Learned Behaviours

When I was 12, I asked my mother if I could get my ears pierced. All the other girls in my class had their ears pierced, and sure enough, I wanted to fit in and have mine pierced, too. My mother said no. She said if I was meant to have holes in my ears I would have been born with holes in my ears. I was adamant though. I kept asking. I’m fairly certain I was quite annoying with that. I think I even asked for them for my birthday. But the answer was still no. One time, when we were at the shops, I saw a sign for ear piercing and asked again. She screeched to a halt, looked at me with her you-evil-child-how-dare-you-make-me-make-a-scene-just-wait-till-we-get-home eyes, and hissed, “If you want your ears pierced, you can get a job and pay for it yourself. If you want something, get it yourself. I’m not getting you anything.” That was the last time I asked her.

If you want something, get it yourself. I’m not getting you anything.

Sure enough, when I was 14 and nine months (the legal age to start work in Australia), I got myself a job at McDonald’s and started saving. Then, one day as we were in the supermarket, I saw a sign for ear piercing. I walked straight into the store. My mother asked what I was doing. I said that I was getting my ears pierced. She said, “No, you aren’t.” I said, “Yes, I am. You told me to get a job and pay for them myself, so I am.” She continued to tell me that I wasn’t, but I was. And so I did.

The first lesson I learned was that I had to work for what I wanted. And I had to work hard because no one was going to hand it to me. That story is an example of that. My father reinforced that.

Before he left my life when I was a teenager – my parents separated when I was a child, but I would see him on a few weekends here and there – I remember him being summoned to mum’s house because I was in M-A-J-O-R trouble. I don’t remember all the specifics, but I was told later that he was summoned as I had hit my mother and vandalised her car. I had written “I hate you” on the driver’s door. Not a glorious moment for my 15-year-old self.

I remember being banished outside, sitting in the dark, being barefoot as my shoes had been confiscated, and seeing him walk up to me. He said, “What have you got yourself into, Hannie?” I asked if I could live with him. At the time, he was unemployed and had been for a number of years. I’d suspected and had later confirmed that he had problems with alcohol. He told me no. I bawled. I wanted out of that house. He told me that I couldn’t continue as I was. I remember him giving me two pieces of advice that night. First, I had to do everything the opposite of what he’d ever done. And second, I had to always make sure that I worked hard and was never out of work. He said that it would destroy me to be out of work.

That memory is seared in my mind. Not only did I need to take care of myself because no one would but also that I needed to always work hard. I didn’t want to ever be unemployed like my father as it had clearly destroyed him.

Since then, I have always invested my time, effort and energy into work. So much so that it put my health quite seriously at risk earlier this year. That made me pause. It made me think about the expectations that I place on myself. It’s made me consider the thoughts and resulting learned behaviours that my childhood instilled in me.

Another thought or schema – a way of thinking – that I learned and have had reinforced was that of being unlovable.

Last year was one of my worst years in terms of depression and anxiety. I thought I had got my act together and had worked through my inner demons. However, last year taught me that I had barely scratched the surface. A wise person told me that I looked for negatives in relationships, and in doing so, I would never be able to see the good. Or the love. At the time, I disagreed. I thought that this person was emotionally unavailable. I thought that he didn’t really care about me the same way that I felt for him. But of course, when I started to feel deeper feelings for him, that had made me afraid. It made me look for “signs” that he didn’t really care for me. And sure enough, I found signs. I thought that he was just saying that about me because really he was unable to care for me. So in my defence, I told him that he had issues with communicating which made him emotionally unavailable.

Now, I couldn’t be more ashamed of myself.

Over time, I realised that he was absolutely correct. I also realised that he was not emotionally unavailable, and I had no right to say so. The person who was unavailable was me.

That realisation turned my life upside down last year. It made me rethink my relationship with him. It made me rethink all my relationships. For an anxious person, that put me in a rapid downward spiral. I thought that I was self-aware enough to not repeat the mistakes of my parents. But in fact, I had become them.

Rock bottom.

