters.

She did a great job. I am a very strong, independent, driven and ambitious woman. But here is the catch: sometimes these attributes are expressed to a fault. For me, sometimes my drive gets in the way of my self-care and my relationships. And let me be clear, this very important rule is not an excuse to start blaming your parents! That would be negating all of rule number one already!

No. Our parents did the best they could and most of them are amazing, I am sure. That does not change the fact that we are conditioned animals and we have been conditioned in our family unit since we were born, if not before.

So, what was the relationship like between your parents? If you were raised by a single caregiver, what was your relationship like with them? What role did you play in your family system? Were you the caretaker, the rescuer, the victim? Who was the “bad guy?” What did you do to create a sense of safety as a child? Basically, what patterns played out as you were growing up that you are still playing out in your adult life?

Time to take control and step outside of the conditioned Pavlovian response—we need stop salivating just because we were trained to as children.

4) Identify the secondary gain: What are you actually gaining from those unhealthy patterns?

Here is another rule that can be difficult to look at but demands attention, especially if we are stuck in unhealthy patterns of behavior.

A secondary gain is when someone is motivated by an external factor that is a symptom of the “problem” scenario.

For example, if a person is diagnosed with a disease that allows them to miss work, obtain drugs or get sympathy, they may, consciously or unconsciously, enjoy the “problem.” They may constantly complain of their issue and say they want to do something to make it go away, but have become dependent on the external factors that they derive from this issue, such as sympathy and love.

Let’s use a more subtle example as well. For instance, a woman who is constantly in failed relationships may always project that it is, in fact, the man’s fault. She may complain day in and day out about not being able to find someone who is able to commit. However, if she took a closer look, it may be that she actually has a huge fear of commitment herself. So, her secondary gain to repetitively being in failed relationships is that she doesn’t actually have to commit!

See how these rules are building on one another a bit?

Sometimes we cannot identify a secondary gain until we take time to look at ourselves, start meeting our own needs and identify long-standing patterns that were established in our family system.

So, what are you gaining from your patterns that no longer serve you? Are you actually comfortable with this pattern you’ve created? Is there safety in being separate from others? Does it make it so you don’t actually have to change or push yourself to grow if you stay at the job you hate or in the toxic relationship that has dragged on for too long?

5) Do something different: The Principle of Opposite Action.

Alright everyone. Rule number five. After applying the first four rules, it’s time to do something different!

It’s called the principle of opposite action, and I’ve drawn inspiration from Dr. Marsha Linehan’s work in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

Do you notice that when things aren’t going right we tend to do the same things in response every time? It’s like that old saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.”

Let’s bring it back to a previous example from my personal life. Remember when I wanted someone to tell me they loved me and that I was beautiful? Well, for months I woke up and moped around the house wishing that would happen. I would feel sorry for myself, talk to all my girlfriends about wanting to find my life partner and how upset I was that I was almost 30 and hadn’t yet. I would write depressing entries in my journal, listen to depressing music, watch depressing romantic comedies and wonder all the while why I was feeling more depressed! This is so common!

Finally, as I said, I got fed up. I was just feeding the sadness, not feeding the change. That morning, when I decided to meet my own need by looking myself in the eyes and telling myself I was loved was not easy. It was the opposite of what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel sad. I had to force myself through the days and weeks of awkward “I love yous” until one morning it felt amazing. It felt true and I felt loved.

I needed to break my pattern and do the opposite of what felt true at first.

There are millions of ways we actually feed the patterns that we want to break. Next time you notice the same old behavior creeping up, do the opposite! If you are single and find yourself sitting on the couch every Friday night complaining that you are alone, should you keep your cat company and feel sorry for yourself or get yourself to a dinner party?

And let me be clear, sometimes this works in the opposite way. Sometimes we may feel we need to be with our partners and are displaying co-dependent behaviors. In that scenario, the opposite action is to take some alone time even when it feels like it will rip us open.

It may feel contrived at first and it won’t be easy, but I promise it will be rewarding.