How Toxic Generational Patterns Affect HSPs (and What You Can Do to Break Them)

A highly sensitive person with an unhealthy relationship pattern

When you live life through your subconscious mind — which absorbs experiences like a sponge — it can make it easier for unhealthy patterns to continue.

There has been a long-standing question of “nature versus nurture.” This may bring you back to your Psychology 101 days. What creates behaviors? Is it something biological? Or is it based on what you’ve learned from your environment? This has often been studied in twins, but it’s a great question to ask in looking at multi-generational patterns. What causes patterns to continue and what causes patterns to cease?

Over the years in my work as a therapist, I have certainly seen familial patterns that continue throughout generations. The ones that are the most talked about are often unhealthy ones:

  • Abuse — both emotional and physical — tends to be a well-known pattern that often lives throughout generations.
  • Another common one is addictions. This is most commonly thought of as substance abuse, but it can show up as overeating, spending habits, or codependency, to name a few. Addictions certainly can have a chemical component to them, but most addictive behavior stems from needing something outside of yourself to attempt to regulate distressing emotions (i.e., to help you self-soothe). This process becomes addictive, as you find you “need” something in order to feel better, and, in some cases, this need shifts from psychological to chemical. 

Additional unhealthy patterns that tend to be passed down from generation to generation include:

Often, these patterns are based on projections of inner fears and insecurities as a way to cope, but they’re coping in the unhealthiest of ways.      

Since highly sensitive people (HSPs) are known to be keen observers and quite sensitive to external stimuli, they’re more affected by their environments than others. So with our nature vs. nurture question, they are deeply impacted by the “nurture” aspect through what they witness and what they learn. They can then absorb these patterns and beliefs very easily, and they may be accompanied by things such as fear, worry, need to please, taking responsibility, or the need to be the fixer.

(Are you an HSP? Here are 21 signs that you’re a highly sensitive person.)

The Subconscious Mind’s Role in Unhealthy Patterns

Many who recognize unhealthy patterns in their lives are frustrated and saddened by it. And because HSPs love depth, let’s continue to explore a bit deeper as we bring up one of my favorite topics: the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is the part of you responsible for holding onto emotions, core beliefs, and your patterns. Research shows that the subconscious mind guides 90 percent of your daily life. Let’s say that, at times, you want one thing but can’t help but do something different. For example, maybe part of you wants to save money, but you end up splurging when your favorite store is having a sale. Afterwards, you ask yourself, “Why do I keep doing that?”  

The subconscious mind likes what feels familiar. And familiar isn’t always good. This is why so many patterns and ways of being are hard to break. So, if we look at an unhealthy pattern — like being addicted to alcohol — the subconscious doesn’t identify whether it’s healthy or not. Instead, it sees it as familiar.

Let’s look at another example. Perhaps siblings Joey and Janice are observing their parents, who are both overly focused, maybe even obsessed, with working out, following a strict diet, and continuously asking for validation on how they look. They may even demonstrate anxiety if they miss a day at the gym or realize they have gained weight. In observing this, Joey and Janice learn that you must be thin, fit, and/or muscular to be worthy and pleasing to others. Then, as adults, they may continue with this pattern for their own children to observe. 

This is an example of how an unhealthy pattern continues. We can look at this as an addictive pattern, as this indicates the need to look a certain way in order to feel validated, as well as a body image pattern. This pattern can represent the projection of deeper inner wounds related to insecurity, feeling as though you’re “not enough” or not in control.

Let’s take another example, such as those who experienced or witnessed abuse as a child and then ended up in abusive relationships as adults (or even as abusers themselves). This is often perpetuated from experiencing abuse, whether it’s being bullied at school and/or modeling what is observed at home. Some people may not even identify abusive behaviors as abuse and instead normalize them because abuse was so commonplace in the household throughout multiple generations. It’s quite understandable why these patterns are so frustrating and can be confusing about why they persist — even though you don’t want them to (consciously) continue.

