Part I: Chasing Tales 1.1
Strand 1: A little History
Milligan describes, in a nutshell, the history of the word revolution. It wasn’t until the late 1600’s that the word came to signify a great change in something. Supposedly it grew out of the idea that early astrologers connected certain celestial events to times when unpredictability would reign. This, like many early endeavors in science like phrenology or alchemy, grew out of our natural tendency to see patterns. It is how we evolved and how we are wired. We will often find what we are looking for because we are looking for it.
Strand 2: Circles
This also plays out in how we approach our interactions with the world, and other people. We look for patterns in which we can attribute categories. A tree is always a tree even though every tree is different.
This makes perfect sense. If we had to reorganize the world every time we had a new interaction, it would be too much to process. These patterns provide a framework and a path for our minds. They are a set of rules and shortcuts. The patterns are themselves, revolutions. They both move in circles, and are potentials for great change.
I would like us to consider the patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior. These form the foundation of our personal patterns. We develop routines and habits often outside of our awareness, and these in part dictate how we interact with the world around us.
Think about an upcoming exam or deadline that is fast approaching. This causes you to feel anxious. Anxiety can generate all kinds of fun thoughts, as I am sure you are aware, many of which help you cleverly avoid addressing what needs to get done. This leads to behaviors, like watching just one more episode of Parks and Rec on Netflix, or creating to do lists, or reading your favorite blog. These procrastinating behaviors then lead to an increase in anxiety, which leads to louder thoughts, which lead to more procrastinating behaviors.
By no means is this what happens to everyone, but I think it captures the point well. For a large portion of this blog we will focus on how these patterns form, how to disrupt them, and then remake them. At the core of these patterns are three central elements that create inertia: Affect (how you feel), Behavior (what you do), and Cognition (what you think). Call it the ABC’s of self-awareness.
You probably have some pretty good idea of the many circles in which you move. Most of your days likely blend with routines. Wake up, work, gym (which you never skip), sleep, weekend, repeat. Take a moment now and think deeply about your day so far. What brought you to read this? Do the steps you took seem similar to the day before? The week before? How far back does that routine go, and what precipitated it?
Stop and Think
That last question is probably the most important. You were not always in this routine, which means at some point there was a shift. A great change, which you likely did not predict. It is in those series of moments that you can think about how the networks of patterns changed in ways that set you in new circles of behavior.
These pattern shifts are easy to distill down to a singular moment. They are often called “triggers”, which is a powerful metaphor. A trigger implies a happening that sparks an often predictable response. But every trigger has a story, and every story has a trigger. Even now, if you think about those periods of change in your life, there is a desire to reduce those changes to one decision or experience, while forgetting about all of the decisions and experiences that lead to that moment. We reduce our daily experiences down into ideal versions from which we can measure ourselves. That’s a lot to chew on, so let’s try out a story to better describe what I mean.
I went on a pretty long trip with a friend back in the summer of 2015. We had both studied psychology, had both been through a lot together. Although we knew getting on each other’s nerves was inevitable, it did not concern us much because, you know, we were intelligent and self-aware psychology students who were trained in the art of dealing with emotions and navigating difficult conversation.
I doubt it will come as a surprise that we were wrong. We made it about halfway through the trip before we were both at wit’s end. We were in the city of Hanoi, which both of us did not like. We were supposed to go on a sweet cruise through Ha Long Bay, but it was storming so our cruise got cancelled. We had a flight leaving Hanoi a couple of days away, and needed to decide whether we should move it up or stay. I wanted to peace as soon as possible, so I pushed to leave that night.
“But what if our hostel in the next city doesn’t have any beds?” My friend asked.
“It will be fine, let’s get out of here.”
Well of course we go online after changing our tickets, and can’t find any empty beds there. The place we were at gave them a call to help, but not before my friend said, “I knew this would happen. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you.” Not the greatest thing to hear from a close friend with several weeks still left in the trip.
