Did you ever see the old Simpsons episode where Lisa does a science fair experiment called, "Who's smarter, my brother Bart or a hamster?" She sets corresponding traps whereby each subject is tempted by a tasty treat, but receives an electric shock when he touches it. Predictably, the hamster learns right away to avoid the shock, but Bart doesn't get it---at all---and reaches for the cupcake over and over again until he passes out. (Ouch!.......Ouch!........ Ouch!......Ouch!) Oh, Bart!
Do you ever feel like that---like you keep doing the same thing over and over again, and keep falling into the same old trap? Maybe you repeatedly get sucked into a useless argument that you've had with a family member a hundred times before, or you make the same new year's resolution twenty years in a row, and never make it past February?
We're smart people, so why do we do it? This might be more complicated than you think, because there are many reasons we might think we want something to be different, but are conflicted about change, or don't actually want it at all. Let's look at a few ways in which this typically plays out.
Fear of change
Sometimes our relationships seem to require that we stay the same, or that we maintain our assigned role in the system. When we change, it can throw a marriage or family system into a tailspin. As long as you keep doing the same dance, (the same fight, or playing the same role), everyone is protected from having to change. Let's say you play the role of the emotionally overreactive one in your family. As long as you keep holding all the emotion for the family, they won't have to feel anything, but if you learn to calm down, everyone else is likely to react. They'll probably even try to provoke you to "change back," so that they won't have to face their own feelings. It's not that they don't want what's best for you---they're just afraid.
When we've spent years banging our heads against the wall trying to make something happen, we become invested in being right that this is the way to get it done. The idea that we've wasted all that time and energy, (and probably done some damage in the process) is unthinkable, especially if our ego is running the show. So instead of admitting defeat and trying something different, we bang our heads against the wall even harder. Never give up, right?
Not knowing any better
So often, we just automatically do what we've seen our parents, teaches or society do without noticing if it actually works. For instance we nag our children endlessly because that's what our parents and teachers did to us. It's so ingrained in our psyches that we never even question whether or not this is working or could ever work. (Another great example of this is America's commitment to weight loss diets, which are virtually guaranteed to fail, but we keep returning to them because we don't understand that there are better ways to approach the issue).
Sometimes there are unconscious agreements and/or loyalties that prevent us from changing, even though we might want to. For instance, if you're a woman, and your mother and your grandmother always struggled with their weight, you might perceive being fit and trim as a slap in the face to them. They might even have communicated this to you in some way, such as, "You look so nice in those jeans. I wish I could have looked like you when I was your age...(heavy sigh)" This message can create a separation between mother and daughter, one that would not exist if they struggled with the same issue together.
These are just a few of the many potential issues involved in making a change. This week, I ask you to look at where you might be feeling like Bart Simpson reaching for a cupcake. What's your problematic pattern or trap, and what might be the root of it? What do you believe would happen if you tried something different? How would others react? How would your life or self image be different?