My mother had taught me – told me repeatedly in fact – that all men leave you. I didn’t realise until I was in my early thirties that I had been running away from relationships. I ran away from family, friends and intimate relationships because I ultimately thought that people leave you. I hid from people. I lived by myself. I moved overseas to non-English speaking countries thinking I was trying to find myself. But now I realise that I was making myself an island. My mother had taught me to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself because no one wanted to hear them. So I did. I didn’t open up. I pushed. My father had taught me that people, especially men, leave.

When I was in my early thirties, an ex-boyfriend – another very insightful soul – told me that I had pushed him and never let him in.

So after reflecting on his words and my own related thoughts, I decided to be more open. I revealed myself more to people and started to think that I was becoming a better me. I realised that you have to let people in so they could see the real you. I thought I was doing that. However, my last relationship made me realise that in letting someone in I was becoming afraid that they would leave. It made me overly anxious. It made me search for signs that I couldn’t trust him, which ultimately was the demise of it all. I had no idea that it was a learned behaviour. I had no idea that I’d internalised words and actions of others in my youth and had created my own schemas (everyone leaves and unlovability) and related self-sabotaging behaviours.

Growing up in my household, I always thought there was something wrong with me. I thought that I always did the wrong thing; I was repeatedly told that I did. I felt that my mother had a closer relationship with my two younger siblings, and I was “the difficult one.” I felt that it was always the three of them against me. Naturally, I never had a close relationship with my siblings growing up. It would be years later that I’d discover the word “triangulation” and realise that my mother was an expert in it. It clarified why I always felt that I was the odd one out. On that day that I’d been banished outside, that I’d apparently hit my mother and scratched her car (the car I remember), it was the first time I remember having a panic attack. I had been locked outside. I think it was for fighting with either my brother or sister, or both. I don’t remember that, but I do remember trying to get back inside after my shoes were taken. I thought, “How can I run away without shoes?” I remember trying to unlock the front door with a stick and a hair pin as I’d already worked out how to pick that particular lock. All three – my mother, brother and sister – opened the door and pushed me back. I remember someone saying “Get her.” I remember being pushed onto the ground – in the front yard in front of all the neighbours – and being slapped, punched and kicked. Everywhere. I tried to fight back, but I was pinned. The panic set in. It was when I was kicked in the head and in the face that I managed to free my head, turn and bite the leg that was the closest. I found out later that it was my mother’s. But the biting stopped the attack. They went back inside. I continued laying on the ground with my panic attack. Once my breathing returned to normal, the anger set in. I stood up, found a stick and scratched my mother’s car. I really did hate her then and there.

There are many more stories of feeling outcast and ostracised, but that day sticks with me the most. For the majority of my life, I felt there was something wrong with me that made me unlovable, that made people treat me the way I perceived they did, and that made them leave. My father left. I thought he loved me, but he left. My mother barely tolerated me. I certainly didn’t feel loved by her in the way that other mothers seemed to love their children. I didn’t feel love from my siblings. I looked for signs that reinforced these schemas and surely found them.

Do something you've never done

As adults, we are responsible for our own thoughts and behaviours. I’ve since realised that anything we learn can be unlearned. Our parents – all people really – are the way they are because of their learned behaviours. But I do not want to become my parents. I want to break the cycle. I want to unlearn. I want to stop my self-sabotaging schemas and learned behaviours and become the best version of myself that I can be.


The only way to truly change is to be fully open and honest with myself for the first time in my life. Then, I need to do that with others.

I always thought that everyone leaves you, but that is not true. If you are honest with yourself and others, the right people never do.

I always thought that I was unlovable, but that is also not true. Everyone is lovable. However, the most important person to seek that love from is yourself. If you do not love yourself, how can you expect that from anyone else? How can you know the love that you deserve?

This is my current journey. This year, my goal is to learn to love myself, to find my Rich Inner Life, and that is one of the best goals that I’ve ever set myself.

One thought on “Learned Behaviours

  1. Sounds like you’ve learned a lot and you’re going to be alright if you just focus on the lessons.
    I just found your blog and admire how well you write about your struggles. You will overcome!


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