Breaking Old Patterns? Expect Psychological Withdrawal
Breaking subtle but longstanding patterns can trigger a withdrawal reaction.
Posted Mar 25, 2020
We usually associate withdrawals with addictions: TV images of the junkie coming off heroin, those going cold-turkey off smoking or alcohol, and struggling with cravings and anxiety. While the behavior has stopped, the brain circuits keep firing.
But this notion of withdrawal can also be applied to more everyday events. Whenever we suddenly go against our grain, across some behavioral line, and break longstanding patterns, our brains continue to fire in old ways; we can suddenly find ourselves flooded with emotions that seem overwhelming.
Here are some of the common symptoms of behavioral withdrawal:
You totally forget about your best friend's birthday, your parents' anniversary. Guilt sets in. Why? Because guilt is about rules: You should remember these occasions, and it's the breaking of this should, this rule in your head, that triggers the guilt.
But guilt can also be triggered by more subtle rules that you've learned and learned to live by; rules like always pulling your weight, or avoiding conflict and not getting others upset. So, when you feel like you are letting a co-worker down, or you make some off-handed, joking comment about your friend's appearance, and she suddenly flares up, you immediately feel guilty: A rule has been broken.
With the guilt will often come anxiety—worrying or obsessing about the consequences. This may flood you after your friend's flare-up, but you may have the same anxiety after finding yourself going into a rant about a new policy at a staff meeting, or with your partner, finally telling him you're fed up with his leaving his work stuff all over the dining room table. Your head starts to go down the rabbit-hole of worry that you've damaged your relationship with your friend or your partner, that you're now in trouble with your supervisor.
The reason you haven't been pelted with such anxiety or guilt all along is only that you have been following your rules, have been staying within your comfort zone, or have used routines to regulate your emotional life. Once you step out of your old patterns, especially in important relationships, anxiety floods, and you become hyperalert to the dangers of entering unknown territory.
Self-criticism, along with guilt and anxiety, has likely been part of this keeping-you-in-check package. Your worry about your friend, partner, supervisor likely brings with it a kicking of you—you broke the rule; this is your fault—and so you rake yourself over the coals.
Guilt, anxiety, and self-criticism are usually tied to childhood, and childhood coping mechanisms—the following of rules and routines, the managing anxiety by doing what is expected—and so when you break those patterns, these old little-kid-gets-in-trouble feelings and anxieties are ignited.
But grief comes from somewhere else—a break in attachment, a loss in the present. We easily see this in, say, dogs, when their master is hospitalized for a few days, and the dog seems lost and depressed. We see this in children, where your now middle-schooler goes off to the big new school where she doesn't know anyone in her classes, misses her friends and familiar teachers, feels down and out and anxious for a few weeks or months until she gets her footing.
Or you may feel this when your partner is gone on a business trip, and you miss her and sense her absence in the house, or when you are home ill, know this is where you need to be, but also feel a bit disoriented and home-sick for your familiar work friends and routines. These are mini-withdrawals from what we've been accustomed to, mini senses of loss.
How to Manage Mini-withdrawals
The starting point for managing that guilt, anxiety, self-criticism, and grief is to expect it. Like the withdrawal from drugs, your body and brain are reacting to the sudden change. Realizing that this is normal can help you not overreact to your own reactions.
Sort out irrational from rational guilt. There's irrational and rational guilt. Irrational guilt comes from breaking those shoulds, those rules externally imposed on us by parents and parent-like figures, which are linked to those little-kid feelings and being good. Rational guilt, in contrast, stems from violations of our own values—conscious and proactive decisions we've made as adults about what's important, about how to treat others, about how we want to live. They are our own standards, not those set by others.
So, when guilt arises, ask yourself: Where is this guilt coming from? Whose rule did I break? If it is one that you blindly inherited, it's important to acknowledge that, decide if it is one you want to keep and put in your own value box. If not, it's time to mentally practice pushing that delete button.
But if it is about rational guilt, it's time to repair. That doesn't mean that you cave—never joke with your friend again, go back to biting your tongue about the mess on the table, never voice your opinion at work—but you apologize to your friend, your partner, maybe even your supervisor for your comments. Not because you are worried that you are in trouble, but because you are aware you were unintentionally hurtful and violated your own values.
Stop going down the anxiety rabbit hole. Once your anxiety goes into high gear with its worst-case scenarios, you get tunnel-vision and begin to believe that the only way you can feel better is to get more information; you get lost trying to unravel all the content of the situation. Don't do this; it's not productive.
Instead, mentally step back from all that content and say to yourself that you are understandably anxious, and it is your anxiety that you need to fix right now, not the situation. Focus on calming yourself down by doing deep breathing, mindful distraction, meditation, exercise. Once you're calm, you're in a better position to decide what to do next.
Push back against self-criticism. Like anxiety, self-criticism leads to its own rabbit hole of obsessing about the awful you, and like anxiety, you want to focus on the self-criticizing process itself, not what your brain is saying. Here you say to yourself that you are blowing this out of proportion, that you did the best you could at the time, that this is not the end of the world, and you can mop up and repair.
Acknowledge and allow grief. You know how to support your lonely and struggling middle-schooler by acknowledging that yes, the new school and class feels overwhelming and that you know how much she misses her friends. You want to treat yourself in the same way with your own grief—acknowledging that you do miss your absent partner, your work, and routines, that it is a mini-loss, and you're having a normal mini-withdrawal—rather than putting on the brave, reality-denying face. It's time for self-care, being gentle with yourself. By doing so, you will get over your loss more quickly.
The theme here is respecting the fact that our brains and bodies need time to adjust to new changes, that old circuits will continue to fire for a while until they can catch up with our outward actions. As you expand your comfort zone, acknowledge your withdrawal, rein in the over-reactions… and keep moving forward.