I made a small mistake, my friend picked me apart like a surgeon, and I could literally feel my heart shamefully curl up into the fetal position. It would be easy to lash out, or to take that moment in isolation. Who was she to say that? After everything I had done on the trip! I didn’t deserve to be talked to like that, I’d done nothing wrong! I was a good person, it was she who was being an ass, it was she who could not be trusted.
Moreover, a few minutes later the hostel in our next destination called back and had a room for us. It would have been easy then to smugly berate my friend. Tell her I knew I was right all along. That she needed to chill.
Instead I took space. I went up to the room to calm myself, and clear my thoughts. I realized that her anger wasn’t coming from nowhere. In fact, when I thought about it, her outburst towards me was actually a culmination of events that really had nothing to do with that moment. Resentment had been building, we were both tired and frustrated, primed for anger. I could see how I contributed to this pattern, and could see how it was reinforcing her patterns. She would react, which would make me react, and so on.
We talked about it when she came back upstairs...because we were psychologists after all, and that’s what we do. I discovered that her perceptions of me on the trip were to that point. She thought she had to do all the work and planning, while I just sat back without a care. I very early on felt like my decisions were always being questioned or second-guessed, so I thought it better if I just let her take the reigns in hopes that she would be less stressed, and me feeling less judged.
Of course, we both held these thoughts inside our own heads. This meant that my every interaction with her had the lens of “I’ll let her be in control because I’m easy-going and will enjoy whatever, and I want her to have fun too.” And she was thinking, “He’s not doing anything, so I have to do everything. This sucks and it’s so stressful.” Our collision was inevitable, and if it did not happen then, it would have happened later. We had both entrenched ourselves in a pattern that was a fertile ground for resentment. Every behavior (or lack thereof on my part) led to a distorted thought, which led to a negative emotion...and on and on.
After our conversation, everything was fine. We reset boundaries, and we were more open and communicative. I know my story focuses on an interaction with someone else, but I want you to think about how difficult it is to have these conversations with yourself. What happens when you berate yourself? What happens when your shame comes from within?
Let’s take a bad breakup as an example. The love of your life leaves you, the reason could be anything, but what are your thoughts? “No one will ever trust you. You’re worthless. No one will ever love you. No wonder s/he left you!” Are some favorites, but you may have your own go to’s for when a relationship breaks down. The question I have is can you track the moments that led to that break up? And don’t get stuck on a “breakup”. This could be any relationship that causes you to have nasty thoughts about yourself.
We have a tendency to internalize that voice, to feed it. That voice drives us to do the very things that lead us to those moments. Your friend makes some passive comment about your weight, you feel shame, that voice whispers sweet nothings about how right that person is, you try to fight it, promise yourself that you’ll eat a salad tomorrow, or go for a run, but then you don’t. You make excuses, or “forget”, and you fall back into the cycle that led to the comment, proving that friend right, proving that voice in your head right. The shame nourishes that pattern, and silences you. We forget in these times, in these routines, that what happens in your head can be a conversation, just as much as a conflict between friends can be.
But let’s take a step back from these negative patterns, and think about more mundane ones. Even within the daily pattern of wake up, work, gym(which you never skip), sleep, there is an enormous amount of variance and nuance that makes every new day distinctly different from the next. Here too we look for patterns in order to make sense of our lives, and more importantly, our stories. We will get to stories in the exploration of ego, but for now I want you to briefly reflect on your own patterns of behavior, and their origins - especially the mundane ones.
No really, I’m serious. This is where our journey begins. We need to take a look at your circles, your gears. This is where the honest look at ourselves in the mirror begins. How do you interact with the world, and how did those patterns form?
Stop and Think
Of course there is no exhaustive list, and there will always be patterns outside of your awareness. Your subconscious is a clever bastard, after all. Look for one, though, that is particularly clear and manageable to you. Keep it simple and clear. Choose a memory that you feel defines you in some way, for better or worse, and hold onto that for reference as we move through this process.