“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 herself 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.