Patterns

puzzle pieces

Much has happened in the past few years, and as I have been looking back and reflecting on all the events that have occurred, lessons I’ve learned, thinking about where to start with my blog, the major, overall theme that jumps out at me is patterns.  I can categorize nearly everything into a pattern of some sort, things that have happened before might have had different forms, different faces, different details – but the underlying story is the same.

As human beings, we are all creatures of habit, and thus we all have patterns and certain ways of doing and thinking about things.  Our patterns are formed when we are babies and throughout early childhood, when our impressions about the world and the way things work and who we are are being created and solidified.  Habits are often passed down from generation to generation, as our early habits are formed through our interactions with our caretakers – our families.  Children in families grow up to have their own children, and they pass down the same habits to them – and so it goes.  These habits are mostly unconscious, yet deeply ingrained and rarely challenged.  Everyone around us behaves a certain way, and that becomes our ‘normal’.  In our minds, this is how the world operates.  Those who don’t operate in the same way are seen as outside the norm and strange.  Some of us may dismiss those people and not take the time to consider why they behave the way they do; we don’t give them any importance and simply forget about them and move on.  When we don’t allow ourselves the time to reflect on the basis for the behaviors of others, we cut off any opportunity for growth and positive change in ourselves.  We stay stuck in our ingrained, unconscious habits and patterns, and continue to encounter the same problems, the same difficulties, the same people, our entire lives.  Nothing will ever change.  We keep thinking if only this person would stop doing that, if only people could understand me, if only the world weren’t so messed up, if only other people didn’t have all these problems… But the truth is, when everyone and everything around us is flawed and problematic, the reality is that the problem lies in YOU.  If, for instance, you find yourself always ending up in relationships with people who treat you badly and don’t respect you, the problem is not them.  The one thing all these relationships have in common – is YOU.  The question you must ask yourself is not what is wrong with them, but instead, what is wrong with me?  What is wrong with me for allowing and tolerating such behavior?  For not standing up for myself early on and walking away when the red flags first began popping up?  Why did I continue to hang on?  Why do I not believe that I deserve better?  And on and on the questions go.  It is in this kind of reflection, reflection about the self, that change can occur and we can truly begin taking steps to stopping unhealthy patterns once and for all.  We must stop looking at others, and start looking inside.

It is sometimes said that like attracts like.  It is also sometimes said that opposites attract.  But, the truth is that neither are really the case.  Newton’s law states it best: for every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction.  What that means is, whatever you put out there will attract its match in return.  If you have low self-worth and don’t believe you deserve to be treated well, that is exactly what you will get.  You will get others who don’t think highly of you and who will not treat you well.  Your psychological and energetic state will draw in your match.  When relationships fail, the last thing to cross our minds is that we were well-matched… but the truth is, you were.  You were the exact match for each other at that point in time; the matching piece of the puzzle.  A good match doesn’t equate a healthy match; it simply means two people fit the needs of the other, healthy or unhealthy, conscious or unconscious.  One thing I’ve heard therapists and life coaches often say is that relationships are a dance.  It takes two, and each of you dances in a specific pattern that fits exactly the pattern in which the other person dances.  It is not an identical dance, you are not doing the exact same moves at the same time for the same reasons – rather, it is a symbiotic, complementary dance.  And then relationships fail because one partner changes and the dance no longer works; it falls apart.  Relationships also fail if one partner becomes aware of the dysfunction and no longer wants to continue in it.  However, too often that person does not look at their role in the dysfunction, and continues on with the same patterns and will eventually end up in yet another dysfunctional relationship.  That particular partner changed, but the patterns – the source of the dysfunction – did not.  That is not to say we should continue on in dysfunctional relationships or continue to tolerate inappropriate, disrespectful, or abusive behavior.  Rather, we should look inward to work on changing our internal patterns, and the relationship will reveal itself and work out in the way that it is meant to.

Now that I’ve begun to take a critical look at myself and my life and have seen the clear patterns neatly tying everything together, I am astounded at how obvious it was all this time – and yet I never saw it.  I was too stuck in them; they were so deeply ingrained and a part of what I thought “normal” was that I never once questioned them; I never took a step back and really examined my patterns and habits.  It’s also amazing that now, after discovering this about myself, how clearly I can see the issues of others all around me.  It all comes down to patterns that were imprinted upon us during childhood.  So simple… and yet, the hardest part is seeing our own patterns, seeing ourselves as we truly are, and our central role in the problems that plague us.