The Subconscious Mind and Core Beliefs 

The subconscious mind also holds onto core beliefs. So, at some point in time, if you were given the message by a parent who held any of the following beliefs, this can be another reason some patterns recur from generation to generation:

  • “I can’t have a healthy relationship.” 
  • “I need to be perfect in order to be good enough.” 
  • “I’m not worthy.” 
  • “People will leave me if I don’t make them happy.” 
  • “Life is meant to be a struggle.” 
  • “It’s my fault if someone isn’t happy.”

Furthermore, some of these beliefs may feel rather familiar to HSPs due to their extra sensitive souls.

In another example, maybe Julia grew up in a household where abuse played a role. As an adult, she told herself: “I’m not going to tolerate any of that.” But then she ends up finding herself in abusive relationships, time and time again, and just doesn’t understand why it keeps happening. Additionally, she may find herself having degrading bosses, friends who are always cancelling on her at the last minute (or are late to their get-togethers), a partner who is emotionally abusive, and maybe her children disrespect her, too. 

Unfortunately, the subconscious mind finds these experiences to be familiar when considering emotional memories from her childhood, even though they are unhealthy and unwanted. There may also be a core belief of “I need to please others in order for them to be happy and not leave me” that is still being held onto from the abuse she witnessed early in life. Thus, this unintentionally sustains the familiar pattern. This is not excusing abusive behaviors in any manner, but instead looking deeper as to why these unwanted patterns may repeat. And since highly sensitive people struggle with codependency, they have to be extra mindful of repeating these unwanted behaviors.

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What HSPs Should Do If They Notice Unhealthy Patterns in Their Lives

So, as HSPs are observers, sensitive to their environments, cognizant of the emotions of others, want to feel accepted, and want others to be happy, this makes sense as to why these patterns have a great effect on them. Because when you live life through your subconscious mind — which absorbs experiences like a sponge — it really is like you are living on autopilot with similar thoughts, behaviors, and experiences that replay in your life. This is what causes those patterns to continue, even if you want to break them more than anything. 

The good news is, you do have the power to break those patterns. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

If you notice unhealthy patterns in yourself, here are some things you can do:

  • Do not blame yourself. It’s important to take a step back and notice the pattern  — even name the pattern — in a nonjudgmental way, rather than allowing yourself to be caught up in the pattern. This can be hard for HSPs, who may feel inclined to take ownership or responsibility, but it’s important in changing the pattern. So, you may say, “I notice this pattern of having a terrible relationship with money. I noticed it in the way my parents handled money, and now I notice it within myself. It’s time for me to change this pattern. I choose to change this pattern now.”
  • Get clear on the pattern and on being self-disciplined about new choices that you are making. What is the new pattern you want to create, and what are signs of the pattern trying to reemerge? This often involves what you need to say “no” to. This can feel difficult for HSPs, but it’s essential for the unhealthy pattern to break. For example, if you want to enter a healthy relationship, get clear on how you define a healthy relationship. What are common themes and patterns you have noticed in prior relationships that you no longer want to accept? Someone belittling you? Someone drinking too much and then being verbally abusive toward you? Being attracted to people who need “saving”? Practice saying “no” and setting better boundaries (which can be a challenge for HSPs). The more consistent you are with the new choices you are making, the better.
  • Forgiveness work. Forgiveness isn’t excusing those who sustained the unhealthy pattern, but instead is allowing you to let go of any feelings you still hold onto. With forgiveness work, you can think of holding onto anger or resentment similar to holding onto a piece of hot coal. These feelings are hurting you. You let them go by making the choice to create new and healthier patterns. Forgive those who unconsciously held onto the pattern that was passed onto you, including the projection of those inner hurts. This will help free yourself.
  • Work with a therapist to do deep work around core beliefs you’ve developed as you focus on self-love. Working with a therapist can help you change your current mindset and unconscious beliefs. This is about feeling empowered, worthy, and having support as you are making the choice to change not only your life, but of future generations to come.

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