"Same Head Every Day"
Old habits and brainlock
Posted August 16, 2016
Genie was describing to one of the authors her dating disappointments. "Every day I wake up in the same head, and every day turns out as disappointing as the day before. Even my dating life: everybody I go out with turns out to be pretty much the same guy. At first he seems like real dating material, like this guy is finally going to be fun to be with. It’s kinda like eating the first time at a hyped up new restaurant. Only we never seem to get past the cocktails. When it’s over, I feel as if all I got was bread crumbs and another wasted evening.”
Human beings, like all living things, tend toward homeostasis, which is a fancy way of saying that our biological systems are programmed to maintain equilibrium, and to return to equilibrium if disturbed. Something like that is also true of our social configurations — families, social and work relationships, even our larger social and political systems. In fact, social scientists tells us that seeking out and staying in stable systems is natural to our humanity.
Genie continued, “At first I’m as excited as a cat going after a mouse. And if the guy puts me off, I go after him even harder. On the other hand, the instant a guy lets me know he’s really interested in me, I start having second thoughts: out of nowhere, I start seeing things about him that I don’t like. And before long, whatever that 'flaw' is becomes my excuse for calling the whole thing off.”
Brainlock is the authors’ term for the collective factors — neurological, physiological, social and contextual — of irrelationship that are used to maintain relationship homeostasis. Our brains are so consistent — or programmed for homeostasis — that they make sure the brainlock of irrelationship continues to drive whatever created yesterday’s “disappointments.” In Genie’s case, "If that guy calls wanting to make plans for things we can do together, I’m not the cat any more: I take off like a mouse."
The mechanisms of irrelationship develop in early childhood to maintain homeostasis in a parent-child relationship in which the parent is affected by negative emotions that counteract his or her ability to make the child feels safe. Reversing roles, then, the child takes responsibility for restoring equilibrium (and her own feelings of safety) by becoming caretaker for the parent so the parent is able to care for her. Later in life, the irrelationship mechanism will surface in virtually any type of relationship, having become established (as Freud would say) through repetition until it becomes a compulsion.
"Do the guys I go out with all have something in common, or do I just keep making lousy choices?” Genie asked.
“Hard to say, at least at first. But by the time the repetition pattern was in full swing, you’d have become pretty good at unconsciously screening out guys who don’t suit your game. The thing to focus on is the ‘repetitive thing’ — how your insecurity keeps making you jump to evaluating whether or not a guy is ‘husband material’ before you’ve given yourself a chance to figure out if you even like him. Your brain kicks in with irrelationship almost immediately so you’re not overwhelmed by the fear of being rejected. And the anxiety is deep: remember that it started when you were a small child and weren’t sure you would even survive if you didn’t ‘do’ something to make your parents feel better. Well, in irrelationship, we steer wide of the possibility of falling in love so that we don’t feel unsafe in an unpredictable situation. Ring a bell?”
“Oh, hell, yeah! It’s ringing like crazy! The whole time I was a kid, I worried about whether or not my parents were going to leave me. They had a terrible marriage. One of them was always saying they’d had enough or yelling, ‘get out’ at the other. It scared me so much! I was afraid they’d just leave and I’d be left alone. So I did everything I could to make them think I was a good girl so that they’d like me enough to stay. But other times their fights were about what a mistake it was to have me. Then I’d try to stay invisible so they wouldn’t have that to fight about. Even now, sometimes I get nervous when I’m around people I like — as if I’m waiting for something to go wrong that I’ll get blamed for.”
Genie’s ruined relationship with her parents made her apprehensive about letting any kind of relationship become important in her life. When she learned about irrelationship, she found that telling herself and someone else about those conflicted, frightening feelings became the first step on the way to recovery from the isolation and loneliness that irrelationship had created in her life. This was the beginning of creating a new homeostasis not built around fear of closeness to others, but around honesty about her vulnerability. For all of us, learning how to tell the truth about our vulnerability is essential to finding homeostasis in genuine intimacy.
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