“If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.” –Pema Chodron
How does one learn? Is it academic? Experiential? Why do we do the same things over and over?
Realizing that I’ve made so many mistakes, I’m back to beating myself up over them. My head is spinning, turning over the events of the past few months. How did I make a similar error not once, not twice, but multiple times?
Why have I continued to date the wrong people?
Over the past decade+, here’s a quick summary:
- One was an alcoholic. Naturally, he was fun, loving and playful. We sang hilarious songs and hung out at the beach for hours on end.
- One was a stone wall perfectionist. We travelled the world and ate Los Angeles, but I didn’t smile for the duration of the W. Bush years, i.e. our relationship.
- One was anxious and frail. We played improv games and loved cats.
- One was noncommittal. We ate quinoa and kale while he consulted with his guru in Australia on the phone daily. I stood by and listened to talk of pressure points.
- The next seemed perfect until he cheated on me and we played the get-back-together game over and over while he claimed he would not cheat on me and I naively believed him. We were extremely close, connected and laughed on the regular, until I cried daily.
- After him, I dated someone great, but moody. We drove across the country and fell in love. He was getting divorced and not ready for a relationship.
- Then the next one and I were better friends than lovers, except he was in love with substances and not me. But we visited dog parks in a 50-mile radius and played rounds of smash ball.
- The last one turned out to drink way too much and was aloof, rather than connected. We went to every concert we could get tickets for until he said I was too sensitive and I didn’t think he cared or listened.
So, with all of these people, what happened? Well, clearly the common denominator is me. What did I do wrong? How did none of these relationships “work out?” Well, if I look at them with the end goal of marriage, all of them were failures. But, if I reframe my mindset and review them from a growth perspective, they all gave me new experiences and helped me hone communication skills, get to know myself better and realize what I will and won’t settle for.
Do all of these relationships mean I have not opened up? Does each person still sit in my heart? The big question is: what is the mistake I made again and again and again?
Here’s my mistake: I stayed too long. I didn’t cut ties early enough. I saw the good in these people instead of the ways my soul was being chipped away.
Several recent studies reveal how our brains don’t learn from our past mistakes to the extent we might hope. In fact, thinking about past flubs might only doom us to repeat them.
Why do people do this?
We all know when we’ve gotten ourselves twisted into predicaments. Taking a long view of our short lives, we can pinpoint the big errors and mistakes. Looking deeper, we can typically see a pattern, often of fear or avoidance. For me, the fear was being alone or hurting someone’s feelings even if mine were hurt already. Sometimes people make repeated mistakes not because they don’t know better but because they forget to do something differently. We get lazy. We forget how bad it is, or how bad it will be. I have a tendency to think something will work better next time. Usually, I’m wrong. And then, I get in the cycle of being so mad at myself that I go into drastic, austere mode and I become small. Maybe you can relate to the desperately uncomfortable feeling of having a swirling pit in your stomach, getting a lingering headache, feeling shame and self-flagellation. These indicators certainly serve as reminders. So why don’t we heed them?
Why do we proceed to perilous lengths? Why can’t we cut out this behavior?
I’m gathering that if you want to avoid repeating (your own) history, it’s best not to try to learn from it. Instead, think about the future and what you can achieve if you avoid pitfalls. Check in with yourself and ask “am I self-sabotaging? Are the outcomes likely to be different?” Make your best guess: if you make this choice and it seems like a familiar scenario, what do you anticipate happening? Is it possible for you to turn the situation around? Do you have support? You know how you feel in the moment, just like you know how French fries at 3 am taste. But you also know the stomach ache. Is it really worth it?
Here’s my final lesson: since I/you/we keep making the same mistakes, let’s think about the underlying sentiment. What are you supposed to know by now that somehow evades you? Think long and hard about this. Once you finally learn the lesson, you won’t need to repeat the patterns and you will be free to make new mistakes, er choices, and your life will be better.
In closing, what can you stop today that no longer serves you? Now, instead of dropping that giant ceramic ball of habit, pare it down. Make a smaller change so it will hold. Maybe the smaller change is to speak up once today so you’re not making yourself small. Try that.