The Wisdom of Patterns

“To understand is to perceive patterns.” - Isaiah Berlin

When I was at school, I hated math. Until one day, we did a type of math that went something like this (in more complex form)

2, 4, 6, 8 __ __ __ ?

It was about seeing a sequence of numbers, and figuring out the numbers that came next. For some reason, my brain comprehended this type of math.

It made sense to me that we could guess what was likely to happen next based on what had happened before.

I think this made sense to me because patterns was my way of trying to make sense of the world around me. 

As a child, I would hear my parents speaking a language (Arabic), then go out and notice people looking different to us and speaking a language I did not understand (Swiss-German) outside of home. When my brothers and I started school, my parents put us in the English-speaking system, and my Dad worked mostly in French.

Wherever I went, I felt I didn’t really speak other people’s language. 

In Jordan, where we would spend summers, this feeling of not really fitting in made the role of observer feel natural to me. I could be on the outside, looking in and simply notice what was happening around me, how people were interacting without having to take on a more active role. 

I remember sitting through endless family visits and observing people, wondering why they behaved the way they did: What made this aunt so grumpy? What had happened to her in the past that made her like this? How did her way of seeing the world make sense to her?

I became someone almost invisible who was trying to find patterns. 

I think this is what drew me to Psychology. Understanding human behaviour. Why we do what we do as humans. 

How in life, what came before - usually during childhood - can explain what happens next. 

Most of what we do is not some random behavior. It is usually part of a larger pattern.

We learn to act a certain way because in a certain context, this was the best choice available. 

For example, a child with a critical parent will probably ‘adapt’ to this situation and try to make it less painful in various ways:

She might become a perfectionist, intent on not making a mistake to avoid criticism. 

She might become anxious, as a way of preparing themselves for another ‘attack’. 

She might learn to play small, to take up as little room as possible, to not have needs or emotions as a way of avoiding potential criticism. 

She might become people pleasers as a way of trying to appease the critical parent and win their approval.

She might develop shame about ‘there must be something wrong with me’ because blaming the parent for their behavior is not an option for a child who relies on the parents for their survival. 

She might become very critical of herself, as a way of motivating herself to do better because this is what was familiar to her.

Or she might even go more into narcissism or grandiosity and a need to feel superior to others to avoid feeling the vulnerability of the child who was hurt. 

There are many possibilities or a mix of possibilities, and of course, this is a simplification. Reality is more complex than this, and there are more factors at play, including culture, the rest of the situation (for example having a more supportive parent or grand-parent might have been a more protective factor), genes, life events etc. 

If we think about this child though, what will she expect human relationships to be like later in life? She probably won’t expect them to be safe and supportive as this was not her experience growing up. 

She has been primed to look out for what confirms this belief, to orient to danger in relationships, and is already armed with her ‘adaptation’ to protect her. A pattern has been set-up, but it is so engrained, that it is difficult to even notice it. 

In other words, a child who learned to please her critical parent will probably continue this people pleasing behaviour in her adult relationships.

This adaptation is part of our implicit memory. It feels ‘right’ - a part of us, who we are.

I just like others to be happy. That is who I am, the role I take with friends.

These adaptations become so established that we cannot imagine who we would be without them. 

And yet, change is always possible.

Patterns are not destiny. They can be changed once we notice them - or we may not want to change them, but simply bring more choice and flexibility in when we use them.

What came before does not have to be what happens next. 

Before changing a pattern,  we need to first notice it. Understand that this was the best option we had at a time when we did not have much choice. Recognise the wisdom of this adaptation. 

So if you are struggling with a behavior or a pattern in your own life, before trying to change it, consider this question: 

How does this behavior or pattern make sense in some way, given what came before? 

PS - regarding my own adaptation, it morphed into asking others lots of questions instead of just staying invisible. Apparently this is more socially acceptable for adults! I was genuinely interested in others, but this was also a way of deflecting attention away from me, and my feeling of not belonging. Does my choice of work as a psychologist seem like a stretch?  

I have learned over the years to have more balanced relationships, where I also open up and share myself. Part of my sharing on this blog is my way of using this (often useful) adaptation with more flexibility. 

