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How to Recognize and Change Toxic Behavioral Patterns

Patterns generally involve repetitive action, a task or behavior engaged in frequently, often without giving it much thought. Much daily behavior is fairly automatic, an activity done so many times that it feels comfortable and there’s no inherent harm in it. Or, it’s a behavior that we’re reluctant to change because of a reward associated with it. Toxic behavioral patterns are also often automatic, don’t necessarily present themselves as inherently harmful, and they’re more likely to continue due to the associated reward. 

Some patterns have caused trouble in the past, are currently contributing to problems at home, work or elsewhere, yet it may be difficult to recognize and change them. And it’s necessary to be able to recognize behavioral patterns that are toxic before deciding on ways to halt and change them. 

Even when we recognize toxic behavior, we’re still reluctant to change. We may want to change, yet remain fearful of doing so. Getting past fears of the unknown may be an insurmountable obstacle. Hearing from others that change is good and should be embraced does little to mitigate such fear. The truth is that overcoming fear is a uniquely personal process

Still, listening to the recommendations of others about what worked effectively for them can be very helpful in motivating those resistant to change to embark on such self-improvement. Indeed, sometimes it is only after hearing this type of encouragement that true change can begin. 

So, recognizing toxic behavioral patterns is the initial step to take before doing anything about them. After recognizing patterns, it’s easier to make informed decisions about what to do in the future.

What Constitutes a Pattern?

How do you know when some personal action is part of an overall pattern of behavior? This involves detachment, stepping back and seeing the behavior from the eyes of others. There’s also the kind of detachment that comes after time. When it’s been months or years since that last behavioral incident, it’s easier to see where and how such behaviors fell into a toxic pattern.

While exercising detachment is difficult, there are easier ways to be able to differentiate patterns.

Is it a habit or a pattern? A few examples may be helpful. If you do something every day, automatically, it’s probably a habit. This can include having a cup of hot coffee on waking up, or going for a latte at lunch or break. 

Of course, past habits are things you’re very well aware of, as in a drug and alcohol habit that crossed over into substance abuse and possibly addiction or alcohol use disorder. It wasn’t a once in a while action. It was all the time and the habit took over your life, to the point where you felt you couldn’t exist without it. Or, you may be an almost-alcoholic and want to change that toxic behavior.

For example, when someone comes off an alcoholic or drug-induced high, their habit of using required a certain pattern of behavior when they needed to search for their drug of choice to use again. The pattern then became engrained. The person did it because they had to, because there was no other way to satisfy their incessant need and desire to use.

Bottom line, then, a pattern is behavior that we return to time after time, that we do without necessarily thinking about. When it comes to recognizing patterns, what’s important is figuring out how to eliminate those that result in negative consequences and adopt those that prove beneficial to well-being.

Good News, Bad News

It may come as a shock to realize that something you thought was good for you is actually just the opposite. There’s good news and bad news in this recognition. On the one hand, you know what you thought was good was possibly something that you conned yourself into believing. Maybe you thought it would be good for you because it was good for someone else, and you adopted the behavior in the hope that you’d have the same sort of success.

Blind adherence to any idea is never wise. It takes careful thought beforehand and rigorous analysis afterward to be able to determine if a pattern of behavior is right for you. 

Where to Begin

Consider making a list of current behaviors that constitute a pattern. It helps to take notes that to use later as reference.

Make two separate sheets, one each for good and bad behavior patterns. Or, simply list the behaviors and see if they fall into patterns. Then, assign them either a positive or negative value. 

What this value means is not whether or not you like the behavior. You liked getting high, correct? That didn’t mean it was a positive behavior pattern. No, here the positive or negative value refers to whether it enhances or detracts from your life.

An example of a pattern of toxic behavior is taking on too much at work. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to take care of your family and your responsibilities, when you find yourself constantly taking on new assignments, asking for more responsibility at work and neglecting other aspects of your life, this is a red flag that should signal trouble ahead. 

Maybe you weren’t a workaholic before, but this pattern of behavior is symptomatic of the characteristics of a workaholic. When your time is all taken up with work and work-related tasks, there’s little time left for anything else.  As a result, stress levels increase, tension builds and productivity wanes. Working harder and longer becomes less satisfying. 

Who to Turn to

Once you have your list of patterns, especially the ones you want to change, what should you do with it? Who is the best person to turn to for help sorting it all out?

There are several suggestions, any one or all of which may be appropriate for your situation.

  • Your spouse or loved ones – Your spouse and/or loved ones and family members are the logical first choice here. These are the people who know and care about you the most. They should be the most supportive of your efforts and may be intimately involved in some of the behavior patterns you want to change.
  • Your therapist – Definitely take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the kinds of behavior that you want to change with your counselor or therapist. As an objective professional, the therapist is better able to point out observations about particular behaviors that you may not have thought of or to draw parallels to other behaviors previously discussed. The counseling session is also confidential, which should allay fears.
  • Your boss – In some instances, changing patterns of behavior will require that you have certain discussions with your boss or supervisor at work. Obviously, you’ll want to think very carefully about how you approach this individual, including what and when and where you schedule such a discussion. Keep in mind that your employer wants you to be as productive as you can, since this is a business and business demands productivity to be successful. Couch your discussion along the lines of how you can both meet your needs — and what you can do to help. 

Running into Resistance

What if you can’t make any headway because of resistance? Some toxic behavioral patterns may not be able to be addressed overnight. While recognizing something that needs to change is critical, it’s still a long way from doing the work to ensure the change occurs. 

Exercise patience. Be willing to do the work and not get disappointed and frustrated when things don’t immediately resolve. Life can get messy, complicated and tough to figure out. That’s another benefit of maintaining a strong support network, having people to turn to in times of difficulty.

It’s also important to understand internal reluctance to change. 

Celebrate Success

It is also incredibly valuable to celebrate the small successes after you make those important changes.

Recognize that not every change will be earth-shattering. It doesn’t need to be in order to qualify as a success. If it’s important to you, it’s important to your well-being

Acknowledge your achievements. Give yourself a little credit for what you’ve done and then look at the next item on the list and get back to work. Success builds upon success. With momentum, it’s easier to keep moving forward.

How to Recognize and Change Toxic Behavioral Patterns


Suzanne Kane

Suzanne Kane is a Los Angeles-based writer, blogger and editor. Passionate about helping others live a vibrant and purposeful life, she writes daily for her website, www.suzannekane.net. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central. You can reach her at [email protected].


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APA Reference
Kane, S. (2020). How to Recognize and Change Toxic Behavioral Patterns. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-recognize-and-change-toxic-behavioral-patterns/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Mar 2020 (Originally: 25 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Mar 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.