Vicious Cycles, Bad Habits and Self-fulfilling Prophecies:
Why Do We Keep Making The Same Mistakes?

Glenn Brynes, M.D.

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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Carol Watkins, M.D.
Glenn Brynes, Ph.D., M.D.
Rita Preller, LCSW-C

Copyright 2004  Northern County Psychiatric Associates
Last modified: December 14, 2004