By Christina Winholt
Humans seek comfort in the familiar. Freud called this repetition ‘compulsion,’ which he famously defined as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.”
This takes form in simple tasks. Perhaps you watch your favorite movie over and over, or choose the same entrée at your top restaurant. More harmful behaviors include repeatedly dating people who might emotionally or physically abuse you, or using drugs when overcome with negative thoughts. Freud was more interested in the harmful behaviors that people kept revisiting, and believed that such repetition was directly linked to what he termed ‘the death drive,’ or the desire to no longer exist.
But there may be a different reason.
It could be that many of us develop patterns over the years, whether positive or negative, that become ingrained. We create a subjective world for ourselves and discover what works for us. In times of stress, worry, anger, or another emotional high, we repeat what is familiar and what feels safe. This creates a rumination of thoughts as well as negative patterns in reactions and behaviors.
For example, someone who struggles with insecurities and jealousy will find that when his significant other does not return a call or text immediately, his mind begins to wander to negative and faulty thoughts. The thoughts begin to accumulate and emotionally overwhelm the person, which leads to false accusations and unintentional harm to the relationship.
Despite not wanting to react this way, the person has created a pattern over the years that becomes familiar to him. To react differently, although more positively, would feel foreign and unfamiliar. When someone has done something the same way for years, he will continue to do so, even if it causes harm for both himself and others.
People also revert to earlier states if the behavior is in any way rewarding, or if it confirms negative self-beliefs. For someone who inflicts self-harm in a time of emotional distress, it is a behavior that momentarily relieves the pain even if, later on, the individual feels shame over it. In the example of a person who continuously enters abusive relationships, we might find that he is highly insecure and does not believe he is worthy of being cared for. This person may seek out people who induce anxiety, which in turn make him question himself. He will scrutinize how he looked, spoke, ate, smelled, etc. and will eventually find something wrong with himself in order to feed his negative self-image.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) can provide effective treatment routes for reshaping thought patterns that lead to maladaptive behaviors. These types of therapeutic approaches focus on bringing awareness to irrational beliefs, cognitive distortions, and negative thought tracks.
What is a cognitive distortion and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions—telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
For instance, a person might tell himself, “I always fail when I try to do something new; I therefore fail at everything I try.” This is an example of black-or-white (or polarized) thinking. The person is only seeing things in absolutes: If he fails at one thing, he must fail at all things. If he added, “I must be a complete loser and failure,” to his thinking, that would also be an example of overgeneralization—taking a failure at one specific task and generalizing it for his very self and identity.
Cognitive distortions are at the core of what several CBT and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of ‘stinkin’ thinkin’,’ a person can then answer the negative thinking back, and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking again and again, it will slowly diminish over time and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.
By working on different techniques, one can learn how to recognize when thoughts or actions are more harmful than beneficial, and how to stop them from occurring. The brain’s cognitive processes will be rewired and retrained to develop new patterns that are productive, rational, and positive, which ultimately leads to more adaptive behaviors and choices.
It takes years for people to develop maladaptive patterns, habits, and repetitive choices, and it may also take years to reshape them into something that becomes worth revisiting. The good news is that the brain has the ability to reverse unhealthy patterns to achieve more healthy and productive ones.
Christina Winholt is a psychotherapist with offices located at 23A West 10th Street.