If nothing helps, here’s why and what to do about it.
“Most people, including myself, keep repeating the same mistakes.” — William Shatner
The current situation is a prime example of that.
How are we yet again in another crisis? Why are we still trying to solve the same problems previous generations dealt with?
As you might know, the movie’s plot involves a man waking up every morning to experience the same day over and over and over again. (Sounds familiar?)
Similarly, we can find ourselves in a perpetual déjà vu situation that plays itself out on the global and on the individual level.
On the macro-level, we continue to see instances of violence and inequality (alongside evidence that the world is getting better).
On the micro-level we can observe something similar: while some people are blessed with “positive repetitiveness” where most of what they touch turns into proverbial gold, others have continuous negative experiences through no fault of their own.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like that.
While it’s much harder to change repeating patterns on the macro-level, we have the power to transform lead into gold in our own lives.
Let’s explore how.
What Is Going On?
We could think of these positive or negative repeats as the metaphorical “fractal patterns of life.”
A “fractal” is a pattern that repeats on every scale. Nature itself is full of fractals, including coastlines and ocean waves. If you want to see an example of that, you can start with a fern leaf whose basic shape repeats itself over and over again at smaller scales.
And according to physicist Richard Taylor, our visual system is hardwired to understand fractals.
Of course, life experiences are different from natural phenomena. And yet, isn’t there also a repetitiveness in our lives, whether positive (“I knew this would work out!”) or negative (“There we go again!”)?
How to Address Negative Repeating Patterns
When it comes to addressing negative repeating patterns in your own life, I suggest the following initial steps:
Start with compassion
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” — Dalai Lama
It’s easy to use insight into negative repeating patterns to attack oneself or secretly criticize others. When we’re coming from a compassionate place, we don’t do this.
We need to remember that people don’t consciously choose to have negative fractal patterns, and their issues may stem from their childhood or their family of origin. The same is true for ourselves.
While going through these steps, it’s important to keep a key distinction in mind — the difference between judging (which often includes an element of righteousness and/or moral condemnation) and assessing (which gathers information from an emotionally neutral place).
Even though it might feel tempting to fall into judging myself or others, doing so is not helpful. Being overly self-critical is just another pattern as is chronic regret. During this entire exploration, we want to come from a place of assessing and remain compassionate (here's a meditation for self-compassion that can help).
Become aware of repeating patterns in other people
“We all have a blind spot and it’s shaped exactly like us.” — Junot Diaz
Because we all have our blind spots, it’s often easier to identify negative patterns in the lives of other people. To build awareness, start with that.
For instance, do you know somebody who keeps on experiencing what is basically the same problem in a slightly different form month after month — regardless of how hard they try to change it?
Perhaps they find themselves in a relationship with another unavailable partner every time you catch up with them. Or they leave a job they weren’t happy with, only to find themselves in a comparable situation with a different employer the next time you run across them.
You might also notice how much they would like to change that pattern and that they put a lot of effort into making progress…to no avail. Can you see how there might be a fractal pattern at work there?
A word of caution: it’s generally best to be a quiet observer, especially at first. If we see a friend or family member living out the same problem again, and again, it’s best to keep this observation to ourselves until we have gotten a clear invitation from them to share our thoughts.
You may even wish to start by finding fractal patterns in people that you don’t personally know but that are in the public space. For instance, we might have heard about people who have gotten divorced half a dozen times (or more), or who have sustained one heavy loss after the other. Can you see how that might be a fractal pattern?
If you find yourself becoming judgmental at this stage, refer back to the previous step about adopting a compassionate attitude and try to "greenlight" yourself.
Consider mapping your own life
“To become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are.” — Eric Hoffer
Once you have explored how fractal patterns might play themselves out in the lives of other people, try applying this concept to yourself and map your own life.
Here are some questions that help in this mapping:
- Are there any issues that you have dealt with repeatedly in any area of your life?
- What are the common denominators?
- How has this pattern resisted your efforts of changing it?
Again, the idea here is to assess, not judge.
Find and address the root cause of the repeating pattern
“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.” — Anthony J. D’Angelo
Fractal life patterns don’t just appear out of thin air, they have one or more root causes. For instance, someone who chooses highly-critical partners in life and business may have grown up in a verbally abusive environment. Later in life, this person’s childhood experience repeats itself in a different context.
The good news is that you can eradicate a negative life pattern by fully healing its root course. While outside circumstances also play a role, addressing the root cause makes it less likely that the pattern will repeat itself.
Finding the root cause of a fractal pattern can be tricky. Here are some questions that might help you explore:
- If you had to guess, what might be the incident or situation that created your own repeating pattern?
- Is there a similarity to an incident that happened at an earlier age?
- Is this a pattern that runs in your family?
Once you have clarity about the root cause of a repetitive situation, you can explore options for dealing with it.
While you might need qualified help for addressing the deeper cause (for instance, a therapist or a coach), the mere act of clarifying the underlying issue might already bring you some relaxation.
Having more clarity about the root cause will also make it easier for you to identify which solution might be a good fit for you so that you don’t waste time and energy on dead ends.
Why This Matters
The book Misbehavior of the Markets, co-authored by the “father of fractal www.workgeometry” Benoît B. Mandelbrot, explains why it’s so important to recognize patterns:
“People want to see patterns in the world. It is how we evolved. We descended from those primates who were best at spotting the telltale pattern of a predator in the forest, or of food on the savannah.”
What could be possible in our human evolution if we took this skill to the next level? Who could be become if we changed negative life patterns into positive ones?
A version of this article was originally published on Elephant Journal.
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