I eat too much each Thanksgiving and I did it again this year. I’m stuffed this evening and I feel as though I could pass out and sleep until tomorrow.
It’s uncomfortable, but there’s something vaguely comforting about it, too. Since I do this every year — always with plenty of turkey and dressing and gravy — there’s something familiar about this. So there’s a paradoxical way in which this slight physical discomfort and drowsy feeling bring me emotional comfort.
It feels good because it feels normal. Something in me is vaguely satisfied with the discomfort because it feels like what I expect.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this tendency to be attracted to what feels normal to us. I’ve concluded that this inner mechanism sometimes gives us what we need and other times leaves us stuck in situations that are unhealthy for us — but it’s hard for us to tell which is which, because all we know is that staying in this comfort zone feels right.
That can lead us into celebrating healthy traditions with people we love. But it can also lead us to keep ourselves trapped in places we don’t need to be, simply because something dysfunctional and unhealthy can feel so right — because it’s all we know.
It makes sense that we are programmed — at a deep level of our genes — to keep doing things in whatever way has allowed us to survive in the past. Especially in the years when making a slightly wrong decision could mean death for us — and our entire family or tribe — there was a huge advantage in doing things the same way that had worked before. So it’s easy to understand why our history rewarded those who stuck to familiar ways of doing things.
Although that practice might have allowed us to survive, it also left us unwilling to take certain chances. It left us with a tendency to repeat what seemed normal to us even when doing so was destructive in some other way. But as long as it allowed those people to survive, nature rewarded those genes by allowing them to reproduce, while the risk-takers sometimes did well — and other times got wiped out.
Doing things the safe way was the path which was most likely to be rewarded by the genetic lottery.
This tendency to stick with whatever we know even leads us to lie to ourselves. We say we want originality — and we say we want the love and joy that part of our mind fantasizes about — but what we are drawn to is a formula. We become accustomed to certain things in our lives, and we find ourselves gravitating back toward the patterns we know.
This is why formulaic movies and television shows are so successful. We are drawn to the formula that we know — and we can actually be outraged when the pattern changes. I’ve recently been rewatching every episode of the Columbo detective series which starred Peter Falk. If you’ve ever seen that old show, you know the formula. There’s a pattern by which the clever and self-effacing detective outwits smart and powerful murderers.
But in the later episodes of the show, the producers and writers had a couple of episodes that completely broke the formula. The homicide detective whose methods we know so well is suddenly going undercover and carrying a gun. Parts of the 90-minute episode seem more like an action drama. It felt completely wrong. I hated it.
The writing for the episode was fine. The acting was fine. Everything about it was done quite well. It’s simply that it didn’t follow the long-established formula that we expect from Columbo. It might have been a good movie for another character, but my mind rebelled at it being Columbo. I wanted what I was familiar with.
We do the same things in the rest of our lives. We are drawn to relationships that mirror the ones we’ve already had or the ones we’ve already seen modeled for us, even if we consider them to be something other than what we really want.
If we’ve grown up with dysfunctional relationships modeled for us, we might consciously want better and more healthy relationships, but we end up being drawn to relationships that are dysfunctional. Why? Because those unconsciously feel normal to us. Even if we can’t explain it, we stick with abuse or dysfunction — all because we’ve grown accustomed to this unhappiness. We then make excuses to stick with this unhappy familiar pattern.
I’ve seen myself slip into such patterns in various parts of my life. I’ve stayed in dysfunctional relationships longer than I should have, simply because something about it seemed comfortable. I’ve stayed in job situations far longer than I should have, long after I knew I needed to move on and do something I cared about more.
When you’re in the middle of your decision-making, it can be hard to tell the difference between being prudent and simply finding excuses to stay with what you already know. I’m certainly good at justifying the safe choice — staying in my comfort zone — and I’ll bet you do the same thing, even if you lie to yourself about it.
I have some things I desperately need to break out of right now. There are some things in my career about which I’ve allowed autopilot — taking the easy and obvious route — to keep me from taking obvious and necessary chances. There are some changes I need to make in my living situation. What started as a smart short-term solution can easily turn into a permanent quagmire just because it’s easy to stay. And I have to force myself to quit loving where I’m not going to get anything in return. Unfortunately, I know how to live with a broken heart — so I end up accepting rejection and misery as normal.
In the Hebrew book of wisdom that we call Proverbs, there’s a verse which says, “A fool doing some stupid thing a second time is like a dog going back to its vomit.” (Proverbs 26:11, Good News Translation.) It’s a graphic comparison, but it’s similar to what our lives are full of. We keep doing stupid things time after time — returning to mistakes which part of us knows are vomit, metaphorically — but we do it because it feels familiar. And that makes it seem normal.
It requires a lot of courage to reject this instinct for staying with what feels normal. Some people are never able to find that courage, so they keep going through the same patterns of mistakes over and over and over. Others find ways to break free and make wiser choices.
I’ve always prided myself on thinking independently and being willing to turn from my mistakes, but sometimes I fool myself.
Tonight, I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving food, mostly because this is a lifelong habit. It’s probably not a terrible habit. It’s not one that’s going to keep me from being what I need to be.
But there are other things about which I have been fooling myself — or at least trying — and those are the areas where I need to change. I get tired of constantly realizing the ways in which I need to change, but I guess it’s better than the alternative of not even knowing.
In some key ways, I have to step out of my comfort zone. It’s difficult, though, because some of those things I need to do don’t fit my patterns, so they don’t feel normal.
In so many ways, I’m like that dog who keeps coming back to the same old vomit.