While in an abusive situation we do not respond in the way we would ordinarily do. In order to survive we developed new patterns of behavior. Or in the case of parental abuse, these toxic interaction and behavior patterns are our only ones. Through trauma bonding, to keep the peace, or maybe even from a sense of revenge, we all displayed some behaviors that we are not particularly proud of.
Even now that we have escaped the abusive situation, I think we can all define some bad habits we have learned from trying to cope with the abuse, or toxic behaviors we have copied from our abusers. On SwanWaters we call these bad habits fleas and allergies. Fleas are usually part of a survival strategy, the behavior we did not know we had and are no longer in need of. Our allergies are the external triggers that make us display that old behavior again.
The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.
– Tony Robbins
When you are first on your healing journey, you are likely still following the behavioral patterns that were part of that situation. Many of us have endured abuse for many months or years before we were able to get away. That means that “survival mode” has become our default setting. It takes quite a bit of time to unlearn that behavior.
Acknowledging what happened was abusive and getting out is a massive achievement, but it does not magically undo all the years of pain, fear and bad programming.
I remember how much it bothered me that I recognized some of my parents’ behavior in myself! I am glad to say, it hardly ever happens anymore. Even if it does, I am usually able to self-correct quite quickly. And when I can’t? Well, so be it. I am not beating myself up over that anymore. I am doing my very best, and I am trying to live my life from the right intentions. Besides when those pesky fleas show up, it usually means something is off balance. Maybe I am tired, anxious or worried. Or maybe I just skipped lunch. So, when that happens I try to take a moment to check in, and see what is really going on. I have unlearned this behavior to the extent where it has now become part of my emotional thermometer; an indication of needed self-care.
The 7 Steps to Unlearning Behavior
I wish I could have called this article ‘6 Quick Fixes for Corrupt Programming‘ or ‘10 Strategies that Guarantee Healing From Abusive Programming‘. I can’t because there are no simple steps, no guarantees, and especially no quick fixes when it comes to unlearning victim behavior and developing healthy behavioral habits. So how did I get from flea-ridden to where I am now? Well, it took me a couple of years and a lot of hard work. Below are the highlights. I described this process before when I wrote about learning to say no, but let’s dive in a little deeper.
Step 1 – Recognize the Behavior
Self-awareness is the key to addressing these behavioral patterns. I increased my self-awareness a lot by spending time with myself on a regular basis. Taking 5-minute meditation sessions, journaling, doing some mirror work, or just some time to spend with my own thoughts while ironing or taking a quiet walk. Practicing that level of listening to your thoughts, and how your emotions feel in your body make it easier to understand what is happening throughout the day.
On your healing journey, you will start meeting healthy people. As you interact with them, you may realize that certain behaviors are not working. They may get unexpected responses from others, or make you feel stressed and tired. You can see how the self-awareness is going to be important for this.
Be kind to yourself in this step. You may find a few behaviors you do not like and want to change, but you cannot address everything all at once. Healing takes lots of little steps, and definitely not one giant leap.
I, for example, used to be a serial apologizer. At the slightest perceived discomfort of the people around me, I would say: ” I’m sorry.” And I mean the slightest perceived discomfort! If my partner would move on the sofa, I would apologize for being “in his way”. Or if he would get up during dinner because I forgot to give him a spoon, I would apologize.
Step 2 – What Is Under the Surface?
So what you defined above is the flea, the victim behavior you are still displaying. But what is the underlying emotion that is triggering that behavior?
Behavior, and especially those pesky unwanted behaviors, are the result of some underlying subconscious process. Are you feeling scared, sad, angry? The only way to figure it out is to dive a little deeper and figure out what is going on beneath the surface. If you cannot do that in the moment (because you are in the supermarket or something), then take a few minutes at your earliest convenience, to think back to that moment. Recall how you mind felt, and your body.
Good ways to get to the root of this is by meditating or journaling. Both those exercises will help you to spend some time with your own thoughts. Additionally it helps you to dig that little bit deeper and gain more understanding of what is happening in that moment.
So let’s look back to the serial apologizing. When I looked at the underlying emotion, it was insecurity and low self-esteem. I just felt like I was a bother to everyone, like I was always in the way. In the example I used before about apologizing to my partner for being “in his way”. I was apologizing for being.
Step 3 – What Triggered the Emotion?
