Why do we make the same mistakes over and over again?

repeat "Again?!" we say to ourselves in despair, sometimes even out loud. We have all done it. We have caught ourselves making the same mistake yet again. Why, oh why do we find ourselves in the same position again? "Maybe I'm just attracted to the wrong sort", we say to ourselves. "Maybe I'm just incapable or learning", we chastise. "Maybe I'm just dumb", we admonish. Of course, sometimes it isn't mistakes that we repeat. For example, sometimes we find ourself listening to the same song over and over again, or maybe going through a phase where we like to watch the same movie a few times over a short period of time.

When we find ourselves doing the same thing over and over again in our lives, it can be hard to figure out why. Freud called our constant echoing the repetition compulsion, which he  defined as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” Frued was very much more interested in the negative things we repeat, which he thought may be linked to something deeply instinctual, which he called "the death drive", or a drive to no longer exist.

But perhaps there is a different reason. Perhaps we are so used to do things in a certain way, so familiar with certain events, objects and experiences in our lives that we have a developed a pattern over a number of years. Straying from these pattern - no matter whether it is positive or negative - is actually deeply uncomfortable for us because they are so ingrained. These patterns are a little world that we have created for ourselves where events, or encounters with people or objects trigger expectations which we like to see met - even if they are negative because we are so used to them. We discover what works for us and tend to stick with it. In times of stress, anger worry, or other emotional peaks, we repeat what is familiar and what seems safe, in that it meets our expectations. However, this little set-up can trigger a whole host of negative patterns of behaviour, as well as ruminating on thoughts.

Here's an example. Say you have a problem with insecurity in your relationships. When you don't get a text or tweet back from your loved one, your mind can wander to negative thoughts like, "I wonder who they are with meaning that they can't text me back?", or "If they're so busy, they don't prioritise me enough in their life". These thoughts can well-up and threaten to overwhelm the person and can lead to actions that harm the relationship. Even though the person doesn't want to react in this way to the non-receipt of a text message or tweet, this pattern of reacting is so ingrained and familiar, that to react in a different, more positive way actually feels alien to them. It feels like it isn't authentically them at all. When you have been doing something for years, you will continue to carry on doing so, even if you bring on negative consequences by your actions. To do anything else feels even more uncomfortable.

By working on different techniques, people can learn how to recognise when thoughts or actions are more harmful than beneficial, and how to stop them from occurring. Although it can take time, our cognitive processes can be  retrained to develop new patterns that are productive and more positive, which ultimately leads to more adaptive behaviors and choices.

It is worth remember that it takes years for people to develop unhelpful patterns, habits, and repetitive choices, and it may also take years to reshape them into something else that might be more positive.

What can you do?

  • Don't give up. Start today.
  • Start small, stay mindful.
  • Note what you do, and how you feel about it.
  • The first step is starting to pay attention to the patterns you live your life by.