Boundaries: Why They Matter

“Boundaries is simply what’s OK and not OK.” - Brené Brown

Imagine your internal world - your emotions, thoughts, desires, needs - is a village.

In order for your village to thrive, it needs to feel safe. And it can only do that when it has a clear protection around it, one that defines who and what is OK and not OK to enter your village. 

Healthy boundaries are elastic and flexible, shifting each moment according to our needs and preferences. 

Knowing what is OK and not OK to enter our village - how it is OK and not OK for people to treat us and being able to communicate this respectfully and assertively can build more respectful and trusting relationships built on authenticity instead of Fear, Obligation or Guilt (FOG). 

A boundary is a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.

Boundaries that are neither too flimsy nor too solid - but strong enough - have been linked to:

  • More assertiveness / confidence
  • Less likely to burn out / less stress
  • Less anger / resentment
  • More self-awareness / self-care / self trust
  • Authenticity

Without a clear boundary we are not protected. The world and other people can feel unsafe. 

Our boundary style is not something we actively chose, but a way of being in relation to ourselves and others we learned growing up. If our parents modelled good boundaries and respected ours by allowing us to have our own needs, desires, emotions, we probably have good boundaries.

This is not always the case unfortunately, and many of us learned to sacrifice our own needs to be in connection with others, making our own boundaries too weak. Alternatively, we may have learned to cut ourselves off from connection to protect ourselves, leading to boundaries that are too solid. Often, we swing from one extreme to the other. 

As adults, we can now bring awareness to this behavior and change it if it is no longer working for us but it is important to go about this gently and with compassion. There is always a good reason why we do what we do - it made sense at some point in our life. Even if a behavior is no longer working for us, it is not ‘wrong’ - it is an adaptation we learned at a time when it made sense, like a survival strategy helping us make the best of the relationships we had in the past.

I wanted to share the information below in a visual way because understanding and awareness are often the first steps in making change. 

The village concept and diagrams are my own ideas and my approach on boundaries is inspired by the work of Pat Ogden, Brené Brown, Karla McLaren and Harriet Lerner. 

A lot of my personal work in the last few years has been around boundaries - and learning to have a clear boundary around my village in my (on-going) work around self-care, self-trust and authenticity. It is also often where I start with people in individual sessions.

When boundaries are not solid enough

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Without solid boundaries, we have a hard time knowing where we start and others end. We let others into our village or go into their village, creating enmeshed relationships. 

When we allow others to invade our village...

  • We end up doing things we don’t want to do.
  • We feel taken advantage of. 
  • We can end up feeling resentful, bitter or needy - like a victim. 
  • We do not take responsibility for our village. 
  • We get overrun by other people’s ‘stuff’ and lose a sense of who we are, feel overwhelmed, unclear about who we are or what we want.  

When we spend our time in other people’s villages... 

  • We feel overly responsible for others.
  • We feel taken advantage of.
  • We feel depleted and can burn out.
  • Our life can revolve around others: Trying to please them and putting their needs first.
  • We are constantly looking for external validation or doing what we think others expect from us.

When boundaries are not solid enough, we often oscillate between both going into other people's village and letting them run ours. 

In both cases, we don’t really know who we are - in the first scenario because our village is overrun by others, and in the second because we spend so much time in other people's villages that our own village becomes a neglected ghost town. 

This can lead to...

  • Being unable to clearly say yes, no or maybe.
  • Our needs feeling unimportant or non-existent - difficult to even understand or identify.
  • Feeling misunderstood.
  • Taking on others’ emotions / stress easily.
  • Being constantly angry, bitter, resentful, snarky, sarcastic.
  • Being unable to properly take care of ourselves or even know who we are. We cannot prioritize ME over WE when we are too busy taking care of other people’s villages or dealing with those who are in ours.
  • All this can lead to feeling so overrun we end up hating and even avoiding people. 

We let people get away with things that are not okay. Then we just become more resentful and hateful. - Brené Brown:

When boundaries are too rigid

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When boundaries are too rigid - more like a stone wall than a fence - this was often an adaptation from a time when relationships did not feel safe and protecting ourselves in this way was what was needed to survive. 

