The woman on the couch looks up at me miserably, tears in her eyes, as she tells me about her most recent bad relationship. “I’m sick of choosing guys who aren’t there for me. They seem great, they want me, they tell me how terrific I am, then either they have an affair, or turn on me once we are involved, getting that cold look in their eyes. I can see they don’t care after all. I can’t stand this. Why do I do this over and over?”
In my work as a therapist, I help people discover repeated patterns. Despite our conscious desire and urgent efforts to make our lives better, we end up feeling the same as we did as children, but the feeling of despair and depression can deepen if we see that we are simply repeating our abusive or abandoned childhood.
This may seem confusing to understand, but this is how it works: Rooted deep in the unconscious is a desire to make the story turn out right—to find someone who will finally come through and love us the way we want. But the pattern of repetition, until it is resolved, will cause us to choose people who will do exactly what was done to us as children. If you were abandoned, they will abandon you. If you were hurt physically, this may be what you experience all over again.
For instance, most women involved in relationships where there is domestic violence either were beaten as children, or observed it for many years. If you were verbally abused, you will find yourself hearing the same phrases and feeling exactly the same as you did when you were a child. There you are, thinking you have just found the love of your life, when a terrible feeling comes over you—“I have been here before,” says the voice inside your head, a feeling of dread running through your body. It’s not déjà vu; it is an unconscious repetition of the past.
There is good news about all this: You can change these old patterns. It takes time, awareness, determination, and work on your part, but it can be done.
How to help stop repeating abandonment and abuse in your life now:
First, you have to recognize you are repeating your past patterns. Become aware of a familiar, sinking feeling, or the feeling that you are a bad person, or not good enough, or feel awful about yourself. Ask yourself: is there something going on now that reinforces that feeling?
Consider your past patterns with parents. It helps to write down these patterns, as you can be objective about them if you see them on the page.
Write about being a child of about five years old; nine years old; 12. What was life like in your household? Who was there connecting with you, and how?
After making that objective list of patterns in family and in the past, write down any parallels between then and now, paying particular attention to feelings. Sometimes the action is different but the feeling is the same.
When you are drawn to a new person, get to know him better before getting involved. Spend time to find out how he treats you when he is having a bad day, or how he acts when you say no. How you are treated at the beginning of a relationship when you are not being pleasing or saying yes, when you make boundaries for yourself, is only a hint of how it will be later on.
Keep your need to be loved and accepted in balance with who the other person is and his or her needs. Take your time to find out more before getting too involved.
Write in your journal to become more aware of patterns, concerns, and actual events. You can refer back to them later. This documentation may clear up any future confusion about reality.
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