As we experience the good and painful parts of life, we develop repetitive patterns of thinking and behaving over time. These patterns can be overt as observable habits to subtle processes of thought and can begin developing as soon as our childhood. A pattern or habit like this can start in the early years due to bullying, abuse, emotional neglect, or unsafe family dynamics. Whichever ways these patterns manifest over our lifetime, toxic experiences from the beginning have the potential to set a harmful baseline from which we begin to interact relationally. For this post, I’d like to highlight a few patterns that tend to arise when we have a history of painful relationships.

Painful experiences and how we cope with them shape the way we receive, react , and respond to future relationships. These patterns can be called Schemas. If we were fortunate enough to have support systems in our lives to help us cope with toxic experiences growing up, we can develop positive schemas that promote healthy responses to difficult situations. The reality is not everyone is taught how to deal with all our painful experiences and that’s okay. The best we can do is learn and grow so that we can cope in new ways that lead to genuine healing and have fulfilling relationships with people we care about. Generally there are three maladaptive forms of coping that we learn from toxic experiences in childhood: Surrender, Avoidance, and Overcompensation. See if you notice any of these patterns in your relational interactions.


This response is defined by conflict avoidance and excessive people pleasing. This avoidance prevents us from having our needs met in the relationship and we may excuse toxic or abusive behavior toward us in order to maintain the relationship. We essentially ‘surrender’ ourselves and concede to anything the other person wants because we are afraid of losing them. Surrendering may look like someone is a clingy person, but this behavior can be subtle and only arising when there is conflict. So someone may appear easy-going or very flexible to accomodate people whenever possible.


This response is defined by isolation or excessive independence. This isolation leads to addictive or compulsive self-soothing. Surrender and Avoidance are similar. The key difference is that when we are Surrendering we still cling to a person by avoiding conflict, but Avoidance is when we completely drop the relationship all together when we notice problems forming. Surrendering is harmful when we need to maintain healthy boundaries and protect ourselves from toxic dynamics and Avoidance is harmful when we need to engage in intimate relationships with close people.  


This response is defined by complete opposite behavior from what we feel. This extreme behavior may be a way for us to hide different insecurities and fears. If we feel unimportant or dismissed, to overcompensate we may act very arrogant or haughtily. If we feel useless or incapable, we overcompensate by working excessive overtime or taking on many hours of work. If we never feel like we are in control, we will do everything we can in the relationship to grab control.

The first step to changing these schemas is simply noticing them or becoming aware. They can be so deeply rooted in how we think and act that we don’t even recognize when they are happening. Once we begin to see our patterns, we can begin to make direct steps to change or break them. If you’re struggling to notice your schemas or having difficulty breaking harmful patterns, reach out for help. I work with people that need help overcoming their past and walk with them to create new ways of being.


Written by therapist Daniel Pak

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