I’ve been lucky enough to have some close friends in my life, who have grown up together and acted as one another’s mirrors over the years. It’s a great comfort remembering the times when we were all so much softer, still experimenting with our boundaries physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Recently, though, I have run into a rough patch with one friend–and though this time, I don’t plan on letting the coolness persist, I was eerily reminded of a similar episode back in the day. It is as though we have grown and matured in the past near decade, and yet most of our problems are exactly the same.
I would like to think that I’ve suffered and matured in equal measure, but to be honest I’m above all guilty of negative patterns. (So basically, I’ve suffered a lot more than I’ve matured…ugggh….) My biggest struggles and demons still tend to come in uncannily familiar shapes. It’s the same way for my friends, too, whether it is dysfunctional family issues, anxiety and self-doubt, always falling for the same type of wrong man (there is a lot of this), not being able to find someone who commits to you, or yourself not being able to commit. Usually these types of negative patterns are not as noticeable as other unhealthy habits, like poor diet, smoking, heavy drinking or drugs. We all appear to be (and largely are) high-achieving, high-functioning adults. So why do we continue to experience the same basic problems, over and over again?
While I don’t have this question completely figured out, here are some things I keep in mind in the process.
1. “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” (Pema Chodron).
This is in line with the story of Milarepa’s cave, which has taught me about submitting humbly to your demons instead of insisting on your self-righteousness. Instead of treating your issues as something you need to control and expel (a soul-draining task), observe them without judgment. If the same issues return, perhaps you haven’t learned fully from the last time–and so you say hello again. There is a reason for this yet.
2. Get under the layers and honestly examine the underlying causes.
Let’s say you always fall for the wrong kind of suitor, like someone much older or maybe even married. You may feel that this is just your type, or rather that you do nothing but that they pursue you. But if you’re truly being honest, you would find that the real reason you stay stuck in this unhealthy pattern is not because the attraction just keep happening upon an unassuming you. You have a very active part in this. Of course, something with an unhealthy edge is naturally more thrilling than a more anodyne relationship, but it might be that you enjoy the drama, the heartache, and the pain even more. (La douleur exquise! Oh the exquisite pain.) Again, observe this craving without judgment. Are you truly willing to accept the trade-offs (guilt, frustration, etc) for that high?
Or perhaps you’ve always had dysfunctional family issues. You’ve always been the responsible one in your family so it falls on you to police and support everyone. No one seems to understand that you have your needs, too–but what’s really stopping you from changing this pattern? Are you allowing this pattern to repeat itself because it makes you feel needed? Think honestly about what you really want and the trade-offs.
3. Take the vice out of your self-image.
We become incredibly attached to our issues and demons as a vital part of our self-image. In high school, for instance, some kids used to steal, smoke, and drink–and if you remember, none of them were hiding these things, but talking about them rather proudly. And though we’re grown now, it’s not much more different. In some sense we remain proud of our worst flaws and weaknesses.
Doing something you know you shouldn’t, or indulging an unhealthy habit, gives you a “selling point” about yourself–something to remember and talk about yourself. In order to embrace change, however, you need to detach your “true” identity from the “false” identity made of your flaws. You’re not an “anorexic,” “addict,” “homewrecker,” “liar” or what have you. Your truth doesn’t contain whatever it is that burdens you; it is made of positive, lightness, and compassion for yourself and others.
Finally, to understand your truth, remember this: “At the center of your being you have the answer: you know who you are and you know what you want.” (Lao Tzu).
Have you ever observed negative pattern tendencies in yourself or in others? What helps you cope with them? (Please share!)
Photo: Send me adrift via Flickr