“I’ll Never Do That Again,” and Then—Well, You Do
How to avoid making the same mistakes in your relationship over and over.
Posted September 25, 2020
Why do we repeat the same mistakes in our relationships over and over?
Consider this: It has been a crazy Friday at the office unsuccessfully trying to get a new program to work on your computer. After going at it yourself (without success), you finally turn to the company’s techies. They can’t figure it out either. The program works fine on every other computer in the place but yours. It’s the end of the day and you finally give up on it. You head out and to your car and head home. You turn on the radio. The tunes annoy you, and you quickly turn it off. Your thoughts start reeling: “The software stinks, work stinks… life stinks.” Your stress intensifies.
The night before, you and your partner had planned for a cozy dinner at your favorite restaurant. Your partner now greets you at home in a mellow upbeat mood, ready to go. You had both looked forward to the night out. You still do. But you continue to dwell on the program hassle, feeling disappointed and frazzled. Why can’t you just let go and head out for fun?
Without thinking, you “throw” your car keys on the kitchen counter as an editorial statement. You’ve done this before. By the time you realize you’re making a statement, you’ve already tossed them. You remember telling yourself you’d never do that again. Nonetheless, here we go. Your partner asks if you are annoyed at something. That’s their regular response when you toss your keys that way. And that further annoys you. These behaviors have become automatic, occurring so fast (just milliseconds) they all happen under your radar.
What should have been an easy “date” has now become an old, familiar issue – for the umpteenth time.
One of your mind’s favorite languages is patterns. This includes thoughts, feelings and actions. When you are in the middle of an experience, your mind conducts a lightning-fast search into your memories, scoping through previous similar experiences – whether they’re your own, another’s, or even a fictional character’s – looking for patterns of behavior, fetching possible solutions, again in terms of thoughts, feelings, and actions. You are likely unaware because it’s all happening in milliseconds. The next thing you know you are acting out the pattern. Your behavior is on autopilot. Dronelike and robotic, much of our behavior throughout the day works this way. The thing is, if you are trying to change a response you don't want to repeat, change will more likely come from intervention or self-regulation of the pattern itself than from just making promises.
Autopiloted responses are common in endless life situations. And they are not always bad. They help us cut through sometimes overwhelming detail to hit the mark. They help us make sure we attend to basics like food and drink and safety. In athletics, for example, where so much of performance is intentionally automatized to a desired point of perfection, athletes often use a regimen of reflect, edit, and visualize to identify and improve sketchy mental and physical performance but also to identify excellent maneuvers that may at times have popped up unexpectedly. This regimen allows athletes to deliver more deliberately, repeating the positive and avoiding the negative the next time they are in a similar situation.
The bottom line is to get yourself aware. In relationships, as in athletics, this means becoming aware of what works and what doesn’t. You want to intentionally repeat the good (thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.) and eliminate the bad. Developing functional autopiloted behaviors helps attain high speed, quality performance and disengage unfavorable behaviors.
- Reflect. You can use reflection after any interpersonal experience but I recommend it especially after important ones. Trace your footsteps though the situation by reflecting on what details contributed to the outcome. You can aim your attention like a spotlight. You can probe inwardly, illuminating links between feelings, thoughts, beliefs and memories that had sway in how things turned out. Reflection helps you learn. Look closely for patterns you tend to repeat often in similar situations. You can also aim your spotlight outward. Ask what external detail (environmental, other individuals) may have contributed to shaping the outcome – be it positive or negative. Sometimes details are as subtle as the choice to turn off the radio on your way home from work. Perhaps if you had switched to another station like the Comedy Network, for example, which often works wonders for you, that would have helped sweeten your mind just enough to mentally turn the corner into a lighter mood. Reflection helps you identify important junctures in your experiences and see better options. These can make the little difference that makes the big difference.
- Use visualization. Create a mind-movie for an upcoming experience. You can spotlight behaviors that were spot on and re-tweak them if necessary for the next time around. You can visualize when, where and how they can be engaged, making yourself pre-aware of internal and external details as well as cues. This process helps you generate automatic behaviors that can eliminate those annoying recurring mistakes we keep promising ourselves we won't repeat.
Practice randomly and often. Repetition ingrains your new, happier behavioral links and sends messages to your mind that this is a pattern you want it to retain.