When the Story Keeps Repeating
"Why do I keep marrying men who turn out to be jerks?"
"Why do I keep losing and then gaining weight?"
"Why do I always end up working for a creep?"
"Why can't I ever seem to get ahead financially?"
"Why am I always fighting with my kids?"
"Why am I disappointed with my life more often than not?"
"Why can't I seem to break free from this awful rut?"
Do you find yourself worried about why your life seems to be going in circles, rather than moving forward? Are you sometimes a little panicked by the prospect that you may never end this seemingly unending chain of repeating circumstances?
This time, it wasn't supposed to happen. This time, things were going to turn out better. You thought you had learned your lesson, but somehow you've landed in the very same painful place.
How many times have you said this? This time I won't marry someone who turns out to be a jerk like the one before. Or maybe, this time I'll make sure the boss isn't a tyrant before I take the job. This time, I won't get myself so far into debt.
And then, despite your very best effort, you find yourself right back where you were before. The new relationship is just like the last one, the new boss is even worse than the one you quit or the bank account is overdrawn, again.
What's going wrong? What keeps you from breaking free from those old painful patterns? Why can't you seem to take control of your life and change it for the better?
You're not alone. Therapists' offices around the world are flooded with people frustrated that their lives keep repeating the same painful scenarios. They have tried and tried, but they keep hitting a brick wall and can't seem to break free of an old, painful pattern. They are asking the same question you are: "Why does this keep happening to me?"
This book will help you find the answer to that question, and more important, help you find a way to break the bonds that have held you in the same painful patterns. It isn't magic, or a quick fix, but rather it is solid advice that I've accumulated over years of working with people just like you. In fact, what this book offers is something that everyone who finds peace and fulfillment in life has discovered -- I've simply tried to put it down in words that might help you to find it more easily.
You're not sick, broken, mentally ill, or inadequate. You don't lack will power. You aren't cursed with a life of misery. What you are experiencing now is something that everyone experiences. How you handle this situation will determine if you break free or stay stuck in the same self-defeating cycle. This book is here to guide you through the pain to a better, more fulfilling life.
"So, if nothing is wrong with me, why do I feel so terrible?" Good question -- and let's get started answering it. First, what you're going through has a name: crisis.
A crisis isn't life-threatening, but it is painful, and if it continues, it can be debilitating. When you're in the middle of it, there's no place more miserable.
A crisis happens when you experience a painful void in your life. You've done everything you know, and still, you wind up at the same place, with the same results you swore you wouldn't repeat again. So here you are, right back where you never wanted to be.
Everyone experiences crises. High-ranking executives, ministers, therapists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors all have crises. Smart people, rich people, happily married people, single people, old people, young people all experience crisis. It's easy to think that smart or successful people have no crises in their lives, but that is dead wrong. Money, intelligence, power, and success are no insurance against crisis, and in fact, often make crises worse. Everyone
There are four ways in which crises can manifest in your life. They can be latent crises, inflamed crises, suppressed crises, or resolved crises. To begin with, a crisis first appears in your life as a latent crisis. That is, it is present but is not causing you any pain. For example, you may be aware that spirituality is important, but feel no urgent need to find spiritual answers for your life. In this case, your spiritual crisis is a latent crisis.
If, however, your husband dies suddenly and unexpectedly, you may find yourself in urgent need of spiritual answers about the fundamental meaning of life and eternity. Suddenly, your latent crisis has become inflamed. You're in pain and needing some solid answers. An inflamed crisis is the most painful and most distressing form of crisis.
What makes a latent crisis become an inflamed crisis? Almost always it is a painful or traumatic event that activates the latent crisis and starts causing you pain. You lose your job. Your relationship falls apart. You have a heart attack and suddenly must scale back your activities. Your son fails in school. Your best friend no longer wants to see you.
Whatever the event might be, it unleashes the energy of the latent crisis, and you begin to experience great distress. It's more than just the pain of a broken relationship or a lost job -- you begin to have some serious and painful questions about your life. The questions keep you up at night and hound you during the day. There's no escape from a crisis that has become inflamed.