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Roots of Depression

My intention with this blog was to first discuss much of my experiences and thought processes surrounding my conversion to Islam, but since I’ve been doing a lot of pondering, reading, and self-analysis on the subject of depression, I decided I’d go ahead and post it in hopes that it can help others. 

Depression: A Symptom, Not a Cause

Going through graduate school for counseling psychology, I often heard that depression isn’t the cause but is a symptom of something else.  That something else can come from pretty much anything – internalized, unexpressed anger, dissatisfaction with life circumstances, etc.  There is no one answer.  Yet, it seems that so many people, especially in the US and other western countries, suffer from the imprisonment of depression. 

Why?  When we have so much in our lives; when we live better than many other people in the world – why are we so depressed?  We don’t have to suffer through the horrors of being in a war zone, having relatives killed or raped, living in constant fear, always in survival mode, not free to move beyond the comfort of the basics and express ourselves creatively, give back to the community around us… Even the poorest among us are still relatively better off than those considered ‘normal’ in other countries.  We have more civil liberties, we can express ourselves, we can disagree with the government if we want to, we have a judicial system which is relatively uncorrupted (although institutionalized racism and discrimination still exists, but it certainly isn’t as overt as in other countries) so we can count on justice and fairness for the most part.  So why do we feel that life is so hopeless? 

External vs. Internal Roots

There are many answers.  Sometimes depression can be circumstantial and be caused by external factors, but many times, especially in the case of Americans, I believe it is intrinsic, internal.  My thoughts stem from a theory I recently came across by a couple, the Weinholds, who are also psychologists.  Developmental psychologists know that the first 3 years of life are the most crucial for forming personality, our view of ourselves and others (the world around us), and the behaviors we develop to get us through life.  If trauma occurs during this critical stage, the likelihood of developing maladaptive traits and behaviors is strong. 

However, the theory that this couple puts forward is that smaller traumas that occur here and there early in life can add up to having the same effect as an extreme trauma.  I think many of us may fall into this camp, which is where unhealthy patterns begin to occur.  Smaller traumas may not even be noticeable to the adults in the child’s life, such as moving frequently (thus creating a sense of instability and abandonment), the birth of a new sibling (and the child being left alone, ignored), frequent changes in caretakers (such as going to daycare early on and being looked after by several employees in the same day even), and so on. 

Early Experiences: Long-Term Effects

All of these smaller traumas can add up to create issues in adult life, especially if they aren’t explored and processed.  Adults can become afraid of abandonment and thus get into codependent relationships in which they sacrifice themselves at all costs to keep the other happy so that they won’t ‘leave’.  They lose their boundaries and sense of self in order to do and be everything the other person desires.  When a person loses their sense of self, they no longer give value to their own thoughts and feelings and push them aside.  Depression springs up as a signal that something is wrong; something is unbalanced. 

Other people begin to play the perpetual victim role in order to achieve the attention they didn’t get early in life.  Even if the attention they receive in their relationship now is sufficient, without those early events being processed and recognized, they still create a sense of desperate hunger in our innermost being.  This obviously wreaks havoc on a relationship, as the victim is manipulating the feelings and actions of the other person, and is no longer being genuine and honest.  This can push the victim into depression because their true self isn’t known. 

Early trauma can also cause us to believe that the world is not to be trusted (since our caretakers did not give us attention when we cried for it), and that others cannot be depended on.  It also reinforces the idea that we must not be valuable or worth anything if we were neglected (or received intermittent care).  This is the core of depression, in my opinion.  Early experiences taught us that others don’t care about us because we aren’t valuable, creating a deep self hatred and even anger. 

Self-Hatred

So, the root of depression is in our attitudes towards ourselves.  Medication won’t cure it (it only numbs it for a while til your body gets used to it and needs a stronger dose or different medicine), exercise or changing your habits won’t cure it (although they can be a healthy way to help alleviate it), and definitely self-medication doesn’t help (such as drugs, alcohol, sex – although it numbs it), as those create even more problems down the road. 

In Search of the Cure

For a while, I’ve struggled with the question of which is more important for self-improvement and (hopefully) digging ourselves out of depression: focusing on our weaknesses, or focusing on both our weaknesses and our strengths?  Which one will keep me in a self-aware, humble, and driven state of mind conducive to self-improvement? If we acknowledge our strengths, I thought, we might become complacent and lazy, telling ourselves that we’re not that bad and not feel as compelled to change as a result.  Plus, some people may be so depressed and self-loathing that they fail to see any strengths at all.   

