Everybody knows that actions have consequences, but we don’t often think about how those consequences can build on each other, leading to bigger and more frequent problems. If you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over, you might be caught in a feedback loop—a cycle in which an action you take has a negative consequence that increases the likelihood of the same consequence happening again. One mistake builds on the next. The good news is that by recognizing you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of negative behavior, you can take steps to free yourself and build healthier habits.

How Feedback Loops Work and Why We Get Stuck in Them

When you’re caught in a negative feedback loop, it can be difficult to recognize that you’re stuck because your emotions and attention might be scattered and distracted, preventing you from seeing your situation clearly.

Someone in a continual state of stress or trauma will likely never see the opportunities right in front of them. Even if they can see the opportunities, because of the lack of self-confidence, they will be unable to take advantage of them. This makes them craft out a tiny, small life for themselves, all the while complaining, moaning, criticizing, and judging themselves and others who’ve taken the time to build inner and outer self-esteem.

For example, a shy teenager lacking in confidence is probably going to have trouble establishing an interpersonal, romantic relationship. If they try approaching someone and are rejected because they’re lacking confidence, that is only going to further reinforce their false beliefs about themselves and create a negative feedback loop, which must be interrupted or broken for this teenager to thrive in interpersonal, romantic relationships.

The shy teenager thinks about his skillset, and because he’s a good swimmer, he decides to become a lifeguard. This will also provide him with the confidence to interact with others from a position of authority and put him in contact, however peripherally, with girls. It will also provide him a source of income, which allows him to understand cause and effect at a greater level, which breeds confidence from the inside out through the process of building inner self-esteem.

He takes steps to improve his confidence, like keeping a job, ensuring the safety of others, and trusting his own skills. Before long, he’s able to approach girls and talk with the confidence that once held him back. He’s broken and interrupted the negative feedback loop. The self-esteem he established, in fact, can now bleed into all other aspects of his life.

Escaping a Feedback Loop

However, now that you know how negative feedback loops work, you can look at your own behaviors and determine if they’re compounding on each other. Has your confidence suffered recurring blows like the boy from the example? Maybe you’ve yelled at a partner in anger, which led to increased tension and more fights. Or perhaps you were stressed about a large work project, which led you to procrastinate, which exacerbated your stress further.

Regardless of which negative behavior you repeat, once you recognize the problem, you can look for chances to address it. The boy in the example above saw a chance to raise his confidence by taking a job with a high level of responsibility. You need to look for similar opportunities to counteract your negative behaviors.

If you’re afraid of flying, don’t make your anxiety worse by holding your breath as you board a flight; focus on breathing slowly. Remind yourself that flying is safer than driving instead of imagining all the ways the plane could crash. Redirect your stress pattern before it spirals downward into a panic attack.

By strengthening positive and opposite emotions, you can free yourself from your negative feedback loop and stop making the same old mistakes that reinforce the old neuro pathways that limit your beliefs and hold you back from experiencing a greater depth of your potential.