The point at which you experience a crisis is when it becomes inflamed. When the crisis is latent, you don't experience it as a crisis -- in fact, you may not be aware of it at all. It takes a triggering event to bring a latent crisis into your full awareness and make it inflamed.
Once it is inflamed, you have two choices: You can either suppress the crisis (for example, by immediately dating your high-school boyfriend after your divorce and then marrying him three months later) or you can take steps to resolve your crisis -- a process that you'll learn about in this book.
When you're locked into a repeating pattern that you just can't seem to break, it happens for one reason: You're suppressing a crisis rather than resolving it. A suppressed crisis occurs when you experience a crisis and rather than confront and resolve it, you push it back into the recesses of your mind in an effort to avoid the pain it is causing you. There are many ways you might suppress a crisis. For example, you might distract yourself with busyness, or occupy yourself with addiction, or throw yourself into a mind-numbing depression.
However you do it, suppressing a crisis has one monumental negative side effect: It keeps you stuck in the same repeating circumstances.
Because you're coming from a place of fear and avoidance, you don't move forward, and instead remain in the same painful situations. Suppressing a crisis takes lots of energy. It slowly depletes your psychic resources, leaving you unable to grow, take risks, and move forward.
There are seven basic crises that you will experience in your life. Every single person will experience these seven crises, regardless of race, education, or background. Chances are, you're experiencing one of them right now. How you respond to these crises, whether you suppress them or confront them, will dictate whether you are able to move on with your life. If you're stuck repeating the same painful patterns over and over again, it is because one of these seven crises is in your life and you are not confronting it. This book will help you identify the unresolved crisis you are suppressing and will teach you how to confront and resolve it. A little further in the book there will be a quiz that will help you to identify your crisis and will direct you to a specific chapter that will help you resolve it.
So what are the seven basic crises that everyone experiences? They are, in no particular order:
- The Crisis of Passion
- The Crisis of Contact
- The Crisis of Self-Confidence
- The Crisis of Individuation
- The Crisis of Fear
- The Crisis of Spiritual Meaning
- The Crisis of Broken Dreams
Some people immediately suppress a crisis as soon as it becomes inflamed, living rigid lives that are dedicated to avoiding the crises that lurk just beneath the surface of their carefully crafted exteriors. Others live in a state of continuously inflamed crisis, unable to suppress it and reluctant to take on the task of resolving it. Still others experience each crisis as it occurs and then go about the work of finding healthy resolution. The goal of this book is to help you learn this process and to resolve each crisis as you experience it.
Let me tell you how some of my clients have experienced crisis:Marianne's Crisis
When she walked into my office, the frustration she was feeling oozed from her. The way she walked with leaden feet, the half-hearted smile, and the downward gaze -- they all betrayed her heart. And it said volumes more than she could have told me in ten therapy sessions. She was overwhelmed with frustration.
At first glance, Marianne appeared to be a successful woman. She was attractive and dressed smartly. With her slim briefcase clutched in one hand and the other ready to be extended and pull you into her world with a firm handshake, there was no doubt that Marianne meant business. As I later learned, Marianne had a very successful career.
But the day she came to see me, business success wasn't the problem. She was thirty-five years old and never married, although she had been briefly engaged during college. She didn't feel the need for a traditional relationship and she liked the independence offered by not having a husband waiting at home for her.
What was deeply troubling Marianne was a realization that had hit her just a few days earlier. She seemed to be incapable of having a relationship with anyone other than a married man, and those relationships always seemed to follow the same course -- passionate meetings, promises of divorce that never happened, and eventually her breaking off the relationship in frustration. Over and over this same pattern had repeated itself.
The weight of this crisis was wearing on her trademark confidence and enthusiasm. She found herself sleeping late, missing deadlines, and unable to do anything other than the most routine tasks. It wasn't as if she was depressed, she said, it was more like sleepwalking. She was going through the motions, but not feeling a thing.
