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What is a Cycle-Breaker?

... and how to engage in this powerful process.

Key points

  • The term "cycle-breaker" refers to a person intentionally changing multi-generational family patterns.
  • A cycle-breaker will need to deep dive into the origins of their and their family's behaviors and root out unhealthy patterns.
  • Cycle-breaking involves both deep introspective work and intentional behavioral change.

There’s a term going around Instagram and TikTok that you won’t find in any psychology textbook but has nonetheless become pervasive. That term is “cycle-breaker.” A cycle-breaker is somebody who sees an unhealthy cycle of behavior in their family of origin (meaning the family they grew up in) and intentionally works to break that cycle.

While the word may be new, the concept is not. It is rooted in systemic thinking championed by psychological professionals, particularly marriage and family therapists, and is a nod to the idea that our traits, behaviors, and beliefs are influenced by generations of family members before us who have reinforced a certain way of being. Instead of seeing our growth as a highly individual process, then, cycle-breaking acknowledges the role of context, culture, history, trauma, and resilience in families.

What are the steps for cycle-breaking?

1. Identifying family patterns.

Cycle breaking looks different for every person engaging in it, but can be summed up as saying “In my family, we did X, and instead I’m going to do Y.” This statement can encompass a wide number of behaviors and patterns, including things like:

  • A family pattern of physical, emotional, or psychological abuse (sometimes manifesting differently in different generations)
  • A family history of addiction and substance use
  • A family history of struggling to handle big feelings like anger, overwhelm, and sadness
  • A family pattern of passive aggression or overt aggression that children then reproduce
  • A family history of disordered eating, chronic dieting, or eating disorders
  • A family value of achievement above all other things
  • A family pattern of physical punishment for children
  • Family enmeshment or disengagement that gets passed down

As you can see, cycle-breakers identify all sorts of different patterns in their families of origin. They span a wide range of behaviors, belief systems, and outcomes.

The identification process, often done in a therapeutic context, may occur when a therapist speaks to a therapy client about their goals and they slowly begin to unpack the patterns keeping them stuck. They will then investigate the origins of those patterns and how families may purposefully or inadvertently reinforce the cycle’s perpetuation.

2. Doing a deep dive into the experience.

A person looking to break a generational cycle will need to take a close look at their family’s experience and their own experience within the larger system. That means investigating questions like:

  • How did this behavior occur in my family?
  • Who really embodied this?
  • How did I experience it?
  • What did that feel like?
  • What was the impact on my development?
  • What were the benefits and drawbacks of this family pattern?
  • How did it get passed down?

These questions will help a person start to orient themselves within the family system and learn more about how they experienced and were taught a certain way of being.

This part of the process can be eye-opening. It may involve uncovering old wounds that came from family behavior that was, at the time, extremely normalized. They may learn to start zooming out from their own experience (“Why can’t I let myself feel sad?”) to seeing how parents, grandparents, and perhaps even great-grandparents reinforced the idea that being sad was weak, unacceptable, or unsafe.

 Emma Bauso
Source: Pexels: Emma Bauso

3. Healing wounds.

Deciding to shift patterns that no longer serve a person is incredibly hard work—and part of that work is tending to one’s self along the way. That process can involve answering questions like:

  • How can I offer myself the things my family struggled to offer?
  • What does it look like to come to terms with this history?
  • Can I honor my family’s humanity—and is it possible they were doing their best?
  • What does self-soothing look like when this old pattern comes up in my family now?

Part of cycle-breaking is understanding that even as one person changes, the rest of the family may not. This requires the changing person to find ways to offer themself the reassurance needed to keep moving forward and to learn to navigate situations when the family may bring up some of that old pain or even question why they are suddenly acting very differently.

4. Shifting to new patterns.

In addition to psychological growth and new insight, a cycle-breaker is also tasked with learning new ways of being in the world. This learning curve can be steep, and involves answering questions like:

  • What does shifting this pattern look like?
  • What kind of pushback should I expect to receive?
  • What are the hardest parts of changing this pattern?
  • What skills do I need to learn?
  • What do I need when I suffer a setback?

This is a big action step. When a person has identified their family’s patterns, processed the impact, and begun to heal those wounds, they can start to look at how to break that family cycle. This means doing new things, learning new skills, and engaging with the family with these new skills.

There’s a long, rich history of psychological concepts being reworded and recycled in slightly new forms to help a new generation of individuals and families work through age-old problems. While the term “cycle-breaker” is not in textbooks, it is nothing new. Its origins can be traced to Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory which details a multigenerational transmission process of patterns in families.

It is still exciting to see the mainstream engaging in this powerful, difficult work. It is an acknowledgment that despite the very American lens of individualistic improvement, we can expand that process to see how the systems we grew up in impacted us and begin the work of change from that grounded place.


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Jason Aronson.

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