In this scenario, we are safe, but cut off from others. Nothing gets in or out. 

This can mean...

  • WE is sacrificed for ME - but the sense of ME is rigid and not fluid enough to adapt to the environment. 
  • We can’t connect with others or express ourselves in a healthy way - nothing comes in or gets out. 
  • It can feel difficult to be vulnerable or share personal information.
  • It can feel safer to be alone, be self-reliant, guarded, independent. 

When boundaries are avoidance

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Physically avoiding people, situations, conflicts or life choices is a form of boundary setting that we can resort to when avoidance was one the best option available to us when we were younger. 

This can look like avoiding situation that takes us out of our comfort zone because we don't feel safe enough without strong-enough boundaries. 

These may be solutions to protect us in the short-term, yet in the long-term they can lead to disconnection and a life that feels small. 

This said, sometimes this form of boundaries - avoidance or completely cutting certain people out of our lives - can be the kindest choice for us. If however, this is our pattern in every relationship, there might be some work to do in building a more flexible boundary that allows more of a give and take in relationships. 

Strong enough boundaries

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Healthy boundaries that are strong enough to protect our internal village, while still being fluid and flexible enough to adapt to the context are often ideal. This looks like two whole villages interacting with each other in an authentic, respectful way.

This is about being assertive and able to own and clearly communicate our needs, what is OK and not OK for us, to have our own backs. It allow us to have relationships in which we can be ourselves most of the time.

The challenge of building strong enough boundaries is that this can bring up guilt, because many of us were taught to put WE before ME. 

In this scenario, ME and WE are balanced. ME is not sacrificed for WE nor is it only about ME.

It can often feel like a delicate dance and yet ME and WE are balanced in adult relationships built on mutuality. 

Whose village are you in?

We put our energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior and hand over responsibility for our own. - Harriet Lerner

In order to understand boundaries, we need to understand what we are and are not responsible for. I wrote more about this here - and below is a more visual summary. 

Healthy boundaries mean taking responsibility for our own actions, needs and emotions and realising that while we may be able to influence how others feel or think or behave - we can never fully change this. 

In adult relationships, we can care about other people - but it is not our job to take care of them. 

We actually cannot change or ever guarantee how someone else reacts or how they feel, so we cannot be responsible for their actions or reactions or emotions in a healthy adult relationship.

When people try to manipulate us in some way, by getting us to feel or do something, we do not need to take this on - this is where a strong boundary enables us to ask questions, and make a conscious choice about how we are going to react - for example by saying no, standing up for ourselves or walking away. 

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How boundaries work

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No matter how solid our boundaries are, others will always try to cross them.

This is a given in life. And it’s OK when we trust ourselves to be able to repair our boundary when they are crossed. 

As Jonice Webb writes in Running on Empty:

"A primary rule of assertiveness is that anyone has the right to ask you for anything; and you have the equal right to say no, without giving a reason."


Repairing a boundary

When we repair our boundary this can look like:

  • Saying a clear yes, no or maybe based on our needs in the moment. 
  • Communicating what’s OK or not OK.
  • Owning our own needs and asking for them.
  • Standing up for ourselves WITHOUT invading the other person’s village. This is what we often call assertiveness. 

It is only by repairing our boundary that we build self-trust - that we know that we have our own back. 


Boundaries crossed repeatedly without repair leaves us as more of a blob than a whole village. 

This often leads to:

  • resentment
  • bitterness
  • apathy
  • annoyance
  • regret 
  • sarcasm 
  • cynicism 
  • passive-agressive behavior

Where to start

This is a big topic, and there are tools for how to set boundaries or open up more to connection depending on what feels more relevant to you in a situation. 

Perhaps a good place to start is to simply notice - with kindness and curiosity - where you are at and what works and no longer works for you. 

How do you react in relationships? What is the balance between ME / WE? Is this working for you? Are you living with a lot of resentment, apathy or passive-aggressive behavior in your relationships? Do you feel you can trust yourself to understand and communicate your needs?

As Pat Ogden writes, "You can transform your relational boundary style into a choice rather than an automatic habit."

