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This blog is about---You! Each and every post is about you. Use it to challenge your usual patterns, as a tool for self-discovery, to stimulate your thinking, to learn about yourself and to answer your questions about others.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Repeating History and Expecting a Different Outcome

We all do it
 "Remember the old Chinese handcuffs thing," a friend reminds me when I get stuck doing the same thing over and over, even though whatever I'm doing doesn't work.

A Chinese handcuff is a toy, a small bamboo tube, about four inches long. You stick an index finger in each end. Then when you pull, you're trapped. The harder you pull, the more stuck you get. Your instinctive reaction, not the handcuffs, keeps you trapped. To set yourself free you have to take certain steps. Letting go isn't enough. You have to relax, then gently push in before you can pull yourself loose.

Sometimes taking action means relaxing and doing the opposite of what our instincts tell us to do. If we have tried to do something a hundred times, and the way we're doing it hasn't worked, it probably still won't the next time. It may be time to try something else.  From Hazeldon publications, courtesy of Christian Jackson.
  Here is a situation that we come across in the therapy office often.  And we are all subject to it, aren't we.  We develop habits over time; the habits evolve into patterns.  And so, we repeat the same coping mechanisms, the same attitudes and approaches, the same interpersonal style, the same problem solving process and ways of dealing with what comes up in life, even when it isn't working.
Sometimes a coping process was created because it was, in fact, effective for you---at an earlier time of life, or, for a different set of circumstances.  And yet, like draught horses, we continue repeating our determined walk down the same old path or, worse yet, around the same circle.  
This is where your natural human ability to be creative can be put into play.  When you notice that a problem in your life is persisting, despite your dauntless efforts to solve it, it's time to rethink your actions. This requires self-observation.  Or, you can ask others what they see you doing.  But, in this case, you will have to work with yourself to be ready to accept their feedback as constructive.  Let's be honest, neither of these start tips is easy.  However, repeating a behavior that is undermining your goal is worse I think.
Those ruts we get in can be pretty deep.  I've seen people in therapy work and struggle with a problem and finally change what they are doing, only to fall back into the same old rut.  It's a slippery slope! 
It may take many tries.  (Circumambulation is a post that talks about the process of repeatedly returning to a sticky topic in the course of therapy:  But the reward at the end is true change, not to mention a problem solved.  Or, even if the problem still isn't completely solved, it will have shifted.  That shifting jostles all the old patterns out of place and leaves room for more movement, improvement and potential for resolution.  
I especially like the 3rd paragraph in the quote at the beginning of this post.  It reminds me of how the Buddhists think.  It sounds like something Pema Chodron would say.  It makes me remember when, years ago, for a brief time I lived in an area where it snowed in the winter (Utah).  I was given the advice that if you were driving and got into a spin, to go with it rather than trying to stop it with your brakes. 
Don't be stubborn.  Don't close your mind.  These attitudes, while they might feel temporarily safe, usually don't serve you well. 
If you make, even an internal shift, not consciously changing your behavior, the other parts of the problem cannot, by logic, stay the same.  Think about it.
              Do you feel encouraged by this post?


  1. After several experiences on the client/patient side of CBT, I can strongly attest to the misery - and self-awareness gained - from repeating the same thing expecting different results (a.k.a the definition of "insanity" within the AA culture).

    An important person in my life passed along a very short poem, "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters" by Portia Nelson. I love the imagery of progression from ignorance, denial, acknowledgement, breaking the old pattern, and then finally to starting a new pattern.

    I: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost ... I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes me forever to find a way out.

    II: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. But it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

    III: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in ... it's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

    IV: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

    V: I walk down another street.

    1. Constant Facade: Thank you for this very clear rendition of the concept I wrote about in this post, simple but excellent. We need ways to think about this idea because change isn't easy. Usually good,but not easy.