"What is so terribly wrong with me?" she begged. "Why can't I have a long-term loving and committed relationship with a single
By the end of our first hour together, she was telling me that maybe she "just wasn't cut out" to have a relationship. She was, after all, very successful, and in her mind, that was quite an accomplishment for a woman working in a business that was dominated by "the good old boys." Maybe that would just have to be enough.
Marianne was caught in a crisis. It wasn't a relationship crisis -- it was a crisis deep within Marianne. For years she had denied that the crisis existed, and she continued to repeat the same dead-end relationships. Now, suddenly, the pent-up pain of all those years in denial rushed forward and overwhelmed her. It seemed no matter what she did, it made no difference. At the end of the day, it was always the same: Her lover went back to his wife and she was once again alone and very much on her own.Mid-Career Collapse
A few years ago I worked with an executive named Don who was, in the mind of his company's human resources director, in a career death spiral. After a string of bad quarterly results and failed programs, this previously successful executive had become withdrawn and had "lost his edge." By the time I was called, Don was on the verge of being fired.
Don described his situation to me as a midlife crisis. He had realized over the past few years that he hated his job (even though he did it quite well) and wasn't sure if he wanted to be married anymore. Every week or so, he would take a business trip and extend it for a night or two in Las Vegas, where he would secretly spend the days and nights like the big-spending bachelor he wished he were.
Throughout this time, Don had become increasingly depressed and gave very little energy to his work. At first, he was able to coast on his past successes, but after a few years of this, his negligence really started to show and his boss threatened that if he didn't improve, he might lose his job.
Don was thoroughly convinced that his problem was being too "tied down," and the only escape he could envision was a divorce and a career change. As we worked together, it became clear that Don's love for his wife hadn't really diminished; it was that Don's whole world had become colored with his resentment. It was resentment that he had somehow not become what he wanted, and yet, he didn't quite know what that was. He just knew that there wasn't any passion in his life. He was full of blame for everything around him -- his job, the company, his parents, and his wife.
One day, quite unexpectedly for Don, his wife moved out of the house and asked for a divorce. You would think this turn of events would have solved Don's problem of being "too tied down," but it didn't. In fact, it threw Don into a state of depression that ultimately caused him to lose his job and most of his friends. Now, he was alone, single, and truly miserable.Jeannie's Broke Again
Jeannie was energetic and full of ideas. She had a brilliant imagination and loved to travel. So it made perfect sense to her that after a painful bankruptcy and divorce, owning her own dress shop would be the perfect career for her. The shop would give her the opportunity to buy all kinds of interesting clothes and display them creatively for her customers. She could travel to the Orient and Europe once a year to bring back all the treasures she could find to sell in her shop.
So she borrowed every nickel she could from everyone she dared ask and opened her shop. She filled the shop with everything she could afford to buy -- all the kinds of clothes she would want to wear. Carefully, she displayed her clothing, trying hard to keep her shop from looking like the women's department in one of those slick and impersonal department stores.
After a year of scraping to pay the shop rent, Jeannie had to close down. It seemed that her customers, the few that she had, didn't really share her taste in clothing. They would occasionally stop in and peruse the displays and maybe buy a small handbag or scarf, but rarely anything of much value.
Sitting on my couch, Jeannie was frustrated and depressed. She had followed her passion, and wasn't that supposed to "make the money come"? Now, she was right back where she started, only worse. Not only was she bankrupt again, she had lost some of her closest friends, who had loaned her money to open the shop and keep it going. One by one, they had all distanced themselves from her as her requests for money had become more frequent.
Jeannie felt like a total failure. She was weighted down with a heavy guilt over losing so much of her friends' money. She described herself as a loser. Maybe she just wasn't smart enough to make a decent living.
The truth was, Jeannie wasn't a loser. She was caught between her passion and earning a living. It seemed that every time she allowed herself to follow her heart, she wound up broke again. Should she build her life on making a respectable living or follow her passion?