Said another way, you can change the signpost at the entrance of your village to one that is more aligned with the life you want to create today - perhaps one grounded in authenticity, assertiveness and connection. 

Intimacy & Men: Guest Post by Aernout Zevenbergen

In recent months I have come to realise that one of the most important questions to ask a male client could also be one of the riskiest: How many male friends do you have? Not drinking buddies, or sports mates but real friends? Friends with whom you speak about the joys and sadnesses of life, the successes and the failures?

I find the question so important because it can lead to an exploration of connections, of support networks, of possible loneliness (which is of course different from being alone). It also allows for a charting of openness, vulnerability, and authenticity: what sustains you, what challenges you in a constructive way? And: what are the hindrances in a man’s life to connect to a fellow male? The responses provide a lot of insight into how a man relates not just to other men, but also how he relates to himself, and to significant others in his life. 

The question about friendships among men is important, I believe, because it leads the way to better understanding how individual men interpret the world around them, and how they see their own place in it. It leads to a better understanding of difficulties men might have with romantic love, with intimacy (sexual and otherwise), with conflicts at work, and even how they engage with their own depression or anxiety, sadness, and their own joy and contentment.

The key, for me, is intimacy

Intimacy is sometimes confused with sexuality because the word is often used as a euphemism. Relationship experts, however, distinguish between physical intimacy and two other types: self-intimacy and conflict intimacy. Conflict intimacy describes our ability to interact without aggression or defensiveness.

In the setting of this blog I’m most interested in self-intimacy.

How content am I in my own skin? How capable am I to explore and experience the whole gamut of my emotions and thoughts, without needing to run away and hide? How well do I really know myself, and the stories I tell myself about myself? 

There’s a beautiful piece on men and intimacy on the blog of the Good Men Project where the author writes: Intimacy is based on being able to show ourselves to another person, warts and all. Men are very reluctant to do this because they fear that they might be judged or put down.  

Relationships of any type are bound to confront us with aspects of ourselves we don’t particularly like. A good relationship (be it a sibling, a colleague, a friend or a romantic partner) will hold up mirrors, and we will see things we don’t appreciate. 

Contemporary demands on romance require a broadening of how many of us still see masculinity. In an interview with GOOP, Terry Real said this about the modern-day demands of and on men: The things you were taught as a boy—be strong, don’t feel, be independent - will ensure that by today’s standards you’ll be seen as a lousy husband.

Self-intimacy is the way to seeing what’s in the mirror, confronting what isn’t particularly helpful in the lives we want to live, and finding the courage to accept what needs accepting. Self-intimacy also means exploring who it is I am as a man, from deep within. What is my mission and my vision, what are my values and how do I want to engage with the world around me? What are my truths, and how do I speak them? 

Therapist Terry Real calls this fierce intimacy: radical truth-telling. The ability to talk your walk, and walk your talk. But to be able to tell a radical truth, one needs to know 'I' first. This is where refined, new perceptions of strength are needed: the courage to be ruthlessly and compassionately honest with self, to explore the shadows within; the courage and strength to touch the pain within and heal.  

Being intimate with others requires being intimate with ourselves first. The ideals of olden days – to be stoic, to be aggressive, to be “a rock” – are no longer sufficient. Strength and courage in our day and age are being redefined to mean different things. 

Good, deep and lasting connections of men among men are ideal testing grounds for this openness, this vulnerability; testing grounds for this courageous entry into authenticity and integrity. 

A pathway towards fierce intimacy

Aernout Zevenbergen


Aernout has worked with the theme of modern day masculinity since 2001, originally as a writer / journalist. He published the book Spots of a Leopard in 2009 based on his encounters with men in Africa about what it means to be a man today.

Subsequently trained as a counsellor / psychologist, Aernout works one-on-one with men in his private practise near Nyon. 

Aernout was born in Zambia, raised in the Netherlands and has lived in numerous African countries between 1997 and 2016. In July 2016 he moved to Geneva with his wife, Käbi. 

Buy his book, Spots of a Leopard, in paperback and kindle

Join us for our upcoming workshop - click on the image below to find out more!