Are you always falling head over heels for the same players? Being walked over at work? Drinking too much despite telling yourself every week you’re going to cut down? Never following through with your latest plan to get fit?
Making the same mistakes time and time again can get really frustrating.
To make matters worse, the answer doesn’t seem to lie in self-awareness alone.
In fact, the more aware we become of our patterns the more we might move towards self-blame, shifting ‘*Why does this keep happening to me?’ to ‘Why do I keep doing this?’
Not only is this fruitless, but it also underestimates the difficulty of breaking deeply ingrained habits. Pattern loops are a whole lot more complicated than they first seem.
You’re better off blaming that noggin of yours.
Your brain is literally working all day so it forms habits to save effort. Really, who can blame it for wanting to catch a break?
Once a behaviour turns automatic, the decision-making part of the brain can go into a sleep-like state and save its much-needed energy for newer experiences it deems more important.
When we do something repetitively it gets etched into our neural pathways. This is all well and good - except for one thing - the brain doesn’t decipher between good and bad habit forming. This means that neural pathways are created for both positive and negative behaviours (depending on where you put your focus).
The brain simply sees a repeated action - whatever it is - and creates a pattern so it can automate the appropriate response for next time.
This means that breaking old habits requires a lot more work than simply setting an intention and hoping for the best (yes, new year’s resolutions, we’re looking at you!)
It requires a complete overhaul of your brain’s patterns.
Contemporary psychoanalysis is based on a theory called Object Relations. It centres around the idea that the dynamic of our relationships growing up can provide us with clues to the patterns we repeat later in life.
Here’s an example.
You didn’t have much of a father figure growing up. Maybe he physically wasn’t around for you, or perhaps he just wasn’t emotionally available and shut you down whenever you tried opening up to him. Despite seeking a warm, loving relationship, in later life you find yourself entangled with various versions of Mr. Avoidant.
Although on a conscious level you might want a healthy, secure relationship, your first attachments set a precedent for what you expect. In other words, you subconsciously set out to fulfil your own rejection anxieties in an attempt to “fix” them or because that is simply what you perceive love to be.
Moreover, we might even “cast” people in these roles and behave very erratically which in turn actually causes the kind of behaviour we expect - in effect, fulfilling our own prophecy.
Let’s say we had a controlling mother growing up. We might go through life subconsciously expecting everyone to act this way. In an attempt to preempt this, we might behave rather chaotically with those closest to us, creating a kind of ripple effect. In other words, through our behaviour, we might end up backing people into responding in the way we expect.
It is thought that these patterns are largely subscious. So if you keep finding yourself in perpetual Groundhog Day, it’s worth digging a bit deeper. One of the key things to look out for is any behaviour that feels out of character. Maybe you’re generally quite obliging but you get unusually angry and triggered when you’re given feedback at work. Or you’re in a loving, open relationship but find yourself waiting anxiously by the phone worried about what your partner is up to whenever you’re apart.
Write it down. Acknowledging that a pattern is unhealthy is an important first step. Once something’s down on paper it’s harder to ignore and sweep under the carpet.
Uncover your triggers. Triggers can be hard to identify because they are imprinted on us from a young age. But a good clue can be found in extreme emotional responses to things that might otherwise be trivial e.g. Your partner is running late to dinner and you have a meltdown, convinced that it means they don’t love you.
Study your motivations. What lies underneath? What are the thoughts and feelings associated with your triggers? Do you feel angry, rejected, scared?
Celebrate your victories. It’s easy to beat ourselves up when we start noticing our self-sabotaging ways. But as we begin to cognitively understand some of the reasons for our behaviour, we should naturally come to a place of forgiveness. Negative patterns don’t get created just for the hell of it. They tend to be adopted as protection mechanisms, the best way we’re able to cope at that given time.
Ask “What am I afraid of?” Fear of failure can be a huge driving force for negative patterns of behaviour. Questioning our biggest fears can lead the way to big answers. Sometimes the fear of failure can be so overpowering that we purposefully shoot ourselves in the foot as a way of maintaining control.
Not all fuck-ups are created equal. But remember this: one thing they do have in common is that they all allow space for growth. We can’t change the past but we can work on ourselves for a better future. Speaking to a therapist can help you get to the root of your issue and make the necessary changes in order to break free of old, harmful patterns and move forward in healthier ways.