Your Emotional Home

Some years ago I wrote an article called Why Do People Repeat the Same Dysfunctional Patterns?. The gist of that article was this:

When we grow up in a dysfunctional family, and especially an abusive family, we learn how to survive by creating emotional and behavioral patterns that allow us to adapt to the situations in which we find ourselves in order to survive. The problem is that as adults, these patterns are no longer adaptive, yet persist and play out in our intimate relationships. They prevent us from having the kinds of connections we would like, both to others and to ourselves, and leave us feeling trapped in repetitive poor choices and feelings of self-condemnation.

The example I gave in the article was of a woman who was raised in a household with domestic violence, and she learned as a child to be quiet, compliant, and adult-like to avoid episodes of abuse at the hands of her father. Later in her adult years, she repeatedly chose violent men who, like her father, abused her in much the same way her mother had been abused.

I’m revisiting this idea because it comes up all the time in therapy with people I see. I have come to recognize that these patterns of behavior that are formed in childhood and adolescence are really quite powerful because they create what I call the emotional home.

It’s what we know. It’s embedded in our psyche and carved into our brains (literally), and even when we know the emotional home isn’t good, leaving it brings on anxiety and often fear. The pull is substantial, and occurs on both the conscious and subconscious levels.

How do I change it?

One of the more common types of therapy that’s used to change dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behavior is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for short). The idea is that by identifying and evaluating negative or exaggerated thoughts for distortions, you can correct them to align more with what’s actually true, and an emotional shift will follow.

So if you’re depressed and you identify and correct the negative repetitive thoughts that foster depression like those we find with all-or-nothing thinking, perfectionism, helplessness, overwhelm, catastrophic thinking, and so on, you will feel less depressed and more in control of your life.

There’s a lot of validity to this approach and many people experience success in working through depression and/or anxiety using CBT.

Getting back to our woman who was abused by her partners, CBT could be used to uncover repetitive thoughts and beliefs that draw her to the same abusive partners over and over. These might include thoughts such as “I’m not worthy of being loved,” “I deserve to be punished,” “If I were a better housekeeper my husband would not be angry with me,” “I’m selfish and only think about myself,” and on it goes.

By replacing these false beliefs with more realistic and truthful corrective statements and affirming them regularly, her underlying feelings about herself would eventually shift. That shift would then be reflected in her outward behavior meaning she would select healthier partners. That’s the idea at least.

Sometimes CBT is helpful and works, but often it does not. There’s is a temporary change followed by falling back into the old patterns of thinking and feeling. Why? Because CBT doesn’t adequately address the power of the emotional home.

If you’ve been piling up layers of dirt and dust on your porch for 20 years, and you take a vacuum cleaner to clean it off, you’ll find it’s impossible to get everything up. You’ll have to get on the floor with hot water, soap and a scrub brush and scrub through those layers many times over. Scrub and rinse, scrub and rinse, and when you get to the bottom, the porch will not look like it originally did. It has been affected by those layers of dirt over time, but you can make it shine again, only with a different tone and feel.

Our psyches are this way too. The emotional home is built up over years, and more importantly, it’s created during our most formative years. It was developed during the time when we were most vulnerable, most susceptible to influence, and had the least defenses and brain power to evaluate it.

In fact, our brains and nervous systems were involved in some of the most active periods of development in our lives. The emotional home is embedded in the neuron paths in our brains that were created throughout childhood. It’s just not that easy to make changes, and the idea of change can often bring on fear and anxiety, because the tendency of all human beings is to stick to what they know and what’s familiar.

Even more importantly, the emotional home is just that – it’s emotionally based. It’s built on our attachments, our sense of who we are, our need for approval and love from our parents (even if we didn’t get it). These are not issues that are resolved through thought shifts. These have to be “felt through.”

What usually happens when we make a change that takes us out of our emotional home, we become anxious or depressed. Not always, but often. This kind of shift feels like a loss, or feels unstable and we get wobbly.

If you feel like you haven’t had enough love or acceptance from a parent already, shifting your behavior in a way that takes you away from that parent feels like you’ve lost them forever. You were already hanging by threads, and now the threads are broken, and you feel lost.

This is why this process can require a lot of time, and sometimes help to work it through. It requires peeling back layers of emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and memories.

The good news is that you can revise your emotional home and still make peace with your history. You can become different yet maintain attachments to those you love, even if the relationships undergo a shift. To do that you have to really understand what your emotional home looks like, and find out what’s necessary to make those shifts.

Here’s some steps to start with.

#1 Become aware.

You can’t address what you don’t know exists. So the first step is to become aware of what your emotional home looks like. This requires some real thinking, and it’s something you should do over time because ideas and insights will pop up as you delve into it.

