Behavioral patterns and psychotherapy

In this article, I would like to focus on behavioral patterns – behavior that is repeated in everyday life, regardless of whether it corresponds to the situation in which a person finds themselves, or whether it is harmful to the health of that person.

Negative behavioral patterns

We form our behavioral patterns (positive and negative) for the most part, in our childhood, but also in our later life. Based on our life experiences, these patterns form unconscious “maps” in our psyche that are permanently active and, as mentioned, can either be negative or positive. Positive patterns fit with our current living conditions and cause us no harm. However, people often do things that are harmful to them, things that hinder their daily development and progress in life, things that do not bring them much good. Many people are often aware of these negative behavioral patterns and would like them removed or changed, but something inside of us is preventing us from taking action.

Case study

A man tells me he is aware that the partners he chooses are never the ideal of what he is looking for, partners that are not “healthy“for him, yet he still fails to meet partners with qualities that he desires. The fact that he is aware of his behavior pattern and that he would like to change it, is positive. However, awareness alone is not enough to change this behavior. What is more, there are reasons why he resists abandoning his old behavior patterns.


Secondary gain

Although negative behavioral patterns limit people in their functioning and progress in life, it is important to point out that this behavior always has an underlying motivation. It may sound paradoxical that people behave in ways that are harmful to themselves, but the benefits and enjoyment are unconsciously motivated. For example, the man from the previous example is quite likely choosing partners who are not what he is looking for to avoid unpleasant feelings of inferiority, rejection or fear of failure. In psychotherapy, this phenomenon is called a secondary gain. People often focus on changing behavior rather than discovering the underlying causes of their behavior. When we uncover the causes of harmful behavior, we can reduce our resistance to changing it. What is more, when we are aware of the secondary gain of a particular behavioral pattern, we can persistently work to change it in small steps.

Changing behavioral patterns and ambivalence

However, change can be hindered not only by the secondary gain, but also by ambivalence. Even if a person wants to change certain behavior, there are direct reasons not to do so. This is because the person, despite everything, is still functioning, even if this is in a way that is harmful to them. To make our life easier, we often choose to behave in a way that requires minimal commitment and energy because it puts us in a safe position. We naturally perceive change as something uncertain or something that can be a source of fear. So, we prefer to stay in our familiar comfort zone instead. For example, if a person finds themselves in a dark and gloomy cave, they stay in place rather than try to find a way out of the cave, into the sunlight. The reason for this is the uncertainty and fear of change, which could lead to getting lost or falling deeper into the vast canals and corridors of the cave. This is also one of the main reasons why people who are considering starting with psychotherapy choose not to start the process. The process that can through the safe and stable environment of the practice room and psychotherapeutic relationship with the therapist help them discover and get aware of the secondary gain and ambivalence and consequently enable them a change of their negative behavioral patterns.

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