In time, Jeannie would understand and embrace another option that she just couldn't see at the time. She discovered she wasn't doomed to bounce between her heart and her head, or her wallet and her talent. What Jeannie needed, and finally achieved, was a breakthrough from the crisis she was facing.Stuck...as It Happens Again
Marianne, Don, and Jeannie were all caught in painful stories that kept repeating. It was as if they were running but not going anywhere, or trying to scream for help but not making a sound. Their worlds, once full of opportunity and challenge, became obstacle courses full of danger and drudgery. They each reached a dead end in life -- a place where it seemed as if they had no choice but to remain in misery. They tried to make things better by suppressing their crises, but despite their struggles, the crises only got worse.
In time, they were able to find the answers they needed to resolve their crises and put their lives back on track. What may surprise you as we look at their journeys (and the journeys of many others) is that the real solution to their problems wasn't what they first imagined. There was something deeper going on within Marianne, Don, and all others caught spinning their psychic wheels. It was far more than the armchair diagnoses of "poor relationship skills" or "midlife crisis." They were caught in the ironclad grip of unresolved and suppressed crisis.
It's a place where most of us find ourselves at some point, and it can be both lonely and intensely frustrating. But there is help. There is a way out of the trap that seems to have caught you. You must first confront the crisis and dig to the core to discover what is causing it. In this book, I will show you how to identify your crisis, confront it, and get the breakthrough you are seeking.How have you felt alone, different, flawed, or inadequate as a result of experiencing a crisis?But Why Crisis?
At this point you may be asking, why must there be crisis?
Can't I just get insight and apply it to my life without having a crisis?
That's a good question, and frankly, it's at the core of why so much of the self-help movement has failed. There are many thousands of books and seminars promising a shortcut through all the difficulties of creating a fulfilling life. By now, most of us have tried those shortcuts, and we know they just don't work for the long haul.
All the fairy tales about life (including a whole truckload of get-well-quick books and tapes) say that life can be painless and deliriously happy all the time. Okay, stop and think about this for a minute. How many people do you know well who are deliriously happy all the time?
As a therapist and author, I know a lot of people, and I don't know one who fits into this category. I'll bet you don't either.
be unhappy from time to time, you will experience some pain, and you will not
escape this life without your share of difficulty. What you don't have to experience is constant, repeating misery. You can feel an abiding sense of satisfaction and fulfillment throughout your life. Most important, you are not doomed to a life of repeating frustration and sadness.
Now, let me return to the question of "Why crisis?": Yes, there must be crisis.
Yes, there must be a certain amount of confusion and psychological pain. If there were no confusion and pain there would be no real learning.
This is probably the most important insight toward changing your life for the better: From time to time, crisis will
come. Once you make peace with this, you stop fighting the process and allow it to begin to shape your life for your highest good.
When tragedy strikes, the first natural response is "Why me?" To which the world callously responds "Why not you?" Painful circumstances are part of every life -- no one leaves this planet unscathed. The amount of psychological pain you experience in life is not determined by what happens to you, but by how you handle your life's crises. If you suppress those crises, you will live much of your life in psychological misery. If, on the other hand, you learn to face your crises and deal with them squarely, you will be free to create the life you want.
Where does this process of crisis and resolution come from? I believe it is the way that nature helps us along our journey. After years of working with people in pain from all walks of life, I am convinced that everything happens in our lives for a reason -- a good reason.
Each crisis has a very important lesson to teach us.
Maybe you're more comfortable thinking about this in practical terms. Think about pain as your biological teacher. Remember when you were a child and put your hand on a hot stove? What happened? You felt pain and the pain prompted you to action. More important, the pain also embedded an important lesson in your mind about not touching objects that are hot. That's why nature uses pain -- to teach us important lessons. Your body feels pain when something is wrong and needs to be changed. Pain is a very helpful biological process. So it is with your state of mind -- you feel psychological pain when you need to change.
By clinging to the idea that you should be happy all the time, and that if you're not, something must be desperately wrong with you, you are preventing yourself from experiencing the very happiness you deserve in life. In fact, there's no surer way to misery. If you try, as many do, to be happy all the time, you will never allow yourself to deal honestly with the crises that occur in your life. Instead, you will spend much of your time hiding the crisis pain behind a suffocating smiley-face façade.
