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How We Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over

Outgrow the habit of turning setbacks into loss and pain into suffering.

Does it sometimes seem like the people around you take target practice to get better at shooting themselves in the foot? (Or that you do?)

We’re all capable of making the same mistakes over and over, because, under stress, we tend to retreat to habits of emotion regulation formed in toddlerhood. Habits rule under stress and when the regulatory processes of the prefrontal cortex (the adult brain) are overtaxed from physical or mental exhaustion.

We see increasing evidence of toddler brain habits—impulsiveness, poor judgment, self-obsession, and volatile feelings—because our lives have grown dramatically more complex than our brains evolved to handle, as neuroscientist Daniel Levitin amply describes in The Organized Mind. For all their advantages, advances in technology also create information overload and overstimulation, causing more frequent retreat to the toddler brain. There we have no foresight or ability to think through the consequences of behavior.

The toddler brain is dominated by feelings rather than analysis of facts. If the feelings are negative, they seem like alarms. Habits formed in the toddler brain are activated by feelings—especially negative feelings that seem like alarms - 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 remember that we should have had a V-8 instead. We’ll throw a temper tantrum (or repress one) before we recall our resolution to take a time out when things get hot. We’ll pout, criticize, and 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, and Mr. Hyde can’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class.

Characteristics of the Toddler Brain under Stress

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, which is entirely controlled by how they feel at the moment. 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.

When toddlers feel something, they can’t imagine ever not having felt that way or that they will ever feel differently in the future. Their feelings seem permanent and unchangeable. To be fair, memory of past emotional states is brief even for adults. Psychologists call the phenomenon, “state-dependent recall”—information learned in one mood or emotional state is most likely to be recalled in a similar mood or emotional state. When resentful toward a spouse, you can remember everything he/she did to offend or disappoint since the day you married. But you’ll recall only nice things about him or her when you feel sweet and loving. When depressed, we tend to think of only sad things, and when we're happy, we tend to think exclusively of happy events. When we're angry, we think of offensive things, and when compassionate, we recall our more humane experiences.

Negative emotional states are especially susceptible to state-dependent recall, due to their more urgent survival importance. If a saber-tooth tiger swatted at early humans from the side, that information was necessary for survival. However, it wasn't necessary to have it in consciousness all the time, where the intensity of the memory would impair performance of other important tasks that require conscious attention. So the information is "filed" under fight-or-flight arousal and recalled only during similar arousal. (The flashbacks of PTSD constitute a breakdown of state-dependent recall, which allows memories of extreme threat to intrude on relatively benign emotional states.)

State-dependent recall is generally an efficient mode of information processing. But the emotional state that leads to most self-defeating behavior—anger—is processed in milliseconds (thousandths of a second) and cannot be selective in recall. We tend to feel the urgency of attack every time something happens to stimulate anger. This is helpful if the stimulus is really a saber-tooth tiger, but not so great if the challenge is a stubborn teenager, distracted spouse, rude driver, or narcissistic coworker.

State-dependent recall keeps us in whatever part of the brain we’re in at the moment, simply because we’re accessing only those memories associated with the current emotional state. When feeling helpless in the toddler brain, it seems that we've always been helpless. When feeling dependent, it seems that we were always dependent on someone else (or some substance). When depressed, it seems that we never felt well. When feeling destructive, it seems that we've always been devalued, disrespected, disregarded, angry, or bitter.

Fortunately, state-dependent recall works in the adult brain, too. When feeling compassionate, we can’t remember ever feeling resentful. And when feeling confident, we're apt to forget mistakes we've made in the past, while implicitly remembering the corrections we made. For example, I won’t remember banging my thumb with a hammer in the adult brain, but I’ll implicitly recall how to hold the nail and swing the hammer for maximum efficiency.

Despite the illusions of state-dependent recall, negative feelings are transitory. A toddler can express hatred for you in a temper tantrum and a few minutes later climb onto your lap in loving affection.

The negative feelings that lead to repeating mistakes over and over last a long time only when we try to justify violations of our deeper values. For instance, the subtle guilt I’d feel for being attracted to a movie actress would last much longer if I were to justify the attraction by thinking of times my wife disappointed me (ignoring the times I disappointed her). Justifying emotions amplifies, magnifies, and prolongs them. In the adult brain, we know that negative emotions are either motivations (my subtle guilt goes away once I follow its motivation to connect with my wife), or, if it’s a bad mood, it will pass, like the flu or a cold. In the toddler brain, negative feelings seem eternal.

Mistakes we repeat with regularity rise from the toddler brain. They turn short-term setbacks into long-term losses and temporary pain into long-term suffering. In the adult brain, we learn from past mistakes, grow from them, and soar above them.

Copyright Steven Stosny in Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress, 2014.

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