Oops! I did it again….

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“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”   Winston Churchill

repeated owlsAge offers us the possibility to look back over our lives and discern its repeating patterns; a long time must pass for these to emerge, usually decades. In facing the distress and insight that detecting and accepting such insights entail, we become wiser. We can consider: why do my friendships always start and/or end in the same way? Why am I only attracted to a man/woman with a particular kind of character? Why are all my bosses such idiots? We wonder: is it possible to break a pattern that just keeps hurting us?

If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll go on getting what you’ve always got. So why do we keep on doing it? What drives that? According to Freud, it’s the repetition compulsion: our attraction to situations that remind us of our history, the pull of the familiar, even when (especially when?) these are painful dynamics.

A client returned to me for further consultation, someone that I had worked with at various points over many years, so I knew him well; and we had a shared understanding of his psychological functioning. Once again, for the fourth time in his life he found himself in a familiar situation: working super hard for a boss he admired; not getting the reaction he hoped for; disappointment in his boss, closely followed by growing resentment and contempt. This can’t end well: even the subtlest sign of contempt is the death knell to any relationship. And if the person is your boss, it’s only going to end one way.

What could he do, he said, to make this different? He couldn’t bear to go through the same thing again, it left him feeling inadequate and at fault. Our years of work together meant we had already done the work of carefully unpicking and understanding his early experiences and family dynamics. Like most of us, he was raised in a loving family, but the pressures of normal life inevitably compromise some of the needs of family members; and these deficits and hurts remain with us. Later, we had paid attention to those elements that repeated both at work and in his personal life, and worked in practical ways to make changes, to create different experiences.

Now, we needed a new way forward, so that he could fully understand that he (like most of us) was trapped in his early family dynamics, when he was small and powerless, and unable to leave a situation that distressed him. As adults, leaving a situation that is painful is usually an option; but as we regress into unresolved past pain, we behave as we did when we were five years old: we have to stay and find a way to manage it. Instead of further talk, analysis, and action planning, I gave my client this poem, to illuminate his dilemma.

Autobiography in Five Chapters

Portia Nelson

I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost…
I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I’m in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit
My eyes are open; I know where I am;
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

 

My client realised instantly: he is now in chapter III, ready to take responsibility for the part he plays in this repetitive dynamic. That’s a major turning point. I’m pretty sure he’ll be walking down another street soon.

Does this poem to speak to you? Is there another street you need to walk down, now that you’re older and wiser?

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