How to Change Harmful Behaviors and Patterns

Do you ever catch yourself following the same harmful thought patterns again and again? These patterns often influence our behavior, causing us to repeat situations that aren’t good for us. You may be getting into the same type of relationship over and over, having the same disagreements with multiple people in your life, or feeling the same feelings of fear and inadequacy in every job. It can be frustrating to realize that you're unwillingly participating in a negative pattern, but the fact that you’ve noticed at all is a good sign.

Where Do Harmful Thought Patterns Come From?

We tend to form patterns of thinking and behaving based on our past experiences. For example, if you grew up in a home where one or both parents were overly critical, you may have formed perfectionist tendencies, become highly critical of yourself, and have a hard time moving past mistakes. You may suffer from overthinking, where you catastrophize things like disagreements with friends and partners. You could also be highly defensive, often hearing that you’re “always taking things the wrong way” from others. While you can’t change the past or flip a switch to turn these thought patterns off, you can train your brain away from them and bring drastic change to your life!

Step 1: Self-Awareness

The first step in changing harmful behaviors and patterns is self-awareness. This means noticing and becoming aware of negative patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. When we are caught in the middle of the storm, we can’t see anything outside of it. Developing the skill to pluck yourself out of the storm and observe it is crucial, because it allows you to step apart from the pattern and observe it. Eventually, you can start to recognize your negative patterns. For instance, you might notice, “When someone offers me feedback on my work, I feel highly defensive and upset.” Journaling can help with this. You might even keep a trigger log, writing down what triggered your defensive feelings every time they come up. Once you’re aware of the pattern, you can more effectively change it.

Step 2: Identifying Triggers and Root Causes

Understanding the situations or events that trigger your negative behaviors is the next step. This involves exploring the underlying causes of these patterns, such as past experiences or deep-seated beliefs. For example, the critical feedback from a boss might trigger a defensive reaction rooted in childhood experiences with overly critical parents. Identifying these triggers and root causes can be achieved through therapy, introspection, or discussing your feelings with trusted friends.

Step 3: Challenging Negative Thoughts and Beliefs

Once you’ve identified your triggers and root causes, you can begin to question the validity of your negative thoughts and beliefs. Cognitive-behavioral techniques can help you reframe and replace harmful thoughts. For instance, instead of thinking, “I’m a failure because I made a mistake,” you can reframe it to, “I made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes, and it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.” Challenging and reframing these thoughts helps to weaken their power over you.

Step 4: Developing Healthy Coping Strategies

Finding healthier ways to cope with triggers and stressors is key to changing harmful behaviors. Techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, relaxation exercises, and physical activity can help manage stress and emotional reactions. Building a toolkit of positive coping strategies enables you to respond more constructively to challenging situations. For example, practicing deep breathing exercises when feeling defensive can help you stay calm and respond more rationally.

Step 5: Practicing Self-Compassion

Self-compassion plays a significant role in changing harmful behaviors. Treating yourself with kindness and understanding, especially in times of failure or difficulty, fosters a healthier mindset. Techniques for practicing self-compassion include positive self-talk, self-care routines, and forgiving yourself for mistakes. Self-compassion not only improves mental health, but also supports sustainable behavior change by reducing the harsh inner critic that can hinder your progress.

Step 6: Setting Realistic Goals and Celebrating Progress

Setting achievable, incremental goals is vital for maintaining motivation and commitment to behavior change. Track your progress and celebrate small victories along the way. For instance, if you manage to respond calmly to feedback once a week, acknowledge and celebrate that progress. Recognizing and celebrating these small steps reinforces positive behavior and keeps you motivated to continue.

Step 7: Seeking Professional Support

Sometimes, changing harmful behaviors and patterns requires professional help. If you find it challenging to make progress on your own, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) can provide structured guidance and effective strategies for behavior change. Professional support can facilitate deeper insights and more sustainable progress.

Therapy to Change Harmful Patterns at Medens Health

Changing harmful behaviors and patterns requires a great deal of practice and intention, but it’s a journey that is well worth the effort. At Medens Health, we offer support and guidance to help you break free from negative patterns that may be holding you back. With virtual and in-person sessions available in many states, our team of caring mental health professionals is here to help you work toward a more peaceful mind and a more fulfilling life.

Get started here, call or text (833) 624-5400, or fill out our contact form today!


The information provided in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information this blog provides is solely at your own risk. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified mental health provider with any questions regarding your medical or mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who is qualified to give you safe, professional, and ethical advice regarding your mental health.

If you or someone you are responsible for is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should call 9-1-1 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room.