Start with a running list, and keep it somewhere that’s easy for you to access and that you like to use. Make a list of the positive and negative behavior patterns, thought patterns, and mindsets you learned growing up. Here’s some questions to get you started:

  • How close were the relationships in your family? Who was close to whom, and what did that look like?
  • How did people deal with conflicts? Parents? Siblings?
  • How was discipline dished out? Who was in charge?
  • How did everyone deal with emotions, especially negative ones? Did you talk about feelings? As a child, were you allowed to voice your feelings? Could you disagree? Could anyone disagree? How was it done?
  • Who did you go to when you had a problem? Practical problems? Emotional problems?
  • Was there substance abuse in your family? What kind? How long? By whom? How did it affect everyone?
  • Was there domestic or child abuse in your family? By whom and to whom?
  • Were there financial problems? Did you know about them? How were they handled?
  • Did both parents work? If so, where were you during work hours?
  • Are you close to your parents now? Are the relationships better, worse or the same as when you were growing up?
  • What good behavior patterns did you take away?
  • What negative behavior patterns did you take away?
  • Are there behavior patterns that are keeping you from the life you would like to have? Did you learn them growing up or through other experiences?
  • How do you see yourself as a person? How do each of your parents see you? How do your siblings see you? (This last question is loaded with power, so think about it carefully.)

That’s plenty to get you started, and you may add other questions to that list. In general, these questions should help you begin to define your emotional home, and to identify what part of it you want to let go of, or what part is impeding your life right now.

#2 Identify the change you would like to make.

Now make a list of the changes you would like to accomplish to create a new emotional home you think would be healthier, bring more happiness, and lead you toward fulfilling your potential. Think hard about this and be as specific as you can. These can be tiny little changes or large overarching changes. Both are good. Don’t censor anything. Just write as much as you can.

Pay special attention to your own relationship and behavior patterns as they relate to your emotional home. Pay attention also to the roles you played in your family.

You’ll come back later and rework this list to make it more manageable. This is your wish list.

#3 Create steps to start making the changes.

If you have an emotional home that you see as fairly dysfunctional, or that you experience as immovable, then I would strongly suggest you seek a counselor to help you with this next part of the process. It really does help to have someone to bounce these ideas off of, and someone to support you and encourage your progress when and if you experience anxiety, sadness, depression or any other difficult feelings while in the process of making these changes.

Suppression is not a good thing for this exercise, or in general. Changing your emotional home means tapping into the emotions that keep you there, as well as reactions that come up as you try to make changes. It also requires you to take stock of how you see yourself, and what issues you’ve internalized from your upbringing that filter through your sense of self now.

So take your time and feel them, examine them, work thorough them, and eventually you can release them.

Okay, now you can start.

1. Make one change at a time.

Don’t take on everything. For example, if spending money to avoid sadness is a pattern you grew up with and do now, start with changing this one habit. First, create a different activity you can do when the urge to spend money takes hold of you. Be ready with that activity, and instead of spending that money, put it in a piggy bank or savings account.

Second, write out all of the negative consequences you experience by spending money you don’t have. What happens? How does it hurt you? Get really specific about this, because you need words and images to appear in your head when you want to go back to that habit, and these words and images need to feel bad enough to override whatever pleasure you might get if you spend the money.

Third, identify what emotional need you’re satisfying by engaging in this pattern. Who else in your family does this? If it’s your mom, then as you make changes you’ll feel some separation from her. This can bring up anxiety and sadness. Let yourself feel that if it’s there, and give it time to settle. Eventually you can let go of the feeling, and still feel connected to your mom, just not on the basis of this particular shared negative habit.

2. Work on this habit for a month or longer.

Work on it until you feel you have it established and aren’t likely to revert back to it. Now go to the next one and repeat the process.

3. Make your changes small and concrete.

Instead of big goals like picking better partners for relationships, break it down into several steps. Here’s an example:

  1. Identify and study the characteristics of people you’ve repeatedly selected that weren’t good for you. Who are they? How do they relate to your emotional home? Who are they channeling? By really knowing this, you’ll easily identify these people as you get to know them, and avoid relationships with them. [This is your first small step. Just identify the “wrong” person.]
  2. Next, list specifically how these relationships hurt you. This part’s quite important because you need to remember this when you find yourself attracted to these prospective partners. You have to break up the “attraction” pattern by truly seeing who they are and how they harm you. [Your second small step is to remember the actual harm and keep it in the front of your mind to override any attraction.]
  3. Next describe the qualities of the type person you would like to become involved with. [Your third step is to get clear on the characteristics you would like to see in a partner.]
  4. Identify what would keep you from becoming involved with someone like that? What might you do about this? [Step four is to assess the obstacles.]
  5. How could you meet someone like this, and conversely, what should you avoid so that you will meet someone like this. If you’ve been frequenting dating sites where you meet one dysfunctional partner after another, maybe that’s not the best place to meet someone. It might be better to get involved in an activity you like where you’ll meet someone more naturally, or who shares common interests. Or maybe it’s best to meet someone through your friends, or at church, or at the gym in a class. You have to do something different to get different results. [Step five is to create opportunities to meet a good partner.]

