Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Case of the Vicious Cycle

Sometimes I read back through my blogs and I hate them. Honestly, it’s true: at the time I write what I feel in my heart, I write whatever’s on my mind and in doing it, I get it off my chest. There’s always the hope that I will reach out to somebody who needs help in some way, and they’ll read my words and relate to them and feel better, even just a little bit better… or at the very least- I won’t offend anyone!

But sometimes I read back and I think ‘oh god, how self righteous’ or ‘pure cheese’. Saying that, I’ve never, so far, deleted a post because of it, and this is why: it is important to be able to look back on your past with a mixture of pride and shame. If either of those are missing from memories of your life, something’s not quite right. This is how we learn; it’s what stops us from repeating the same hurtful processes over and over.

It’s OK to change your mind about things. It’s OK to think one thing all your life, and then suddenly one day decide that you don’t believe that any more. Personally, as much as I like to think I’m right, I also enjoy being proven wrong! I love to learn, and nobody ever learnt anything by thinking they knew everything already!

Anyway… with that in mind, today I am contemplating the connections between our pasts, presents and futures, focussing on what happens when we get things wrong.

I want to start out by saying this in an almost pleading way, to everyone but I suppose in particular people under the age of about twenty: please don’t let self destructive thoughts and behaviour take control; because it’s not just you NOW that suffers from it- these things have a seriously long-lasting effect and it will take you years to right the wrongs you are doing to yourself.

So, by self destructive I mean anything that focuses on ourselves in a negative way. So that could be, for example: believing we should look different to how we do, believing we should be able to just do things that we find difficult, feeling humiliation because we aren’t socially confident, letting others boss us around and control us in a way that makes us feel worthless, feeling that the world is against us and we are just unlucky, giving up or overreacting when things go wrong, or constantly comparing ourselves to others.

 One thing I love about going back over memories is that you can view your life as a journey with a number of interesting stop-offs. It’s almost like you could draw it out on a map, as if you were marking out a route using string, putting pins in at certain points: here’s where I broke up with my boyfriend, here’s where I moved house, here’s where I met someone who changed my life… Starting where you are now, you can trace your journey back and think about how it relates to who you are in the present.

I always believed that only BIG things would have a lasting affect on our psychological health: that mental scars came from dramatic things like beatings, conflict, terrible fear, terrible sadness and loss… but it’s not the case. I used to feel guilty that I got upset about small things, thinking I had no right to be affected by them when other people went through so much more than me. But the truth is, if something affects you, it affects you. The deeper I’ve looked into my past, the more I have realised there was no big hidden event that caused my troubles, there was no trauma or loss that sparked it all off. It was, instead, a snowballing of small things: behaviours taken on when I was young, that led to sadness, that led to more of the same behaviour, that led to more sadness. Somewhere down the line you have to put a stop to that cycle, or you just keep repeating it forever.

So, to take one example from my own life: as I very young child I was taught an important lesson: you don't always get what you want from life, and you're not allowed to be upset about that. Life's just not fair.

Because of this, I began to feel pride and guilt based on this lesson: when I was able to quietly accepted less than what I actually wanted I felt proud of myself. When I was able to act in a gracious and undemanding way, I felt proud. If I felt jealous when other friends did get what they wanted I felt guilty. If I felt a sense of loss because I wanted something and didn't get it, I felt guilty and most acutely- if I betrayed myself by showing I was upset and crying when things didn’t go my way, I felt self-hatred.

When I was young, this behaviour related to simple things like presents, but as I got older and started taking responsibility for my own life, this lesson, these learnt behaviours, started creeping into more and more of it. And this is what I mean by self destructive behaviour. In my childhood I may have been praised for being such a mature, accepting, lenient person, but as and adult I was bottling up my actual feelings of sadness, frustration, lust and loss. It wasn’t that they weren’t there, I had just learnt to hold them inside rather than react to them.

The trouble is, even things that are done with selfless grace and goodness can turn around and bite you on the bum! ‘You don’t get what you want’ can relate to a shit load of social situations and life-choices. I stayed quiet while people took what they wanted, leaving me with less. I accepted situations where I was unhappy, not believing I could do anything to change them because I had got so used to thinking that way: accepting the sadness and frustration. I have very vivid memories of having to smile through tears and act happy even though inside I was feeling nothing but hurt.

This is where what I said at the start of the blog comes into play. Self destructive behaviour only leads to MORE self destructive behaviour. It was horrible at the time, but it didn’t stop there. Now I had horrible memories of horrible feelings to add to the conflict I was already in.

If you have ever overreacted to something you will know what this is like. It can be the tiniest issue: a broken possession, or perhaps an innocent comment that you hear as something completely different. Before you can do anything about it, emotions flood to the surface and you find yourself shouting or throwing something in a rage, or crying uncontrollably. Have you ever stopped to wonder where this comes from?

I believe it’s probably something from your past, or a number of things from your past that have snowballed as I was saying earlier. This is how patterns of behaviour seem to work: you learn a lesson, you use it, it makes you feel a certain way, so the next time the situation comes up you instantly relate how you felt last time, before anything has even happened. Then the next time something similar comes up you now have two memories mashed together, the third it’s three… and so on, until they’re all jumbled together in one big ball of thoughts, memories and emotions. And if you’ve lived your whole life repeating a self destructive behaviour where you are left feeling crappy about yourself, this is how you will instantly react to anything that seems similar.

The tricky part is the blame. We all want to do it- to find the route of our troubles: the one thing we can take up triumphantly and say ‘YOU! IT WAS YOU ALL ALONG!’ and then we can smash it to pieces and feel better. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work like this in practice. For one thing, the lifetime of learnt behaviours and every subsequent memory is still there. As far as I can see, the only thing left to do is forgive ourselves for it and try to do something different next time. This can be tough. It’s like going against every instinct you have ever had! But if the only other option is to carry on living the same mistakes and feeling the same crap every time, it’s not much of a choice really.

It’s much easier to look back into our past with hindsight than it is to imagine a future. But I would suggest you try it. Try taking one issue- like myself and the reluctance to believe I’m allowed to get the things I want- and trace it back, contemplate where in your life this might have left you in a worse situation than you could have been if you had reacted differently. And then follow it forwards- imagine new situations where similar things could occur. What would you like to do? Maybe you could try doing something different next time? Where could that lead you?

See this is what I’m getting at: it’s easy, at the time, to believe we are doing the right thing by being self effacing, putting ourselves down, putting others first, thinking we’re not good enough; or perhaps by doing the opposite- acting purely on selfish thoughts… but if we could trace our lives forwards rather than backwards, and see that we are setting ourselves off on a path to more and more negative behaviour, would we act differently?

I would.

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