There’s a classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the Enterprise crew is stuck in a time loop. Over and over and over they just do the same thing. Although they have some feeling that they’ve “done this before,” it takes some time before they catch on. Basically, they’re stuck in a cycle.
Cycles are incredibly difficult to break in life, none more so than family cycles. If your parents were bitter and emotionally abusive to you, odds are that made you bitter…and emotionally abusive to your children. This pattern continues for generation after generation (and isn’t limited to family life). So how do you break a cycle?
1. Identify the pattern
It’s difficult to solve the problem without being able to recognize the problem. This is perhaps the hardest step, as most people can go years (or lifetimes) without identifying the origin of something toxic. It might not seem like a problem if it feels familiar. It might not seem like a cycle if you’ve failed to notice its dastardly wake.
Identifying and understanding exactly what is happening is the crucial first step to breaking any cycle. For the Enterprise crew, it was recognizing a familiarity or predictability to their actions. For you, it may be recognizing your family environment wasn’t healthy or that your parents weren’t signalling that they wholly supported you.
If your Dad treated you a certain way, chances are his Dad treated him that way and you will treat your kids the same way. Let’s illustrate with Dr. John Gottman’s four horseman of the apocalypse, some (or all) of which may be present in toxic family cycles:
Were you criticized a lot with generalizations? (eg “You always…!”)
Were you shown contempt? (eg Scoffs and eye rolling.)
Was your dad defensive? (eg Ignoring your complaint to launch his own?)
Did he stonewall you when you spoke to him? (eg Silent treatment.)
If so, chances are you have acquired the same behavior…without even realizing it.
2. Identify your role
You are only one link in the cycle, but that’s all it takes to end it! Your actions give you the power to break the cycle. Once you’ve identified it, a key step in resolving the problem is to understanding your own role in the cycle.
First, remove denial from your vocabulary — instead of defaulting to “they did that, but I don’t!” default to the opposite end of the spectrum…assume you do more of the behavior than the last generation. The most common heuristic-error in Relationship Science™ is probably Fundamental Attribution Error; counteract it by presuming yourself guilty until proven innocent.
Then, sticking with our familial example, ask yourself:
- If you criticize others with generalizations?
- If you scoff or roll your eyes?
- If you ignore someone else’s complaint to quickly levy your own?
- If you resort to the silent treatment?
You may be committing the same mistakes your parents committed, even if it’s to a lesser degree. Realizing this is hard, but necessary. It’s so hard that you might have to ask other people if you exhibit this behavior. If they say yes, pretend they are right for a while. Don’t be afraid of messing up — mistakes are not only understandable, they are valuable tools for growth.
3. Measure your behavior
Now start to track how often you react
- with silence
- with one-word mutterings
- by leaving the room
Or whatever your cycle may be. Maybe you do this 100% of the time. If so, your first adjustment goal might be to simply not to do it the next time the urge strikes. Prepare a strategy in advance, such as blurting out “I want to be silent but I’m trying hard not to be!” You might fail the first time — that’s OK, try it again. If you keep doing it without success, then prepare a different strategy in advance.
Ask your closest allies to help give you feedback. (Yes, even the ones arguing with you!)
“Next time I respond in silence, can you let me know in the following way?”
“Hey, do you think I gave you the silent treatment yesterday? How often do you think I do that when I’m angry?”
This kind of measurement and feedback is a way of leaving clues. For the enterprise crew stuck in the time loop, they began to realize that they could leave small clues for themselves if they remained stuck in the loop. There was no magical elixir, but instead a step-by-step process toward a solution. Use a notepad, a voice memo, a spreadsheet and yes, other people to help send clues to future versions of yourself.
Which happens to be exactly how they broke the cycle on Star Trek.