The Psychology of Cycles

How to break up with your bad interpersonal patterns for good

Posted Apr 10, 2019

Kayla Tureson and Alice Kim, used with permission
Source: Kayla Tureson and Alice Kim, used with permission

This guest post was contributed by Kayla Tureson and Alice Kim, two graduate students in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program. 

Another year, another family gathering with your overbearing auntie [or insert family/friend of choice here]. You take a minute to mentally prepare yourself for the flood of questions once you step through the door. Inhale, exhale, and the front door flies open. “Have you gotten a new boyfriend yet?” “When are you going to settle down and bring some babies into this house?” “You’re good looking, I’m sure someone will love that crooked nose” (Oof, those backhanded family compliments.) Before you get a word in edgewise, you feel yourself start to shut down. You feel disappointed that you’ve let yourself go quiet, but instead of letting her know how you feel, the vicious cycle of silence that always hits you when auntie is around strikes yet again.

We’ve all got cycles of patterns we try to break (See also: New Year’s Resolutions). But how do we break these cycles when they involve how we interact with others? There’s a new(ish) type of dynamic psychotherapy in town, and it’s not your old, white, Victorian lady’s Freudian psychodynamic therapy. She’s short-term, she’s intense, and she’s here to fix your interpersonal relationships, but you’ve got to be willing to dive deep. There will be pressure. There will be challenges. You may even collide head-on with your therapist (figuratively, of course).

Pixabay, Creative Commons license
Caught in a cycle?
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons license

We're talking about time-limited dynamic psychotherapy (TLDP), introduced by Vanderbilt University researchers Hans Strupp and Jeffrey Binder and refined and disseminated by renowned psychotherapist Hanna Levenson. In TLDP, you and your therapist work together to identify and map out “vicious cycles” in your relationships to figure out your relational style. This might look like a pattern of inflexible thinking, negative self-talk, or self-defeating behaviors that lead to difficulties in living your best relational life. Once you discover and understand your relational style, you and your therapist would use your relationship to challenge the unrealistic interpersonal expectations and automatic views you might have of yourself and others. You’d work to practice new behaviors and learn more adaptive ways of dealing with others through your relationship with your therapist. All of this can give you the boost you need to better deal with your domineering auntie in a way that aligns your innermost feelings with the thoughts, actions, and feelings floating at the surface.

There is a strong evidence base of science supporting TDLP as an effective treatment. In a meta-analysis of 23 studies examining short-term dynamic treatments including TDLP, general symptom improvement from compared to controls was 0.97, which indicates a very strong treatment effect. Furthermore, TLDP appears to have lasting effects long after treatment has ended: In a 9-month follow-up of general symptom improvement, the effect size increased to 1.5 (Abbass, Hancock, Henderson, & Kisely, 2006).

Not sure if you’re ready for TLDP? Try this exercise to map out four areas where problematic patterns might be holding you back in your relationships in multiple areas of your life (what TLDP therapists call cyclical maladaptive patterns or CMPs). We’ll walk through an example CMP together to capture how this process works.

Part 1: How you act

This is all about those thoughts, feelings, wishes, behaviors you experience in your interpersonal relationships.  

Client: I can rely on just myself to get what I need in life. I like to feel strong and in control of how I present myself to others. I feel nervous about getting too close to other people and am afraid that people won’t want to be close to me. I feel uncomfortable in places where I am forced to talk to others and tend to avoid or cancel social appointments. I wish I didn’t feel so alone.

Love: I don’t express that I’m too interested in this date because they’ll think I’m too forward or a stage-5 clinger, even though I’m very intrigued. They asked about another date but I’m too afraid to say yes and look too invested right now, so I said I’m busy.

Work: I feel uncomfortable expressing ideas and feelings in meetings. I feel like I don’t have any support from my coworkers.

Family: I avoid calling my family for weeks at a time because they’ll ask if I’m getting serious with anyone and I don’t want to go there. I don’t understand why they don’t just understand I can get along fine on my own.

Part 2: How you feel people will act towards you

Often, we have ingrained beliefs about what will happen if we act in a certain way, and these expectations can actually lead us to act in a way that confirms this bias.

Client: If I try to connect with others, they will reject me eventually. People won’t even want to get to know me if I come off as too needy or dependent. If I go to a social event, people will avoid me and talk about me behind my back.

Love: If I show too much interest, I’ll look too needy and will get ghosted.

Work: I don’t even want to ask my coworkers for help because I won’t look like I know what I’m doing or work independently.

Family: I feel like they will be disappointed by my ongoing lack of a partner and ask why I can’t break out of my shell.

Part 3: How you see people acting towards you

How are people actually acting towards you? It’s important to realize that your own interpretation of events matters a great deal here.  

Client: When I’ve tried to reach out to others, they haven’t been very responsive.  The last couple of times I’ve gone to social events, I couldn’t make good connections with others and people weren’t coming up to me. They must have been avoiding me.

Love: They didn’t text me back for a week, so they must not be interested in me and I looked too dependent.

Work: None of my coworkers come up to talk to me other than saying hello, so they must not like me.

Family: They ask about my relationships every time I talk to them, and I can hear the judgmental tone in their voice when I don’t say the right thing. I know they think I’m going to be alone forever and fail them in having grandkids.

Part 4: How you treat yourself

What kind of love do you show yourself? How are you reacting to yourself in the wake of recent events?  

Client:  People avoid me because I’m unlikeable.  I don’t think I’m the easiest to love or be friends with.  I don’t want people to know I feel so hurt inside or they’ll reject me for being too needy -- I’ll keep my cool.  I just need to be better at relying on myself. I need to work on being stronger.

Love: I can’t believe I couldn’t keep it together and stay more casual.  I feel so needy and weak. Why is it so hard to start relationships?  The common denominator is me so I must be the problem. If we keep texting, I have to stay poised and detached.  

Work: I don’t need to be friends with my coworkers anyway.  It hurts a little but I’ll just keep doing me and get ahead on my own.  

Family: I take a deep breath and remind myself that my family wants what’s best for me, and maybe they are just reminding me that I’m failing at relationships.   I’ll just stay calm this time and wait a while before picking up a call from them again.

What next?

It can be hard to recognize feelings that may be buried deep beneath the surface, and even harder still to be willing to let these feelings be felt to their fullest.  Creating new and corrective experiences is a TLDP technique used to change your CMP. So for example, if you wall yourself from others because you're afraid of rejection, a new experience would mean letting yourself be open and vulnerable-- both within the therapy relationship, and ultimately, in other relationships beyond the therapy room. 

Here are some corrective experiences outside therapy that the client in our example might try:

  • Follow up with a date and let them know you had a nice time
  • Practice saying hello and initiating conversations with coworkers. Ask for help when a work project is tough. 
  • Practice what you’d like to say to your family with a trusted friend. 

If you’re intrigued by this four-step exercise and want to dive deeper, look for a psychotherapist with a psychodynamic orientation and, ideally, training in TLDP to help you unpack those feelings.