Happiness is something we all strive for, and at the same time, we can never have a steady diet of it. Being happy is entirely dependent upon your willingness to forsake the pursuit of happiness and face the difficult truths about yourself.
To be sure, you can have a great deal of happiness in this life, but finding it means resolving each crisis as it occurs.
The pain you feel in crisis is a signal for you to learn and grow. When you heed that signal and subsequently resolve the crisis, you find yourself happier and more fulfilled. On the other hand, if the crisis remains unresolved, the pain begins to compound and undermine your confidence. It's a double whammy -- the longer the crisis continues, the worse it gets.
Take Marianne, for example. Her predicament is like that of many others who live in a state of unresolved crisis. Not only were her relationship choices not working, she kept making the same choices.
Marianne was bright, energetic, and by all accounts, a very likable woman. Simply telling her to make a different choice would not have solved her problems -- she already knew that she wanted something different. Having lived in unresolved crisis for so long, she now felt incapable of making different choices. She saw herself make the same mistake so many times that she no longer had the courage to make a different choice.How has the idea that you must be happy all the time or something is wrong with you affected your life? How have you tried to escape the normal pain of living?Is This Your Life?
Let me show you just how important crises are to creating a fulfilling life. Imagine this...
You walk into a dimmed theater, and as your eyes adjust to the dark, you find a seat and settle in. The theater is packed with people and the movie is scheduled to begin at any moment. The curtain parts and the previews of coming attractions begin. One of them catches your eye and you make a mental note to see that one when it is released. The curtain closes and reopens as the feature film begins.
The music swells and a hush falls over the crowd as the title appears on the screen. As you watch the opening scenes, it all seems vaguely familiar to you. Perhaps you have seen this movie before? No, that couldn't be -- it's a new release. The characters you definitely know very well, but how?
Then it dawns on you -- this is the story of your life. You're that kid on the screen, and those are your parents and your brothers and sisters. You start to feel uneasy and wonder, do all these people know that this is your life? Then a horrible pang hits you in the pit of your stomach -- surely it won't show everything!
Just imagine for a moment that this is really happening to you. If you're like most people, you will be riveted by the movie and watching every moment. It's all about you, and it's bigger than life up on the screen. And when the movie ends, it stops right where you are, sitting in the movie theater.
Take some time now and imagine the movie of your life. In your mind's eye, watch the screen and all the events that have followed through your life. Begin as early as you can remember and slowly bring yourself through the teenage years, early adult and adult years to the present day...
Now think of yourself as a movie reviewer for a respected publication. What would you have to say about this movie? Did it start off with promise, but fizzle out during the last half? Is it monotonous, repeating the same situations over and over again? Is it filled with stock characters, having the same relationships over and over again? Is it a soap opera-like drama that goes from one scene of betrayal and conflict to another?
Movies are stories, and stories are tales about life. We instinctively recognize a good story. Remember when you were a kid and your parents read you stories before bed? Nobody had to tell you which stories were good stories -- you knew
what a good story was without anyone telling you. Why? Because you were born with an innate sense about what a good, fulfilling, adventurous life is all about. The best stories -- the ones you love to read and to watch on the big screen -- are only representations of what you know to be true about a fulfilling life.
So how interesting is the movie of your life? Does it seem to drag? Does it get bogged down in the same repeating circumstances? Do you find there is something lacking in the story line?
What makes a really good and satisfying story is a plot twist. A plot twist occurs when the action in the story suddenly shifts, and the story heads in a new direction. It's what makes a story interesting -- and in large part is the backbone of truly great stories.
If you find that the story of your life is less than fulfilling, there's a good chance that you are avoiding a plot twist. In order to create a plot twist in your life, the action in your life must come to a screeching halt and you must take a step in a different direction. Plot twists utterly change your life -- they change you.
It can seem like pretty scary stuff.
Crisis is the natural cue for a plot twist. Crisis tells you that it's time to change the action and head in a new direction. When you fail to confront a crisis and resolve it, your life doesn't change and the story gets mired in the same repeating circumstances.
