The Fourth of July is almost upon us. A wonderful time to enjoy an outdoor cook out with family and friends, delight in fireworks as they blaze across the night sky or just savoring the precious, fleeting Minnesota summertime. It is our yearly national birthday and we can once again reflect upon and celebrate the many freedoms we enjoy living in America.
Yet sadly for too many of us, true freedom is something we seldom ever experience. We find ourselves feeling trapped by our own fears, compulsions and unhealthy patterns of behaviors. Our lives, marriages and relationships seem to have devolved into never ending cycles of hurt, shame, anger, conflict and hopelessness. We find ourselves feeling compelled to do and say the very things we wish we could change about ourselves and we long for the freedom to be our true, best selves. But we often don’t have a clue how or where to begin. We set firm intentions to change but they quickly fade as the old patterns emerge. We don’t feel free, just the opposite, we feel hopelessly stuck.
How do we break the unhealthy patterns that seem to control our lives? It is never easy but here are a few suggestions to think about.
What if we began by considering the possibility that we are all part of a system? By that I mean, we were all born into a particular context which has set the patterns of our behavior early in life. We grew up learning the rules of our family and while many of these rules were never explicitly expressed, we just somehow knew how our family “did things.” For example, how did we learn to react to family conflict? Was it with anger and shouting or did we learn to effectively communicate and repair relationships? In the same way, we learned certain ways of behaving in school, with our friends and later, in our careers. In any given situation, we have learned and adapted who we are and “how” we are by the context that surrounds us every day.
If we accept the premise that these systems have shaped who we are and how we act, then two other possibilities exist.
First, if our behaviors are a product of the systems that shaped us then concepts of “shame and blame” can be safely set aside. We can stop blaming ourselves or others for what’s not right in our lives. If we presume we all did the best we could given our own individual contexts and circumstances (the systems we live in), then maybe we can offer that same perspective and compassion when viewing other people’s behaviors. You and I might not have learned the “best” coping strategies for getting through the day or how to interact with others, but we nevertheless, coped and adapted to our circumstances the only way we knew how at the time. As one of my professors in grad school taught us, “we all come by our stuff honestly.”
Secondly, once we identify and understand the patterns we are in, then we can take the first steps in making a change that will produce a different result. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with us, we can step back and take a larger perspective and view the pattern we are in and how it is driving our behaviors. If we first see how and where we get “stuck” in these patterns we can be much more strategic about ways we want to change that will inevitably impact and transform the system. If we change how we interact within the system, we can’t help but change the system in even a small way. A different system means a different dynamic of interaction within the system. Therefore, a change in the system equals different outcomes for us and others.
If we normally respond to our spouse with sarcasm when we disagree, what if we intentionally chose to react differently? What if we just listened or only used words of encouragement regardless of how we might feel at the moment? How might that change the dynamics of our relationship? Even a small change to our patterns can produce remarkable results.
What if this 4th of July heralded a new day of freedom for all of us? A new way of freeing ourselves from whatever patterns are holding us back. Creating a new way of becoming our “better selves” and how we relate with others might be one of the greatest freedoms of all.
By Chris Klippen, MA, JD, Therapist/Counselor
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