My patient sounded bewildered.
“It was like I was watching myself going through the motions – repeating the same old pattern.”
He’d just broken up for the umpteenth time with a woman he’d been dating for over a year.
“It’s always the same thing. I do something nice for her. Then she tries to do something for me, but I freak out, and insist she doesn’t like me. Then I do something mean, like flirt with someone else in front of her, just to prove she doesn’t like me, and she gives up and we break up again. So we’re back where we started, and I do something nice again, and off we go. Eventually, even the women who hang on give up. Then I find someone else and start over.”
He was caught in an endless loop – around and around and around. The same thing had played out with every women before this one.
Freud might have called this a “repetition compulsion.” I’ve heard other therapists refer to it as a “learned behavior.”
Whatever it is – it’s very common. Left to your own devices – in other words, acting unconsciously – you will keep doing the same thing over and over again.
What you’re doing is replaying a pattern you learned as a child – clinging to it because no one has woken you up and made you ask yourself what on earth you’re doing.
My patient’s father was a frustrated scientist, trapped in a humiliating job, deeply insecure, very unstable. My patient tried to please him by doing well in school, winning science prizes, trying to be the son he wanted.
Initially, the father would seem pleased and proud.
Then, once my patient allowed himself to relax in his father’s acceptance, disaster would strike.
The father would swing back into a frustrated rage – and take it out on his son.
It probably had nothing to do with the boy – it was the father’s own anger at his work situation – but the effect was devastating.
The pattern played out over and over again. The son would over-achieve, and believe he’d won his father’s approval – then, as he relaxed into acceptance, the old man would turn on him with vicious criticism.
My patient learned it was okay to give his father – or any person – what they wanted. But he could never relax and let down his guard. That’s when the inevitable turn-around came. He expected it – and braced himself for it – so he’d never again get caught by surprise.
You’ve probably heard of “Pavlov’s dogs.”
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist who performed a series of experiments on dogs at the end of the 19th century. One of his chief discoveries was the “conditioned response.” When a dog – or a person – is trained through repetition to expect an outcome from a certain set of variables, it is difficult to un-train that expectation. It becomes a reflex.
Pavlov trained his dogs to expect to be fed when he rang a bell. Eventually, just ringing the bell would make the dogs salivate, as they came to predict food was coming when they heard it. The bell and the food were firmly linked in their brains.
That’s what happens with people when they get stuck in a loop, like my patient.
He learned he could please his father briefly, but his father’s acceptance would soon be followed by a mood reversal and attacks.
Now, with his girlfriends, he once again sought to please, but then shut down. He was certain the old pattern would play out, so he refused to let them get close.
The problem was obvious: my patient was not a dog – and his girlfriends were not his father.
The instinct that once protected him from the pain of his father’s rages now sabotaged his chances at a healthy relationship. To shed this old conditioned response, he needed to become aware of it.
A psychotherapist doesn’t change you. He creates awareness. If I show you a pattern of behavior that’s not working for you, you’ll figure out how to change it on your own.
If I tell you that you’re standing in a pot of water over a fire, you’ll jump out of the pot.
I show you the situation – you handle the fix.
There’s something psychotherapists call “the observing ego” – it’s like a little guy who sits on your shoulder and watches you from the outside. He represents self-awareness.
My patient was developing an observing ego. He kept having “deja vu” moments. He’d been down this path before, and he knew it.
Now he wanted to change the old pattern – and try going someplace new.
I’ve worked with enough patients over the years to recognize that human beings are flexible – they change. When I meet someone I haven’t seen in a long time, I suspend expectations, because I know people are moving targets.
You can change, too. You don’t have to walk in circles forever.
If you spot a pattern that feels like a loop, take a turn and head someplace new. At least you’ll know it’s really you at the controls – not one of Pavlov’s dogs.