Breaking Destructive Behavior Patterns


When we are under pressure, research shows that we tend to move toward our familiar environment.[1] We associate what is familiar with what is safe. We are compelled to run to this familiar place in a stressful situation. Some of us have familiar places that are filled with relational poisons. As a consequence, we can become trapped in a vicious circle of stress followed by a stress inducing familiar place. Still others may have stumbling blocks that emerge because of a particular familiar place that is not applicable as a safe zone to every situation. Eating may be a familiar zone. It can conjure up images of comfort, safety and nourishment. This is not a problem unless an extended period of stress arises, which can lead to eating more. This can be followed by the stress of gaining weight which can lead to a spiral of increasing obesity.

This notion of how familiar places effects behavior also gives us a deeper view into why social relationships that fall on hard times can be so difficult to emerge from. Feelings of raw emotion can lead to behaviors that are not aligned around dealing with real issues, but simply flights to the familiar. The things we do to run for safety can sometimes contribute to relational stress or trigger a spiral of the relationship to the breaking point. Familiarity can be a comforting friend, but it can also be a vicious feedback mechanism that leaves us trapped in a prison. Our familiar environments must be handled with care, especially in times of stress.

With this “familiar” lens we can begin to see why some of us are launched out into the world with the deck stacked so heavily against us. Families that have relational climates characterized by getting from each other, rather than reciprocal giving, poison the ability of children to form bonds of trust and nourishing relationships. This kind of toxic developmental womb often produces one of two personalities; “the enabler” who thinks that everyone’s pain and misery, even if self-made or inflated beyond reason, is their personal responsibility, or “the narcissist” who has great expectations for everyone else coupled with unquenchable wants. Neither of these extremes is a recipe for developing intimate fulfilling relationships. As a consequence, both the enabler and the narcissist are in a perpetual state of frustrated hunger for authentic relationships. This hunger drives up the stress, which throws them into the familiar – which is toxic, which is stressful – again a vicious circle.

One of the most important aspects of dealing constructively with stress is to first decide on what our response is. This sounds simple, but choosing a response to stress, rather than letting the automatic mechanisms take over is not an easy proposition. Cultivating a discipline in the midst of the strong currents of habit can be a real challenge, but it is a necessary cost to move toward an intentional state of being, rather than one that is buffeted by the winds of happenstance.

How do you think we can address the toxic bonds formed by flights to the familiar from a broader cultural perspective?


[1] “Pressure and Perverse Flights to Familiarity” by Ab Litt, Taly Reich, Senia Maymin and Baba Shiv

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3 responses to “Breaking Destructive Behavior Patterns

  1. Interesting post. Addressing the issue? I’m not sure how to answer that, it can be such an individual thing.Perhaps decreasing the opportunities for stress e.g. ending the financial crisis but this is very unlikely. I suppose recognising when it’s happening to yourself or a friend would enable it to be addressed (this might not be very cultural but society itself has led to its people being self-involved).

  2. Pingback: Be Familiar | My Moments

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