Why do some people date the same type of person over and over again? Why do some of our families have the same dramatic interactions at every family gathering? Why do kids raised in unstable environments often make the same unhealthy choices when they grow up? In my work looking at systems (couples, families, teams) I see patterns of behavior that seem to defy logic and make me ask, “Why do these people keep making the same mistake? Don’t they know better?!?!”
And that really is a great question. The truth is, no, most people don’t know better. The reason people often make the same mistakes or seem committed to repeating unhealthy behaviors over and over is because they don’t know what to do instead. In essence, they know what they are doing is unhealthy, but they have no idea of what to do that might be healthier. And while our brain is an amazing super computer capable of so many incredible things, it ultimately is very lazy, and it defaults to what it knows, even if what it knows is unhealthy. For example, let’s talk about Jim. Jim was raised by parents who were super conflict avoidant, maybe Jim’s dad was easily emotionally overwhelmed and shutdown and Jim’s mom had undiagnosed anxiety and spent much of her time in her own head with her worries, pretty common example leading to Jim never really seeing how conflict can be resolved in a relationship. Jim dates some, learns about himself, and learns he has a bit of his mom’s anxious behavior and shuts down like his dad did. Jim knows this isn’t great, and so he keeps partnering off with more and more communicative partners. Jim is aware of the issue, knows his part in it, and tries to address it by having a partner who has strengths that complement his weak communication skills. However, even with these partners who communicate well, Jim keeps shutting down when emotional topics come up. He saw it modeled that this isn’t a healthy or helpful behavior, he knows this keeps negatively impacting his relationships, and yet he keeps doing it. Is Jim weak-willed? Is he irreparably broken? Is Jim just a bit of a dolt? Nah, none of those are true! Jim just doesn’t have a blueprint for what healthy communication looks like. He knows what is unhealthy, and knows what he should avoid, but he has no concept of what to do in place of those unhealthy behaviors. And without that blueprint, Jim’s brain defaults to what it knows, even though what it knows is unhealthy.
This can be a pretty vicious cycle, and it’s easy to see how frustrating it can be to know something is bad and still our brain goes back to it over and over. But the problem is insidious, because we are often aware of the problem and we might even feel we are addressing it. But if we don’t address it by building a healthy blueprint, when push comes to shove and our brain is running on limited resources, it will still default to what we know. So, when we’re tired, hungry, overly stressed (or honestly, just regular stressed), our brain can’t problem-solve creatively and goes back to what it knows. This is why we have fire escape plans in buildings, during a high stress moment our brain can’t problem-solve properly, so it defaults to a predetermined plan (same with tornado or, terribly, active shooter drills for school children). So, we need a plan of what to do for our brain to latch onto during high stress times, otherwise it defaults to what it knows.
So, back to our example of Jim. Jim is in therapy, he’s worked through his childhood stuff and knows his family was great in some ways and really bad in other ways, he’s worked through his break-ups and identified his patterns, and his therapist is good but not great so they are working on communication skills. Should solve it for Jim! Except, all those new skills require Jim’s brain to have lots of resources like it does in the calm, safe space of therapy. But when his partner is crying and/or shouting at him, his brain panics and can’t connect the new skills he’s learned to the current context of an argument. His brain knows in arguments how to shut down, so when his brain gets overwhelmed, it just defaults back to the old pattern.
Frustrating, right? And easy to see how Jim might feel super defeated by this. The good news is this is fixable. Skill learning is great, but without any context the brain won’t default to new skills, it will default to old patterns. The context the brain needs to appropriately apply new skills is a clear vision of how an interaction will look, a blueprint for behaviors. By building that blueprint, the brain has a clearly defined plan for how to handle a given situation. Again, think of a fire escape route. Clearly defined so it is easy to follow during a high stress situation. Having a blueprint of not only what we don’t want but also of what we do want is key. Knowing what not to do is half the battle, but you still need to know what to do instead. I mention my mantras often in these posts, but another one of my regulars is “Hope for the best, plan for the worst, somewhere in the middle is most likely.” In that mantra is the idea that you need a clear picture of both what to avoid and what your ideal scenario is, so you can nudge the outcome towards that. Same with blueprints. Find a healthy model of what you need to work on and build your blueprint. Maybe it’s how your best friend handles conflict, maybe it was your neighbors’ parents growing up, maybe it’s Spiderman’s sense of humor under pressure, don’t limit where you can find a healthy model. If there are no real-life examples you can use, then use a fictional character or story. You just need a clear depiction for your brain to follow the blueprint, and then you can practice following the blueprint until it feels natural.