So now that you have figured out what the underlying emotion is, you need to figure out where it is coming from. What was happening just before you felt that way? Realize that this can be some time prior to the unwanted behavior.
Next, as you are figuring out what the underlying emotion is, try to remember when you started feeling like that, and what was happening that triggered the feeling.
That feeling of anxious insecurity was often something that could be bubbling away in the pit of my stomach for hours before it would eventually trigger the unwanted behavior. So it took me some time to figure it all out. But as I became better at recognizing it, even before the behavior was triggered, I began to understand where it was coming from. It was typically triggered when someone would do something that made me feel like a burden to them. When my partner would respond with annoyance when I would cut off his path accidentally, or if someone outside would huff and puff at my slow response to a changing traffic light are just a couple of examples.
Step 4 – Ask for Help
Once I understood that those instances triggered the feeling of being a burden, I figured that there were probably more subtle signs of being triggered before the feeling became so overwhelming that I would fall back into the victim behavior. So I spoke to my partner about this (just like I had when learning to say no), and he started helping me to become more aware of the early signs of being triggered. Mostly he would ask me, “Are you okay?” And it would be a reminder to check in with myself for a second. Am I okay? What is going on?
When you ask someone to help you be a behavioral mirror, be very picky who you ask. You are making yourself very vulnerable to this person, and you need to have absolute trust. You will also want to find a way for them to help you that does not trigger you even more. My partner and I discussed what kind of question he could ask me in order to help me check in on myself, and “Are you okay?” is what we decided on. It did not feel judgmental. It allowed for me to continue owning my healing process, and opened the door for conversation if I wanted it, e.g. “Yes, I am okay. Why is that?”.
Step 5 – Self-Forgiveness
This is hard, but self-forgiveness is essential to your healing not just in the aspect of unlearning victim behaviors, but throughout your healing as a whole. This bad thing happened to you, and that was not your fault. You stayed as long as you did because you were not yet strong enough to leave. You made mistakes, you missed opportunities, and you did some stupid things in an attempt to protect yourself. Or maybe you made those mistakes simply because you are a human being—and we tend to make them sometimes. It is okay that you are flawed, hurt, and damaged. Forgive yourself for letting yourself get hurt.
Self-Forgiveness is part of acceptance. Acceptance of the past, and the behavioral patterns you developed as a result of the abuse.
In that same sweep of acceptance, acknowledge to yourself that you are going to make mistakes, and that his totally okay! What helps in that process of forgiveness is to be aware of your intentions; what drives and motivates you. When you can trust that you are acting from the best of intentions, and are willing to continue to learn and grow, then you must forgive yourself any mistakes you make.
Step 6 – Let Awareness Become Action
As you start becoming more and more aware of the triggers and the unwanted behavior, you can begin to stop letting it run its course. Even if it means stopping mid-sentence, try to step back for a minute. A good way for me to do this was to just take a 5-minute break. I would retreat to the bedroom, and do some breathing exercises for a minute. I understand that this is not always possible, but in many situations you can make an excuse to just be alone for a moment to calm down your emotional state. A couple of examples are to head to the rest rooms, or to go get some coffee from the office vending machine in the kitchen.
Simply redirecting yourself can make you calm down and stop. This is possibly the most awkward stage of healing, but you will see that this will help you attain the final step.
Step 7 – Learning a New Strategy
Becoming more and more aware of the behavior, and gaining control over stopping the triggered behavior to actually run its course, will help you learn new behavior. You can now begin responding in a better way, a way that is more in line with your inner-voice and your survivor, rather than victim, status.
When you are triggered, you realize what is going on, and you can redirect the energy. Like when I would be triggered to feel like a burden on the world. Instead of letting that feeling fester, I would take that moment to just repeat an affirmation to myself. Those change a little over time, depending on what is going on in my life at that time. Anything that applies to the situation will do. It could be, “That is their issue, not mine.” Or it could be, “I am a worthy and lovable person.”
A Parting Thought
I started this article by saying that I mostly manage my fleas and allergies now. I don’t always, and sometimes that means that I am tired, out of balance, or maybe even just hungry. But it also means I am a survivor of emotional abuse. For 32 years my parents and their flying monkeys made me believe and feel negatively about myself. That is a whole lot of memories, emotional flashbacks, and pain to be dealing with. Some of it, I may never fully be able to “fix”, so to speak.
I know that I am doing the best I can, and that to me is the most important part of overcoming any of this. Be kind, loving and forgiving of yourself.