Unlearning Unhealthy Communication Behaviors
I spent a lot of my teens and 20’s avoiding deep relationships because I didn’t trust another person, and I didn’t trust myself. What if I said something wrong? What if they treated me the way my stepfather treated my mother? When you’re brought up in a household where unhealthy behaviors, like belittling, are consistently used they become normal. Not knowing how to free myself from the memories of my past, I would resort to unhealthy coping techniques to “process” my fears and concerns. But they didn’t work. In fact, they had the exact opposite effect.
The first time I realized I was not free from my childhood experiences is when I found a familiar yet unsettling phrase hanging off of the tip of my tongue when I got angry. Someone might drop a glass on the counter and I had to stop myself from blurting, “Are you stupid?!,” or someone would shout and I’d lash out inappropriately.
I couldn’t live like that; constantly worried about becoming someone that I had feared for so long. Constantly afraid that I would damage my children, and that I wouldn’t be the perfect parent for them. So, I took some necessary steps to break the cycle of unhealthy communication behaviors that had been formed during my childhood and here’s what I learned:
Identify Your Triggers
I decided that the first step was to identify what triggered certain responses so that I could practice alternative reactions. My personal triggers are loud voices, sudden noises, as well as someone telling me that my concerns weren’t valid. I was able to detect certain patterns in my behaviors and identify these triggers by writing down my reactions as they happened. Once I was able to calmly go over the scene in my head, I would analyze it and work out ways to manage each trigger in a healthy way.
Another way to identify a trigger is to be aware of when your reaction to certain situations isn’t what it should be, and trace the steps back to understand why you reacted in such a way. Loud noises tend to make my brain go haywire so nowadays I use specific breathing techniques to help me calm down, rather than let my anxiety go through the roof.
Be Patient With Yourself
I taught myself to be patient and not to expect perfection. It can be mentally and emotionally challenging to constantly analyze and manage your reactions to everything, so don’t be overly hard on yourself if you don’t always get it right. It is important to practice self-compassion and to be gentle with yourself, while still remaining accountable for your actions. I have learned that I am prone to flaring up with anger when I feel overwhelmed. I manage this by taking a short break from my to-do list and practice self-care. I have found that as time goes by I am able to manage my triggers in a healthy manner by consistently telling my brain that what is happening NOW is not what happened to me THEN.
Lean On Your Friends
Even though you’ve probably surrounded yourself with safe people, people who would never judge you or put you down, there is still that nagging fear in the back of your mind that they may suddenly change. Resisting the urge to isolate yourself is an ongoing battle, but there are ways to get through it.
I’ve found that talking to a therapist with experience in helping adults who were both children of alcoholics and victims of emotional abuse helped me walk through my fears and anxieties. I also have a friend who has been through a similar childhood and we make sure to check in with each other every day.
Talk it Out
Honesty was another important step for me. Being honest with myself about what triggered me and why allowed me to remain accountable for my action while also giving me the freedom to find support when I needed it most. Talking it out with a therapist, friend or partner will give you a better insight into your triggers.
One Step At A Time
Having kids made me realize that if I didn’t process certain areas of my childhood they might possibly seep into my own parenting methods. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t continue any cycles of unhealthy behaviors, that I would be on high alert at all times to not perpetuate certain forms of verbal and emotional abuse that was commonplace in my household growing up. But in reality just promising ourselves that is not always enough, because if we don’t recognize what triggers certain behaviors, how can we effectively put an end to them?
Healing will always be a work in progress for me. While I have this immense will to never treat anyone like my stepfather treated us, I still have my guard up. Will I ever let myself put it down? I hope so, because I know that I am in no shape or form like him, and I have never treated others like he did. But I still worry. And while I know that it is impossible to be the perfect parent, I still want to make sure that my children communicate naturally in a healthy manner, and don’t have to unlearn unhealthy behaviors like I did. I’ve come a long way from the shy teen who never dared to say anything, and now I hope that I can help others who suffered through similar forms of abuse find their own feet too.