How Do I Keep Myself from Reverting to Old Habits?

Hello, Friends! The year is quickly coming to a close. This time of year, people tend to get busy with social events and holiday planning. I am going to ask you to pause and consider how you have grown this year. Are you happy with the person you are and the relationships you have with yourself and others? Maybe you have been trying to make some changes this year. Change is hard! Stay committed to your goals! You are worth the investment of time and energy!

Today’s Question: I have been in two extremely destructive marriages, the first one we were married for 9 years, and the second marriage lasted 8 years. Currently, I have been in a healthy marriage for the past 7 years. Through the years of destructive and painful relationships, my outlet was to seek acceptance and my identity through additional degrees and working very hard. I was there but “not there”. This was all at the expense of my children's well-being and myself. I pursued maintaining an image of unrealistic expectations of myself. I told no one what was really going on. Image was important to me, and I struggled with transparency and vulnerability. As I have learned recently, some individuals who are high performers may also have unhealed issues or trauma like I have. I worked hard to present myself as completely put together when the house was crumbling on the inside. Today, I want to do what God has called me to do (or made for me) instead of what people expect from me. I lived that lie for too long. How do high performers, who have experienced many layers of abuse and trauma, work through the necessary healing without reverting to old habits with destructive behaviors, i.e. additional work, responsibilities, or avoiding doing the hard work of healing? Thank you in advance for your time.

Susan’s Response: Thank you for your question. I appreciate your focus on doing your own work and being intentional about moving toward God’s calling on your life. You have made a very clear declaration; “Today, I want to do what God has called me to do (or made for me) instead of what I thought was expected from me.” That brings us to an important question; What has God called you to do as His beloved daughter? Since God’s thoughts are higher than human thoughts, it is important to look to His word and His expectations over the expectations of others as well as our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves.

So, what does God expect from us? His Word gives us guidance on what he calls us to be and do; there is also a lot of freedom for personal choices and individuality. In the book of Micah, which is a book about grace and forgiveness, the People of Judah and Israel were struggling to embrace God’s call and purpose. Maybe you are like the people in the prophet Micah’s day who asked, “Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?” Striving to earn value and expending high levels of effort escalated to absurdity as a perceived fee for entering into the presence of God. They wrongly equated worthiness with high expectations of sacrifice and performance. Sometimes Christian culture and our society hold these views as well. However, Micah 6:8 reveals God's purpose for us is to share in primary forms of love and to be just, merciful, and humbly faithful. 

The Old Testament taught us that human beings alone will never sustain perfection and high achievement with a sinful heart is not admirable. Later in the New Testament, when Jesus was asked which commandment of the Law was the greatest, He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-32) What God wants is really quite simple but can also be challenging. All of our service for God must flow from those two commands to love; otherwise, it falls short. Romans 8:8 says that those who are “in the flesh cannot please God.” So what He calls us to do is show love, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in service and in action. 

While He accomplished a lot in His short 32 years on earth, Jesus ultimately valued connection with God and relationships. When God calls us in Romans 8:29 to become conformed to the image of His Son, I believe He is telling us to be connected with God in each moment to direct us down the path to His will. And yet, being in the will of God does not eliminate hardship, temptations, or the effects of sin. Jesus experienced all of these as well.

The negative effects of being in a destructive relationship can be tremendous and long-lasting. Finding ways to cope and survive is normal and can vary from person to person. Trauma survivors often move toward perfectionism or high performance as a way to avoid triggering emotions in themselves or others. If you have been made to suffer consequences by a destructive person for every little perceived shortcoming at some point in your life, you have probably learned to adapt and protect yourself. For you, like many others, this may have been through acceptance and achievement.

Perhaps you poured your energy into achievements so that others would see you as strong and together, but you may have needed to dissociate from your own emotions in order to portray that appearance. In the short term, you may have seemed “completely put together”. You may have been able to make life look good on the outside and meet social expectations while ignoring truth and natural emotion. Due to significant expense, it seems you are now questioning whether this is actually being completely put together or healthy.  When I think of togetherness, the words whole and aligned come to mind, where a person’s internal intentions and outside actions match.

Even though putting your energy toward self-growth had some benefits, the driver for those choices may have been driven by some challenging emotions. You didn’t identify your specific emotions but for the sake of this discussion, I will take a guess based on my experience. You may have had feelings of insecurity and fear. Therefore the cost of letting those coping behaviors go, is that you will be left to tolerate emotions that you may not have the ability to manage well.  

Please hear this point; learning how to manage thoughts and emotions is imperative in order to be able to move forward in the will of God. Faulty beliefs, like “I have to keep achieving in order to be acceptable”, can lead us away from action that is driven by His love. Intense emotions, like insecurity and fear, can hold us back from our God-given purpose. As humans on this earth, we will not be free from unpleasant emotions, but we can acknowledge them, regulate them, and keep them from taking control of our choices and actions.  

When you have been through a situation or relationship where you feel helpless to manage or escape, it can create emotional trauma. It's not the objective circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized. There are times when people are truly helpless to the awful circumstances that persist. It is also true that at times our minds can cause us to believe we are helpless and without alternatives, even when it is not so. Trauma is in no way your fault, but you can better help yourself by strengthening your ability to manage thoughts and emotions.

It can be easier in the short term to do what you know and are comfortable with, like pouring yourself into work and picking up extra responsibilities. I will encourage you to challenge yourself to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Healing from past destruction takes time and work. Investing in your ability to manage your thoughts and emotions is necessary in order to keep you from falling into old habits. It is both a healing tool and a preventive measure.

Be well!

Are you struggling to make the changes you would like in your life? Consider joining the Leslie Vernick & Co team for the Empowered to Change group coaching experience. Find the details here.

Beloved readers, what have you done to help yourself when you notice you are reverting back to unhealthy relationship patterns?

1 Comment

  1. Caroline Abbott on December 13, 2023 at 10:03 am

    What an awesome question. I have been a faithful Christian for 30 years. The first 10 of those I was in an abusive marriage. I knew how God wanted me to act and I did the best I could. From my perspective at the time, that was to put up with the abuse. When I’d finally had enough and got a restraining order (and eventually a divorce), I started my healing journey. This included 3 different DV support groups (one at my church) and many counselors (different ones at different times). A lot of this work was learning how to set boundaries with others, which for me was a huge challenge. I don’t know that I will ever be truly healed until Jesus comes again or calls me home. But, I have been able to make a good life for myself because of the hard work I put in and that of others who poured into my life.

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