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How We Shoot Ourselves in the Foot Again and Again

I say mine, you say no, you say mine and I say no, no, no.

If it sometimes feels like you make the same mistakes over and over, you’re definitely not alone. Everyone on Earth is capable of repeating the same mistakes again and again. Everyone can react to a jerk like a jerk. We can all fall into relationships filled with cold shoulders, boredom, or high conflict. And we’re all sadly capable of turning pain into suffering.

We can repeatedly shoot ourselves in the foot for one simple reason. Under stress, we tend to retreat to habits of emotion regulation formed as far back as toddlerhood. Our thought processes become self-obsessed and our feelings veer toward the volatile, if not a full-blown rollercoaster. We’re likely to act impulsively, with little foresight and poor judgment. The only available solutions seem like, “No!” and “Mine!” (“My way!”)

Why We Repeat Mistakes

The Toddler brain is dominated by feelings rather than analysis of facts. (If the feelings are negative, they seem like alarms.) Not surprisingly, habits formed in the Toddler brain are activated by feelings rather than analysis of the conditional context of past mistakes and their consequences. When we feel that way again, for any reason, past behavioral impulses grow stronger, increasing the likelihood of repeating the mistake. We’re likely to eat the whole cake and then realize that we should have had a V-8 instead. We’ll throw a temper tantrum (or repress one) before remembering the resolution to take a time out. We’ll pout, criticize, or devalue others, instead of seeking to improve and repair. The dominance of feelings (over judgment, analysis, foresight, and sensitivity to other perspectives) is why diets don’t work, addicts relapse, projects fail, marriages falter, and Mr. Hyde can’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class.

In 30 years of clinical practice, virtually all my clients have come to me with entrenched habits of retreating to the Toddler brain when things got tough. Unlike personality, genetics, and temperament, habits are readily changeable, although the change process is often tedious and repetitious. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that once habits are formed, they are not changed by insight or understanding of how they started. They can be changed only by establishing new habits.

The Toddler Brain is Self-Obsessed, Volatile, All–or-Nothing

Toddlers are incapable of seeing any perspective other than their own. (Perspective-taking - understanding how other people experience the world - is a higher order operation of the Adult brain.) Toddlers fill in the huge gaps in their knowledge of other people’s perspectives with imagination. But their imaginations are dominated by how they feel at the moment, and how they feel at this moment is unlikely to be how they felt a few moments ago – feelings in the Toddler brain are highly volatile. Their attributions about other people tend to vacillate between the very positive and very negative. This subjects them to what psychologists call “splitting” (the wellspring of adult "all-or-nothing" thinking). You’re either all good or all bad; they love you or hate you; they think the best about you or the worst. You probably know adults who put you on a pedestal when they feel good and cast you as a demon when they feel bad. They become needy or aloof - they cling or pout. If their feelings are hostile, they’re prone to passive aggression and even violence.

It doesn’t take much experience with a toddler to recognize periods of neediness and bouts of pouting. Less obvious is passive-aggressive behavior, which is a toddler way of asserting autonomy. Video studies of toddlers show them doing things like intentionally dropping objects as a way of saying, “No,” purposely making noise when their parents are on the phone, telling fibs about other kids, using one parent against the other, and faking injuries – or actually hurting themselves - to get reward or avoid reprimand. Adults in their Toddler brains try to feel more autonomous by moralizing, preaching, lecturing, psychoanalyzing, acting like martyrs, or by devaluing and demeaning others. And then, there’s violence.

Just for laughs, take the following violence-prone quiz, in which you identify the family member to whom the question or statement most likely refers.

1. Who are the most violent people in the vast majority of families? _____

2. This family member often uses anger as a defense. ___

3. If this family member doesn't get his/her way, violence is likely. ___

4. If hurt or offended, this family member wants to hit or throw something. ___

Did you guess that the correct answer for each question is not “father” or “mother,” but a child under three? The trick of the quiz is in the word, “violence,” which makes us think of damage. Toddlers do little or no damage with their violence – they’ll hit you with a tissue or stomp their feet, scream, or flail at the air - so we tend not to think of their behavior as violent, although it is. The point is that aggressive anger and violence (when not protecting life, limb, or other people) is not adult; it’s childish. It comes from the Toddler brain, and needs to be regulated by the Adult brain.

Soar Above

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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