“It happened again!”
“Why do I keep doing this?”
“What’s wrong with me?”
As the saying goes, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this. But, to be honest, I’d have to give each of those nickels back because of how many times I’ve said something like that in my own life.
Why do we keep repeating behaviors or patterns that don’t help, and sometimes make things worse?
What is wrong with us? The simple answer is that there is nothing wrong with us. We’re human.
This is a topic that shows up in my office over and over again. It’s something I understand, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or painful to the person dealing with it.
When I’m working with this type of issue, I like to start with the general and then dial down to the specific. To start, let’s look at where those behaviors or patterns come from.
We all have a “system” within us. The purpose of this system is to gather information from our experiences and compares it with what we have already learned. Then it develops a hypothesis about what that information says about how the world works. Next it develops behaviors based on that hypothesis so that the “system” can achieve its primary goal: to keep you safe. I know, pretty wordy, but being aware of this system is important to understanding how to change our behaviors.
I like to use this analogy:
You’ve seen on the news that a big storm is coming and that the river is expected to flood at record heights. You go out and start building sandbag walls around your home so that the flood waters cannot reach you.
Every day you go out and inspect the walls. You check for any sign of leaks. You make little repairs to any part of the wall that seems to be crumbling.
And you are successful. The flood waters never reached your home! You have great faith, and maybe even some pride, in the wall you built. You kept your home safe!
But, what you don’t know, is that the flood waters receded long ago. The sun is shining. There are beautiful flowers blooming everywhere in the nutrients left behind by the flood. There are people joining together, sharing stories and appreciation for common struggle they have been through. But, you don’t know any of that. You are still maintaining your sandbag walls.
Are the sandbag walls bad? No. Is there something wrong with you for building those walls? No. In a moment in time, in a moment of need, you found a solution to keep you safe. And it worked! It makes sense to keep using something that works.
But, things have changed. The need is no longer there. That moment in time has passed.
Does that mean that you should get angry at the walls and just destroy them? It might feel good for a moment, but it also might feel like you did something wrong for building them in the first place.
I suggest treating the walls with gratitude and kindness. Thank them for keeping you safe when you needed them. You can share what has changed and why do don’t need them anymore. And, if you don’t want to just get rid of them, you can store them away, in case you do ever need them again.
I try to remember that each of our behaviors, habits, or patterns started out with the intention of taking care of us. And the fact that each of us is here seems to indicate that they were successful. That brings up some tender gratitude in me.
I had shared this analogy with a client that was trying to break out of some patterns that here making work very hard for him. At the next session he shared a wonderful insight that he had developed. He said that when he had been viewing the behavior as something that he had to get rid of, it felt like he was saying he was bad. “That behavior came from me, so if it’s bad I must be bad.” “But if I treat it with compassion and gratitude I don’t have to feel bad about it.” “I can trust myself.” That was years ago, but I can still see his face as he said “I can trust myself.” What a beautiful moment!
In an upcoming post I’ll be exploring (“dialing down” how we can find the origin of a behavior and develop the perspective to be able to change it or let it go.