Again, I encourage you to get some help with something as big as choosing better partners because for many of us, a better partner somehow isn’t as attractive. That’s because he or she is not part of our emotional home and it will take more than just a change in thinking to get over this problem. It requires a real shift in both how we see ourselves and how we see this type of person. This is particularly true if we had conflictual relationships with our parents.

#4 Who’s going to be upset if you change?

It’s really important to identify the people in your current life that will be upset when you begin to make changes. There are always some that become very resistant to your attempts to change, because when you change, it points out something they need to look at and don’t want to see, or they feel a loss.

For example, if you work in an office and it’s become a habit for a group of you to roast the boss everyday, and you decide that gossiping and talking about other people is part of the emotional home you want to let go of, who will be upset when you no longer want to join in? How will they express it? How will you be affected? What can you do to offset it and stick to your new resolutions?

Then make a plan and follow it. Just be sure your plan won’t have worse repercussions that could make you fall back. If you decide to become confrontational with your coworkers about their behavior, it probably isn’t going to go well and you’ll be consumed with the negativity they throw back at you.

If on the other hand, if you quietly turn your attention to your own problems and the areas of your life that need repair when the subject of your boss comes up, you can divert your attention without commenting on anyone else’s behavior.

If you’re cajoled into joining in, you could offer some constructive ways to deal with the boss, or you could shift the conversation to a new subject, or excuse yourself by saying  you need to get back to work. You’re not criticizing anyone, just taking a detour.

Keep in mind that you’re never responsible for someone else’s changes or behavior. Just yours. Stick with that. A caveat here: You can always let others know when you’re making a change by being direct about it as long as it doesn’t come off as a judgment on their behavior. Stick with “I” statements. They may still interpret this as a judgment, so it’s good to keep that in mind.

Inevitably, if you make big changes, someone will be upset and try to sabotage your progress. This is when you have to decide if you need to move away from a relationship, or at least, a regular pattern of behavior that might let someone else feel some loss.

If you go to your parents’ home for dinner once a week and everyone drinks a lot during dinner, and you’ve decided that’s the dysfunctional pattern you want to take out of your emotional home, this could be quite difficult. If you don’t drink, someone will say something about it. You may also feel left out if you don’t participate. It can feel like a loss for you too. These are the hard choices, and the ones you may want some outside support for while making them and carrying them out.

Changing habits that are part of our emotional home often feels like leaving someone in your family, or leaving your family all together. It also can feel like tearing up a part of yourself, and that brings on a good deal of discomfort. This is because we all internalize the habits, behavior patterns, and ways of thinking and feeling that we learned growing up. They become ours, and when you begin to weed out what you know isn’t good for you, it can feel like a loss.

#5 Use any techniques that feel helpful.

Here’s where CBT comes back in. Once you really have a handle on what the emotional issues are, and you’ve decided what changes you want to make, you might find that CBT is an aid you can use. There are several self-help books you could try using which I’ve listed below. I strongly suggest that you also participate in therapy to work over the more embedded parts of the emotional home while using self-help aids. Letting go of old patterns and all that comes with that is a little more gut-wrenching than just changing thought patterns, and requires much more of you.

It’s a two-part process:

  1. Identifying and letting go of the old patterns that don’t work for you, and
  2. Creating a new emotional home that feels comfortable and is good for you.

It’s a big job. Don’t deprive yourself of that help.

Final Thoughts

Revising your emotional home takes time. Don’t expect quick changes. Just be consistent in your work on it. Remember that it took years to construct it, and it will take time to deconstruct and rebuild it. Be kind to yourself as you go. It’s like any big change – you work at it and work at it and then all of the sudden you realize you’ve made a significant shift and it’s easier to keep going.

The biggest complexity of this sort of work is that you’re balancing changing yourself while also changing and finding some peace with relationships you have with important figures in your life. They both happen concurrently, but sometimes the process is bumpy. Just stay with it.

I’ve listed some suggested reading for you if you like to read. I’d also love to hear your comments and anything you’d like to share about this subject. You can comment below.


Suggested Reading

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
The Gift by Edith Eva Eger
Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky
What Doesn’t Kill Us Stephen Joseph
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

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