Our behaviors are learned throughout our lifetime. Some behaviors are automatic and have a biological basis while many other behaviors are learned through experience.127 As a child, we pick up on mannerisms, language usage, and emotional responses from those around us. We learn through reinforcement. Our behaviors are shaped by positive and negative reward. We also learn from the experiences of others, observing the positive and negative results of others’ experiences.
Our ability to engage in healthy relationships is learned through experience. We learn to trust or mistrust those around us. We learn positive emotions such as love, support, and encouragement. We also learn negative emotions like anger, disappointment, guilt, and shame. We learn to tell the truth or that it’s okay to lie. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose how our early experiences are going to affect the rest of our life.
At five years old, I was adopted. Compared to my previous impoverished environment and drug-addicted mother, I thought my new home would be amazing! However, it wasn’t long before I recognized some behaviors in my new parents that frightened me, especially with my new mom.
My new family consisted of a mom and dad, two younger brothers, and an older sister. My new mom was very controlling and yelled at us kids a lot. She made us clean the house and take care of the pets while she sat on the couch, watched daytime television, and ate snacks. My new dad worked two jobs to support the family and wasn’t home much. I loved spending time with him and felt safe when he was around. However, it wasn’t long before my mom’s crazy, chaotic behaviors drove him away.
I was confused. Although there were no drugs, alcohol, or strange men coming and going from the house, I still felt anxious—the way I felt in my last family. Many times, my new mom would make us go through the neighborhood collecting cans or door-to-door collecting money for a local charity, but it was all for my mom. There was no charity. I learned that using lies and manipulation was okay to get what you want. When we came home with a good amount of money, we were praised; but when we came home with little or no money, we were punished. I learned that love was conditional and given based on behavior.
This played a significant role in my relationships. I was manipulative and controlling with my siblings, friends, and even more so with men. I began having sex during junior high and got pregnant with my first child in eighth grade. My boyfriend and I, and our baby lived with my mother. I had four children with two different men by the time I turned 20 years old.
I married the father of my two last children and moved away from my mother to live near his family. I was shocked at the difference between my husband’s family and mine. His family didn’t yell at each other, lie, or manipulate to get their way. They were kind and loving to one another. They were supportive and helpful when it was needed. I had never seen anything like it, but knew I wanted to raise my kids in this type of environment. But was it too late?
The best part of learned behavior is that it can be unlearned. Despite the negative behaviors we may have learned from our childhood environment, we can learn new, healthy behaviors to replace unwanted or unhealthy behaviors.
So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
ROMANS 7:14-17 NLT
Making changes to our behaviors and living in health is challenging, especially when we continue to do what we don’t want to do. We have to continue to work on our awareness: what is driving our behaviors; what fear are we not willing to face?
None of us were raised by Jesus, which means that all of our parents made mistakes. They were not perfect and neither are we. If we think we can change our behaviors on our own, then our pursuit of lifelong health will be in vain. Alone, we don’t have what it takes to be healthy. What we need comes from the Lord.
As we strive toward replacing our unhealthy behaviors with new healthy behaviors, it is important that we take every opportunity to learn. Not just from God’s Word but from others who are also working toward health. This is why being in this group is so crucial— we cannot do this alone. We need to be dedicated to this process, not just for ourselves, but for the other women in our group. This is where we will learn to develop authentic relationships. We will practice learning new behaviors by living in community
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice— the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
ROMANS 12:1-2 NLT
For many of us who struggle with compulsive and addictive behaviors, our awareness of consequences is limited. We tend to be more spontaneous, in-the-moment people, making decisions without much thought. We act impulsively without considering the consequences. Although we keep our coping behaviors close—our automatic responses to stressful situations—we don’t always recognize how our decisions impact our future.
If we want to change our behavior, we have to become more aware of what we’re doing and why, as well as the role our behaviors play in the consequences we experience. When we are stuck in our coping behaviors, the consequences we experience can take many forms: our relationships suffer; we create financial hardship; it affects our mood; it impacts our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.128
Vera has a great job. She is very productive and efficient. She strives to make her boss look good, which earns her compliments and approval in return. During Vera’s performance evaluation, her boss spent most of the time reflecting on all the things she does well; however, there were a couple areas he suggested she could improve. Vera sat there with a smile on her face, but was internally mortified. Feeling overwhelmed by this “horrible” evaluation, Vera impulsively went shopping after work and spent more than $700.
A couple days later, Vera realized that after spending so much money in the heat of the moment, she didn’t have enough money for rent. She could return the clothes she bought, but that would be embarrassing; she didn’t want the sales clerk to judge her. She could ask her mom to borrow money, which would result in a long lecture about responsibility and money management. Their relationship is a bit strained, but her mom would probably still give her the money.
Nancy has many friends and is very active on social media. She prides herself in her ability to keep up with so many friends. She is constantly on her phone or iPad, checking in with friends and commenting on posts. Taylor, one of Nancy’s good friends, has spent the past several months losing weight and recently posted a before and after photo to show her progress. Without thinking, Nancy replied with, “It must be nice to go shopping and find clothes that actually fit!” (Smiley face, thumbs up, heart emoji)
A short time later, Taylor sent a text to Nancy. She was not expecting Taylor’s response: “I can’t believe you said such a horrible thing! I thought we were friends! Why would you embarrass me like that? I have never been so humiliated!” Taylor was very upset. Nancy would have apologized, but Taylor has blocked her on social media and is not responding to Nancy’s calls or texts. Nancy meant her response to be encouraging and supportive, not hurtful. In the moment, she didn’t realize how her comment could seem offensive.
Sometimes our behaviors result in immediate consequences that can be short-term and resolved quickly. However, there are times when the consequences of our behaviors can become long-term and stay unresolved.
Raising awareness is key. If we want real change, we have to take an honest look at how our behaviors shape and influence relationship. We cannot avoid the difficulty of analyzing our past behaviors—this takes time and intention. We have to address the fear we are avoiding. Even when we recognize our unhealthy coping behaviors, putting new behaviors in place is equally challenging. As we continue to gain new insights into our past behaviors, we become better equipped to develop strategies for creating and maintaining healthy relationships.
As we continue on the path toward healing, we may come face to face with an astonishing truth: despite our past learned behaviors, it is never too late to learn how to develop healthy relationships with others.
Complete the FASTER Scale, Group Check-in, Self-Care lesson, Thoughts/Feelings
Awareness Log, and Change & Growth Analysis in your Unraveled: Weekly Tools before
the next group meeting.