However, recently I have realized that when we focus solely on our weaknesses, we essentially paralyze ourselves due to the constant condemnation, self-criticism, and the belief that we have nothing positive or of value to offer.  When we get into that frame of mind, we go into survival mode.  Our bodies and brains shut down and just try to survive – get through one day to the next, go through the most basic actions.  We’re fearful of making mistakes, we’re harsh and unforgiving when we do… it’s all we can do to survive; we wouldn’t even consider branching out to take a risk or try something new. 

Instead, the Islamic life motto, all things in moderation, walking the tight rope of the middle path, serves as the best solution.  We need to have a balance of both.  We need to recognize our strengths, because we can use our strengths to help us overcome our weaknesses.  If we believe that we have no value, we’re left feeling very helpless and unable to change – because we simply don’t have the tools to do so.  But, if we recognize and acknowledge our strengths, we can use them as tools to make ourselves better and improve our weaknesses.  

Yet, some of us may still be too depressed and worn down to give value to our strengths.  We may not trust ourselves to have an accurate assessment of our strengths.  For those of us who believe in God, or in a higher power, then the solution is simple.  All of God’s creation has been carefully crafted, and humans in particular, as the Bible states, are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Out of our respect and sincerity in our belief in God, we must have respect  for His creation, and thus, for ourselves.  Even if we find no value in ourselves, God does.  Even if we question our existence and wish we were better off not having been born, God intentionally put us here.  Out of respect for God, we must respect ourselves.

Respect for Self 

God is the most merciful, the most compassionate – as we are reminded over and over in the Quran.  When we make mistakes, He doesn’t immediately condemn us to hell or send us an earthly punishment.  He sees our grief, our desire for repentance, and He lovingly, mercifully, forgives us.  If the God of the universe can be merciful towards us, then part of our gratitude toward Him should include having mercy toward ourselves. 

To do this, we don’t need to lie to ourselves or live in a delusion that we’re in great shape and have no problems.  Instead, we need to simply acknowledge our strengths, and use them to help us overcome our weaknesses.  We need to speak to ourselves more mercifully.  If our inner, self-talk is constantly negative and critical, logically our emotions and our energy levels will be negative as well.  Our general functioning will decline – our health will worsen even.  Yet, if our self-talk is merciful, encouraging instead of critical and destructive, we’ll feel more hopeful.  We’ll feel more motivated to ‘do better next time.’  We’ll look for ways to expand, try new things, reach out, explore ourselves.  With a safe, encouraging base, our minds are braver and more energized to reach higher goals.  On the contrary, with a critical, unforgiving base, our minds are too fearful to attempt anything outside of what is ‘safe,’ which isn’t much because you’ve already determined that you have no strengths. 

Positive Behavior causes Positive Emotions

One thing I often find myself falling into is that I’ll reward myself when I’m doing something right.  I might wear clothes that I really like, for example,  as a reward.  If I’m not doing well, I won’t, which makes me feel worse as a result since I feel self-conscious about my appearance, and increases my negative self-talk.  It’s a downward, negative spiral.

During graduate school when I was in the counseling program, one of my professors told me that he had trouble initially showing empathy nonverbally.  He had empathic thoughts, but he had trouble actually feeling it and as a result, showing it.  He decided to consciously ‘show’ his empathy (by raising his eyebrows, opening his mouth, gasping, etc.) in order to be more responsive to his clients.  He found that over time, his feelings began to gradually catch up.  He engaged in the behaviors before he ‘felt’ anything; yet his positive behaviors affected his feelings. 

I realized that the same is true with fighting depression.  If we do positive things as a reward for doing something right, inevitably we’ll end up spiraling downward, because we’ll make mistakes, punish ourselves, feel worse, punish ourselves again – causing ourselves to continue downward with no positive, rewarding behaviors.  It should be the opposite: we need to engage in positive behavior, which will in turn cause our feelings to be more positive.  Proponents of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to improving mental health know very well that our thoughts affect our feelings, our feelings affect our behaviors, and our behaviors affect our thoughts – and vice versa.  Therefore, positive behavior will inevitably affect both our thoughts and feelings positively.  When we care about ourselves, respect ourselves, we start to feel better.  Thus, when we feel depressed, when we feel particularly loathing toward ourselves, this is when we should do something positive.  Again, if not for our sake, but for the sake of respecting God’s creation.   

I have more thoughts on this subject, but this is long enough to provide plenty food for thought.  Below is the link to the psychologists discussing the theory of early childhood trauma causing difficulty later in life.  They do come off as a bit bland, but they have fanstatic, intriguing things to say. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPmRQSNUs2w&feature=related