Have you ever said this? (Of course who hasn’t!) or a closely related sister, “Why do I have to do everything?” These phrases are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about where they come from. For some of us, it can almost feel like doing it ourselves is something we “have to do”, almost like we don’t know how to function any other way. Does this resonate with you?
Many of us were raised in a certain amount of chaos and uncertainty. We were all raised in a family of some sorts. Somewhere in this family and in the process of growing up we get messages that influence our behavior. When we react to our environment and feel a sense of safety and security, that feels good. So we do it again. And again. And again. Pretty soon we're not even thinking if it is the “right” thing to do, it is just “what” we do. This is called patterning. Our responses to our environment that are repeated over time, become ingrained into our nervous system. And... become our patterned or conditioned behavior. This is also called our adaptive response because it was helpful at an earlier time in our lives.
We are wired for survival. Everything in our nervous system wants us to survive. Not necessarily thrive - just survive. We are actually very finely tuned. Our bodies have a memory system that is designed to upload and process information quickly, and the more often a situation happens, and we react a certain way, the more engrained or automatic this response set is. Just think about driving. When we first started driving we attended to everything about it... starting the car, the mirrors, the steering wheel, the way the car moves when we drive. All of it. However, we all adjust, and soon we are driving and don’t even remember how we got there! Have you ever gotten in your car wanting to go to the store, instead ended up driving to work? This is patterning and automatic responses in action!
Well, our emotional system works like this too. We have automatic responses to stress and tension in our relationships too. We lean on old patterning that was put in place in those initial familial relationships that found safety and made difficult situations easier. We also pick up response sets from our parents. We were modeled how to cope and then we imitated that response. If it worked, then we continued doing it. And voila! - patterning.
So this all marches along, we are safe (or trying our best to be), protected, and functioning in life. Until we’re not. We find ourselves in adult relationships that are different from our childhood relationships. We can also find ourselves in adult relationships that are similar to those childhood relationships, but the result is not safety, rather something different. We may have become so conditioned to unsafe relationships that we don’t even recognize them. We may be conditioned to accept behavior that is not good for us or we have become conditioned to put everyone else first. When we are always putting others first we end up at the losing end of energy for ourselves and feel depleted or unworthy. We may consider ourselves as a person who (fill in the blank here, ie...cares for others, is giving, wants to help, puts others first) only to find out we are not treated well by others. Or we may find out that the interaction patterns we use are not effective. You may have had to yell and scream to get your needs met as a kid, but now at the workplace you come off as angry and hostile. We are acting out patterned interactions that are no longer serving us. We are not safe and we are not getting our needs met. We may even become confused, bewildered. We may find ourselves being abused by those we love, or taken for granted by those we care so deeply for. We may wonder, why don’t people understand me? How did I end up in these relationships? How did this all come about?
One answer is that we have outgrown our patterning. It is no longer adaptive or helpful. I think most people go through this. Surely not everyone, but many of us outgrow these patterned or conditioned interactions when we see ourselves suffering. Following the suffering is always a good idea to find solutions.
If this sounds like you, the following self reflection may offer insights. Journaling is always advised, but even just meditating for a few minutes about these aspects of your life will offer illumination.
Think about the concepts of Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn (people-please/appease)? How do you react when you feel threatened? How do you respond to fear? Do you hide, or avoid it? Do you stand still and say nothing? Do you argue and push back? Do you change the subject and try to find common ground and “make nice”?
What patterns of interaction were evident in your family growing up (for instance, how did your family handle conflict)? Link this to the first question if you can. What modeling did you have?
Where in your life does this work? In what relationships does this no longer work? Has this shifted over the course of your life?
Consider how you might like to show up in these relationships? What would this look like? If you were more assertive, what might that look like? If you said “no” how would that sound? If you were able to regulate your big feelings and consider the feelings of another, what would that look and feel like? If you are able to be accountable for yourself, what would you say? If you could stand in your discomfort enough to share your experience with someone, what would that feel like? What would you like others to know about you... the real you?
These are all big questions. I am still answering them. I am still in discovery mode! I am also a huge proponent of therapy (I believe in this stuff big time!) and encourage you to discuss these with your therapist. Your therapy space should be a safe non-judgmental relationship where you can share your inner world. If you are not in a position to talk to a therapist, I strongly suggest journaling and meditating on these feelings that arise.
I leave you with this: You are stronger than you know, you have courage you have not tested. You are able to regulate your feelings and have a greater understanding of who you are. If you are a people-pleaser, you are not weak. You are so strong you have held the hands of everyone else but your own. If you are a fighter, I give you permission to stop and be still and not push back. To rest on understanding and insight. To move the focus inwards. To know you can find safety in a different way.
Moving the focus towards yourself is where the healing begins. It is you. You are the one with the power and the agency to choose how you react to your life. You can shape your life and create relationships that are affirming, validating, and reciprocal.
Your unique, unconditioned voice matters. It always has. You just didn’t have it when you were a young person - but you have it now. Now is a good place, the perfect place to start.