I have a friend who has a problem with the men she dates. No matter how carefully she chooses, she ends up with men who exhibit the same set of personality flaws — and who have the same tendency to deprive her of what she needs emotionally.
Each time it happens, she thinks she understands how it happened and how to avoid it next time. So she consciously sets out to avoid what she had before and she rationally evaluates what she wants — only to find out that the same essential latent characteristics come out in the next boyfriend. And she has no idea how this keeps happening.
I’ve been thinking about this for several days, starting very early Thursday morning. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:30 a.m., I woke up with a thought and I couldn’t go back to sleep. After turning the thought over in my head again and again for awhile, I decided to type it on my iPhone so I could think about it in the morning. As I was about to type it, I decided to throw it out there to Facebook to see if anybody had any thoughts about it. Here’s what my sleep-adled brain typed from bed:
I wonder whether some of us are more frightened by the prospects of good things happening in our lives than we are of bad things. Not consciously, of course, but do some people become so accustomed to disappointment that the notion of happiness is unconsciously scary?
Since it was so early, I didn’t think anybody would see it or comment on it, but I was mistaken. It seems as though a number of people had interesting thoughts about it. And my mind has been chewing on the issue ever since.
Although my statement of the issue was specifically about people who were so accustomed to being disappointed that they kept unconsciously setting themselves up for bad things, one of my friends restated the matter in a more complete and neutral way:
I think we’re distrustful of anything that will change what we already have. Good or bad don’t really come into it.
Most of us want something different from what we have in one way or another. We might want more money or success. We might want better personal relationships. We might want to feel better about ourselves. We might want happy families. We might want better spiritual lives. There are all sorts of things that different ones of us want. But we mostly end up with more of what we’ve had before. If we’ve lived lives of feeling unloved, we set ourselves up to feel unloved. If we’ve lived lives of financial stress, we set ourselves up to continue barely making ends meet. If we’ve lived lives of being abused and taken advantage of, we set ourselves up to continue bringing people into our lives to abuse us and taken advantage of us.
Most people honestly believe that their conscious, rational decisions are bringing them what they’re getting in life. But I believe we’re ultimately more likely to be going after the things we’re unconsciously programmed to get. If we’re accustomed to a particular thing, we’re already comfortable with that thing — even if we hate it and desperately want to get away from it. If we’re poor, we already know how to be poor. If we have lousy relationships, we already know how to have those — so we keep unconsciously doing things to give us what we already know.
Have you ever noticed how abused women end up with men who abuse them over and over again? On a conscious level, they desperately want something different. They want love and to be treated with respect and understanding, but they don’t know how to allow themselves to be loved. They know how to accept abuse and emotional neglect, so they unconsciously put themselves in the place of recreating what they already know so well.
Although this is ultimately a fear of change, it’s not a conscious fear. It’s an inability to change the thing we’re accustomed to giving ourselves — all because we know how to accept the pattern we already know.
Nearly four years ago, I was going to marry someone I was very much in love with, but something felt wrong. She loved me and I loved her, yet I kept finding things wrong. I kept finding ways to push her away. Still, she loved me and wanted to marry me. A month before we were to marry, I backed out.
I couldn’t explain why exactly. I just knew that something was wrong. My rational brain found all sorts of ways to explain it. I tend to analyze things to death and I can find a reason for almost anything. So I found reasons. It was because there were problems in her, I told myself very sincerely. She did have problems — just as I did — but I understand now that those problems were just my excuse to avoid a change in my life that I was afraid of.
When I was growing up, my mother abandoned my family because of some issues that she had and because of the way my father treated her. It’s a complicated matter, but the key is that I grew up feeling abandoned by my mother. Now let’s go back to my situation almost four years ago. I backed out of marrying a brilliant and beautiful woman who I was madly in love with — and who was a perfect match for me in many important ways — for reasons that didn’t quite make sense. After that, I kept her in my life, but I wouldn’t commit myself to her, always thinking that I’d have to see what changed in time.
Eventually, she gave up on me. As soon as she did, I realized what a mistake I’d made, but it was too late. Without warning, she abandoned me. I created the situation. My past created the script. I played my part — unconsciously — to ensure that I would be abandoned. And that’s what happened. I know what it feels like to be abandoned by the woman in my life I most love. I learned that from my mother. And I unconsciously set myself up to repeat it — because the alternative was to be happy and loved. I couldn’t do that, because I didn’t know how to be happy and I didn’t know how to let myself be loved.
As soon as I realized what I’d done to myself, I went into counseling to figure out the reasons. They’re too complex to try to go into here, but for the purpose of this conversation, I’ll just say that I was unconsciously playing out old patterns that I was comfortable with, even though I hated them. I had to do a lot of reading, thinking and soul-searching to deal with some issues and come to terms with what I’d done, but I learned a lot about myself.
I had to figure out that it was OK to be loved and that it’s OK to allow myself to be happy — that it’s OK to allow something different than what had been given to me in my childhood programming. That’s not an easy thing to do.
I’m a big believer in using logic and analytical ability to get what we want — and to take reasonable risks (and sometimes even unreasonable ones) to get the things that are most important to us. But I’ve come to understand that there’s something even more fundamental than our rational minds controlling a lot of what we do. There are an infinite number of factors to consider and an infinite number of ways to arrange the facts to analyze them. If we have unconscious programming that’s controlling what we’re doing, we’re going to unconsciously make “rational” decisions that bring us to the same old places of pain and familiarity.
So what about you? Are you getting the same things in your life over and over again? Are you seeing variations of a pattern that sees you not quite letting your needs be met — and making changes that you logically believe are going to finally meet your needs, only to find that you’ve stuck yourself in another variation of the same old familiar pattern? Maybe you need to make some changes — but I can almost assure you that you’ll find “rational” reasons why change isn’t possible in your case.
For me, the change couldn’t come until I reached the rock bottom of misery. My pride and confidence in my rational mind were so great that I couldn’t admit my mistakes and learn how to fix them. Maybe that’s why most of us continue doing the same things over and over — because we never get to the point that the pain of living this way is greater than the perceived pain of making the change that we need.
Although I’ve learned a lot about myself and my own patterns in the last four years, it’s something I still have to struggle with. I know how to live certain ways that I don’t like. I know how to be certain things that I don’t like. The process of reshaping ourselves to be what we want to be isn’t easy or quick. But until we learn the root causes of what we’re continually doing to ourselves, I’m not sure that we really know how to climb out of the holes that we keep digging deeper and deeper for ourselves.
I reached the point that the pain of continuing to live that way was too great. Change is painful, but lack of change is frequently far worse.