Vicious Cycles

Theories, concepts and spiritual practices are all fine and dandy but too often they are difficult to integrate in our daily life. The articles listed under the “Real World Applications” category are there to help you bridge that gap.


 Today’s Topic: Vicious Cycles

What are vicious cycles? How much do they affect our lives? What can we do about them?

According to Google, a vicious cycle is a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation (that’s a mouth full!).

To simplify things a bit, we could think of vicious cycles has these things we do or say, consciously or not, to someone else or ourselves that start a negative self fueling chain of events.

An example of vicious cycle could be a couple’s fight: you yell, I yell back, it creates resentment that is later used as further ammunition and we keep feeding the cycle until the divide is too big to cross or we decide to start therapy.

Vicious cycles come in many shapes and forms but I’ve come to believe, through personal experience, that the main two flavors, driven by evolutionary conditioning, are fight or flight.

The Fight Cycles give us the illusion of control. They help us feel strong in the moment and are created to defend our sense of self. They are characterized by expression such as: how dare you, because I said so, don’t tell me what I feel!…etc. They are often accompanied by violent outbursts that leave us feeling angry, resentful, or even self-righteous. They rarely fix the situation that provoked the reaction, and often tend to make things worse over time. We refer to them as fights, arguments, power struggle, or the things we say (but “don’t really mean”) in the heat of the moment. In reality they are a pretty good reflection of the inner feelings, fears and emotions we’ve buried inside and might not even be aware of.

My personal life is pitted with vicious cycles…some passed down from the previous generations and some created to either protect or punish myself. One cycle I have been working very hard at transforming (note that I said transforming and not breaking?) is the mother/daughter power struggle hurt fest that has been my family legacy for the past 3 generations (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it went further back). For decades, my mother has been resenting her mum for a number of things she did to her as a child, I resented my mum for the way she treated me and my daughter resented me for a number if things I did in her childhood. All of us had a pretty big chip on our shoulder (and the defense mechanisms to go with it), everyone was hurt and no one was willing to back down. We treated each other with a mixture of apprehension, resentment, entitlement and anger. Until one day, after a few years of meditation and study, I began to understand the origin and mechanism behind that particular cycle…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to theory: The second type of vicious cycles, the Flight Cycle, is a form of coping mechanism that was created to cover up feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, fear and pain too difficult to deal with. Flight cycles are fueled by shame and they engender the myriad of addictive behavior that have reached pandemic proportions in modern society (food, sex, drugs, alcohol, social media…to name a few). As a matter of fact, they are so common now a day that they have been trivialized and even glorified by our society (just watch TV on any given night and you’ll know what I mean!). The fact that most vicious cycles are driven by the subconscious mind only makes it more tricky.

So an interesting question might be: where do vicious cycles come from?

The answer lies in the way our brain works based on thousands of years of evolution. The fight/flight response, an archaic remnant of a past where we needed to respond to danger in order to survive, is ingrained in our subconscious and still drives many of our behavior. To make matter worse, the artificial standards and needs created and exacerbated by modern society are constantly feeding our fight/flight stress response. But evolution is not the only culprit. Brain development and our direct environment (family, culture, country, circumstances…) also play an enormous role in how we learn to make sense of the world and cope with what we perceive as threatening or shameful.

Can’t we just break these cycles, you might ask?

Well, according to neuro-plasticity research, our thoughts and feelings drive the way our brain fires up, so the more we focus on “changing” a pattern, the more emphasis we place on the pattern itself. Changing and self-improvement also imply that there is something wrong with us and isn’t that the kind of thinking that got us in this mess in the first place?

So what can we do?

I think the secret lies in becoming aware of our behavior (through practices such as mindfulness), taking advantage of the way our brain works (neuroplasticity) to create new neural pathways, and introducing new skills and teachings that will broaden our perspectives and foster positive growth cycles (the Compassion Training listed below is great). But ultimately it all starts with admitting that we’ re in over our heads and deciding that it’s time for a new beginning.


Further Reading

Fight/Flight – Understanding the stress response from Harvard Mental Health 2011 Letter

Neuroplasticity – What is neuroplasticity and how can it help you change your life?

Compassion Training – A wonderful free/interactive training with numerous resources that is the perfect platform to learn about and implement compassion in our everyday life

Much love: Sandrine


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