Plot twists are never easy. Think about it. Imagine what Scarlett O'Hara must have felt when she made the decision to flee Atlanta and return to Tara. She was utterly terrified -- and she did have other options. She could have stayed right where she was. She could have fled north. At that point, there were no guarantees that by returning to Tara she would become anything more than a poor Southern farmer.
Remember the story of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt (portrayed on the big screen in The Prince of Egypt)?
That story is filled with terrifying plot twists. What if Moses had refused to return from his quiet life in the desert as a shepherd? What if the Israelite slaves had refused to follow this impassioned and somewhat idealistic leader out of Egypt? War and Peace, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby,
or A Tale of Two Cities
wouldn't have been very good stories either if the main characters hadn't experienced at least a few plot twists.
To a certain extent, a plot twist is a step of blind faith. It is a departure from what you've known into new territory and new experiences. When your life's story teeters at the brink of a plot twist, but never takes the turn, it becomes tedious, boring, and very unsatisfying. Who wants to live that story?
When you are faced with crisis, you are faced with the choice to create a plot twist. Crisis is the point where your life story is begging to take a turn. When you deny that crisis and refuse to change the plot, you become stuck in the same old story -- repeating it again and again. If you stay there long enough you will begin to lose interest in almost everything -- including yourself.How has your life's story been yearning for a plot twist?It Makes You Feel Helpless
When you continue to suppress a crisis in your life and it lingers unresolved, it begins to destroy your self-esteem and diminish your ability to find resolution. You descend into a state of mind that psychologists call helplessness.
One of the most vivid examples of helplessness was an experiment conducted by the now-famous psychologist Martin Seligman. In his early years as a behavioral researcher, Dr. Seligman worked with dogs, trying to identify simpler forms of behavior that might lend some insight into the more complex actions of humans. What the young Dr. Seligman stumbled upon was enlightening.
The experiment Dr. Seligman performed (there were many different variations, so I simply describe the general paradigm) was to put a dog in a box with two compartments. Both compartments were wired to alternately give a mild electrical shock (psychologists have long been fascinated with shocking innocent animals -- but that's another story). When one compartment gave a shock, the dog could jump to the other compartment to escape the shock. Quickly, the dogs learned to anticipate the shocks before they happened and would jump to the other side to avoid the pain of being shocked altogether. Soon it became something of a game for the dogs, as they jumped back and forth.
When the dogs were later placed in a box and not allowed to escape the shock, they would at first struggle, claw, and bark trying to exit, but eventually, with repeated shocks, they would stop struggling and would submit to the pain. Many of these dogs went on to develop highly neurotic and maladaptive behavior, such as spinning and incessant tail-biting.
And here's the interesting part of the experiment: Dr. Seligman then put these dogs back into the first box that allowed them to escape when shocked. Guess what? The dogs wouldn't even try to escape. Instead, they cowered in pain as the shocks were administered, just as they had done in the box that had no escape.
What Dr. Seligman illustrated in rather dramatic (if not torturous) style was that when a dog's best efforts are ineffective in avoiding pain, the dog gives up and stops trying. The dog literally becomes helpless.
So it is with you and me. The longer we remain frustrated and in pain, the less likely we are to confront the crisis we are experiencing. We become conditioned to the pain, and while we don't enjoy it, we become accustomed to living with the frustration and misery. In essence, we stop trying.
Like Seligman's dogs, you, too, have developed ways of handling your continued frustration. Perhaps you've experienced depression, defensiveness, emotional hypersensitivity, or uncontrollable anger over the repeating pain in your life. These are all ways in which you express your frustration and sense of helplessness. Nothing you do seems to make a difference, so the frustration builds until it explodes in your life through these natural "pressure valves."Are there painful areas in your life where you have just given up? How do you express your frustration with those areas?
You don't want to feel helpless, and you don't have to. The first step toward healing is to recognize that at the root of these feelings of helplessness is a suppressed crisis. So let's turn our attention to the process of suppression, and more important, how you can stop doing it.
Copyright © 2002 by Alan Downs, Ph.D.