woman upset at repeated behaviour

Have you been and gone and done it again?!

Are you beating yourself up because, once again, you have done something you vowed not to do? Maybe it’s getting so exhausted with work that you got sick the moment you took time off. Maybe you said yes to a request when you know that for your sanity you should have said no. Or perhaps you got all snippety and cross with that truly annoying co-worker when you swore you were going to be all sweetness and light with her. 

We all do it. And irritatingly we do it in lots of different areas of our lives. We swear we will stop eating sugar and get fit and here we are (again) binge watching repeats of Grace and Frankie and snarfing the family sized packet of M and M’s. We repeatedly pick bad partners or steadfastly break constant resolutions to write our novel. We put our pension money in the pockets of top restaurateurs (just one more time before I settle down) and we yell at the kids and kick the dog and all the time we manage to blame something or someone else.

It’s just the way the job is. She would try the patience of a saint. I need a treat to get over the day I had at work. I hear it’s impossible to get published anyway. I need a treat after the day I had. The economy is tanking anyway; there’s no point in investing. The kids are little horrors and the dog, well, if that scruffy mongrel farts one more time…. 

And yet, this is not how we want to be. We genuinely want to change but it seems that we get pulled back into the same circumstances time and time again until we start to give up on the hope of change. 

The problem

The problem is that life plays along with us. Repeating patterns of behaviour are a coach’s meat and drink, because until we learn how to figure out how to resolve these challenges, life will keep presenting the same situations to us over and over again. They are our life’s ‘learning edges’, our own personal lessons to learn and they do not go away until you get past them. We repeat the same mistakes over and over until we learn how to behave differently.

As I write this those of a Jewish faith are in the run up to the High Holidays which has the theme of ‘teshuvah’a word that means something like returning to where you started, not with the aim of re-running the year yet again, Groundhog Day-like, but with a view of starting out again in a different way, having a fresh go and getting it right.  It’s no accident that this ancient wisdom practice has a yearly cycle of conscious return – most cultures do in terms of their holiday cycles. Because we need it as humans. It’s the way we are wired – to try, fail and start again.

The question is, what can be done differently to break the cycle? How can we get out of our work exhaustion and stress or our soul-sucking jobs, our heartbreakingly unsuitable relationships? 

How to break the cycle

We can start by telling the stories of the past differently this time around. Alan Lew, author of This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared uses a Biblical story as a sort of fable  to illustrate  how to do what  narrative therapist and coaches do in secular forms with their clients. He takes the story of the people of Israel who left Egypt after the plagues, and after forty years of wandering the wilderness now find themselves on the edge of the Promised Land.  The first time the story is told it’s about how the people send spies over into the new land. The spies see things that make them scared and they come back and put the mass of people off attempting to enter. These folks are right on the edge of achieving their real dream, everything they have been striving toward and hoping for and then, at the last minute the spies come back and put fear into their hearts. They shrink back and end up wandering in the wilderness again. The tale can be seen as a metaphor for the way we  behave today – the way me might almost decide to leave a stressful job and go part time so we can also follow our dream of building up an organic market gardening business.. but then we speak to a colleague to warns us about the risk the tomato crop will fail and we shrink back. 

Narrative coaches help people to achieve change by starting to retell the stories of our lives. The second time the story of the Israelites being on the edge of the Wilderness is told in the Bible, it’s different. The first version – written in the third person puts the blame externally on the spies for their persuasion and scaremongering – they ‘spread an evil report’.( The Biblical equivalent of fomenting trouble on social media maybe!) The second version is told in the first person from Moses’, point of view  – a more personal version. It places the responsibility on the people themselves, for the murmuring in the tents that went on. (The equivalent of the ruminating that we do in our heads when we allow our Inner Critic or Doubter to talk us out of change.) The problem is not what they were told but how willing they were to believe it. They are no longer innocent victims of circumstances but people whose internal processes contributed to their repeated behaviours.

If we want to avoid being trapped in repeated behaviours we need to change our viewpoint. Rather than blaming ‘the way the industry is’ for forcing us into a stressful life, we need to ask: What’s my complicity here? How do I contribute to that culture? What are my mindsets about what is acceptable in the workplace, about how much money I need to be happy? How much do I care what my status is? How much attention do I pay to my stress and health? And so forth.

It’s the difference between analysing history and growing in the present day. We can see the same process in the current Black Lives Matter protests. It’s perfectly acceptable to analyse the history of slavery and racism, to discuss the forces behind it, to analyse the repercussions. But that alone is not going to change anything. As Lew says, “the only questions worth asking about any recurring catastrophe is this: What is my responsibility for it? How am I complicit in it? How can I prevent it from happening again?”

These are not always easy questions. Working them through with someone else can help. But if we are to avoid that moment when we hold our heard in our hands and bemoan “Oh, I’ve done it again!” then these questions are a good place to start.