Vicious Cycles: Bad Habit and Self-Fulfiling Prophecies: Why do we keep repeating our mistakes?

Being a creature of

habit does have its benefits. Most of us simplify our lives by making

assumptions about the problems we face. When you figure out how to do something,

it saves time to do it the same way each time rather than to have to start from

scratch each time. For example, if you have to drive somewhere frequently, most

people will find a favorite way of getting there. Most of the time, that way has

some advantages. It is faster, or less likely to be blocked by traffic; or it

may be a more peaceful drive. But from time to time the assumptions fail and it

may then become a poor choice. 

You

can apply assumptions in dealing with possible dangers. That way you can ‘play

it safe’ and steer clear of a hazard by habitually avoiding something that

might be unsafe. Why expose yourself to possible danger? Some people don’t fly

in airplanes because they fear plane crashes. Some people don’t go downtown

for fear of crime.

Making

assumptions about safety seems to provide a way to deal with uncertainty, but

what if the assumptions are wrong. What if they are wrong and you never test

them out? If you fear being chased by a tiger, you can play it safe by never

leaving your home. With such a fear you may never check out or think about the

actual risk. Instead, you stay home and feel safe. You may regret not being able

to do things you would like to do, but would see your restrictions as the

necessary price you pay for safety from tigers. 

When

habits are learned early in life and under stressful circumstances, they may

simply not apply when one grows up into adult life. Worse than this, however is

the tendency to assume that these habits are necessary to life and safety.

An

unfortunately common example might be a child who has an alcoholic parent that

from time to time comes home drunk and irritable. That child may have to deal

with a vital relationship in which the parent can at times be caring, helpful

and loving, but at other times be yelling, out of control and abusive. That

child may learn many lessons of survival: not to show anger and not to trust

others who (sometimes) say they love you. Some children learn to blame

themselves for the abuse in order to feel some sense of control over a scary

situation. Or to protect the parent from their own anger. Or to deny the abuse

and preserve the illusion of a protective and loving parent. As an adult, this

child might appear very eager to please others—submissive even—and may be

quite tolerant of anger and abuse in relationships, perhaps because that is what

they are most familiar with. Their assumption, learned early in life, that

assertiveness is unsafe, is never tested, for fear of rejection. It comes to

seem ‘self-evident’ that other people will not respect their feelings and

will reject or punish them for expressing any dislike for how they are being

treated. Unfortunately, this pattern often tends to solidify itself. Because the

person feels that it is only by being submissive and never angry that they will

be loved, they don’t defend themselves against mistreatment. They allow others

to mistreat them. Thus they re-learn that closeness means mistreatment.

Furthermore, because the person is so tolerant of other people’s anger, they

often get into relationships with the sort of people who treat them the way they

were treated as a child. This tends to reinforce further the belief that this is

just the way relationships must work. Abuse and disrespect seem to be the price

one pays for any kind of closeness. Indeed, if they encounter a loving person,

they may feel very uncomfortable, since love is believed to be unreliable. To

love and feel close to someone else is seen as an invitation to later betrayal

and abuse.

There

are many other kinds of self-validating assumptions.   

  • A

    little girl whose father only paid attention to her when she was ‘cute’

    and otherwise ignored her, may as an adult have a need to seek out men in

    positions of authority and try to gain attention through flirtation. She may

    only feel validated when getting this kind of attention. She may feel

    powerless and dependent, but safe.

  • A

    little boy whose parents were very strict and criticized him often for minor

    errors and imperfections may become an adult who lives a very restrictive

    life, in which anything creative, novel or different is seen as a dangerous

    road to criticism and humiliation. He sticks to things that he is good at,

    and with which he is very familiar. It may be ‘boring’…but it is

    safe. Apart from the obvious restrictions that they place on the individual,

    the largest problem with these assumptions is that they are invisible…they

    appear ‘seamless’. The person who subscribes to these views of the world

    tends to filter all experiences through them. Things that seem inconsistent

    with the assumptions are dismissed (“just because someone does something

    nice, doesn’t mean they won’t betray me later”; “if my boss hasn’t

    criticized me for that mistake, maybe he just hasn’t found out about it

    yet…or maybe he is ‘saving it up’ in order to fire me later”).

    Anything that might be used to prove the assumption is made to fit (“he

    didn’t smile when he walked by…that must mean he’s angry with me”).

But

if these assumptions are so ‘seamless’ and invisible, how can they be

overcome? Why would someone ever come to seek help in changing them? Sometimes

the answer lies in the amount of effort, pain and conflict that faulty

assumptions can cause; the person becomes so anxious or depressed in trying to

adhere to their way of living that they seek help. Other times, the person may

recognize that other people are free of the restrictions they place on

themselves…that others live by different rules.

The

old saying that “for psychotherapy to help, you have to want to change”

means that you have to be willing to reexamine your assumptions about yourself

and the world…to question their validity.

The

work of psychodynamic psychotherapy involves several steps. First, points of

conflict and pain are explored in an attempt to identify the types of situations

and relationships that are problems. Examination of the current problems can

give the outlines of the conflict, even if the underlying assumptions that power

it are not obvious. Exploration of childhood experiences often sheds some light

on how the current problems make sense. For example a man who has stayed with a

wife that seems never to appreciate his accomplishments may recall having had a

mother who was ‘too busy’ or too depressed to recognize his childhood

accomplishments. Knowing more about the original situation in which the

assumptions were made can help you to question the reasonableness of applying

them to the current situation.

The

next step involves breaking the habits that arose from the faulty assumptions.

This step often feels scary. For example, you may understand that you have been

wrong to think that your friends will reject you if you disagree with them, but

it is another matter to test it out by speaking your mind to them about

controversial matters. Indeed ‘old habits die hard’ and it is often

necessary to go through many similar assumption-testing experiences before new

and freer behavior patters feel comfortable.

For

many people, the last step is somewhat open-ended. It involves recognizing the

various, often hidden guises that cloak old habits. For example, a man whose

parents were critical of him, but had plenty of faults of their own might enter

psychotherapy after he has been fired from several different jobs because he has

subtly undermined the authority of his bosses. Once he understands the

connection between his disrespect for authority and his anger at his parents’

hypocrisy, he may be able to avoid losing jobs in the same way. However it may

take some work for him to recognize that his disrespect for the government,

tendency to be a rebel, and fear of becoming a parent himself have the same

roots.

There

is nothing intrinsically wrong with having habits. They only become a problem if

we are unable to examine the underlying assumptions when the habit does not work

to make our life easier. The unquestioned habit is the force that keeps the

vicious cycle rolling.

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