There is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe. It has symmetry, elegance, and grace – these qualities you find always in that the true artist captures. You can find it in the turning of the seasons, the way sand trails along a ridge, in the branch clusters of the creosote bush of the pattern of its leaves. We try to copy these patterns in our lives and in our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move towards death. ~Frank Herbert, Dune
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
~Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear (Frank Herbert)
Be mindful of people who feel like home, when home wasn’t a safe place to be. ~TheMindGeek
Change is often challenging.
And if we’re really honest with ourselves and each other, change can also be terrifying.
Why is change so terrifying? Why is it so easy to fall back into old (often harmful) patterns, cycles, even relationships? Why do we keep going back to things we know are hurtful and or damaging?
The why we do this is simple enough. It’s because when we were young, as our brains were first developing and our neural pathways were forming, as we were learning about the world around us, we lived in abusive, neglectful, and or chaotic environments. The neural paths that were then formed, associated what is known and understood with this chaos or harm.
We learned at an early age how to navigate harm. How to side step it. How to get through it. The chaos, in many ways, became “safe.” Even as it was hurting us.
It was safe because it was known. Not because it was actually safe. Not because it wasn’t causing harm.
Simply because it was known.
Breaking patterns and cycles is stepping into unknown territory. A land without any type of road map or navigation system. A land without paths or trails for us to follow.
Breaking patterns and cycles is not known to our brains. It is not what our neural pathways understand. It feels foreign because it is.
Because of this it feels uncomfortable. Even terrifying. It may not feel right. It likely won’t feel good at first or for a while. Even though what we are doing is actually good for us.
We fall back on old (harmful) patterns and relationships because they feel safe. They feel safe because they are known. The cycles we fall back into again and again remind us of our chaotic childhoods and that is understood.
We know how to navigate chaos.
We have no idea how to navigate peace. Real (non-oppressive, non-abusive, non-demanding, assuming, expecting) love. Freedom. Calm. Actual safeness.
And because we don’t know how to navigate it, because it is foreign, it feels weird, uncomfortable. And not just weird, oftentimes boring. And even more often, out and out unsafe. And so we avoid it, run from it, resist it, reject it.
So what does this mean then, as we are doing our work to break life long, often generations old, patterns and cycles to also learn to trust ourselves? As we are doing the work of processing our trauma? Of coming into our bodies and the present? How can we trust ourselves if what feels “safe” is actually harmful? How do we sit in the discomfort of change when every fiber in our being is screaming No! Go back to what we know!! ?
How do we leave, and stop returning to, relationships that are abusive, oppressive; that stunt our personal growth and healing; that keep us stuck in patterns and cycles that are harmful not just to ourselves, but ultimately to our children, to our other relationships, to the ways we interact with and in the world, when those harmful relationships are what feel like “home”?
First we need to develop a metric fuckton (yes, I believe this is an actual measurement) of self-compassion. Because a truth is we will fall back into these patterns. We will revisit these cycles. We will retreat to these relationships. That all, ultimately, cause us harm. Cause those around us harm. Cause our world harm.
We need to understand this is not failure. This is part of the process. With each falling back, it will feel less and less “right.” Not that the new ways of being and doing in the world are comfortable yet, but that what we knew just doesn’t quite fit anymore, and we know it, we feel it, viscerally.
Then as we continue to do the work of processing our trauma, of coming into our bodies, of learning to be in the present moment, we need to be able to allow the space to be curious, to explore, to question ourselves and our motivations. Am I doing X because it is what I know? Is what I know about X ultimately harmful to me? Am I avoiding Y because it is unknown and therefore feels unsafe? Or is Y actually unsafe?
Sometimes we won’t know the answers to these questions, sometimes we will answer the questions incorrectly and end up continuing a pattern or cycle that causes us and or others harm.
This is part of the process. This is part of learning to do different. This is part of breaking those patterns and cycles.
When we enter into new relationships that feel “boring” we need to explore similar questions. Does this feel boring because it’s actually emotionally and physically safe? Or does it feel boring because we actually don’t have much in common and therefore is intellectually unstimulating? Do I feel anxious around this person because they may be a threat? Or do I feel anxious because they are offering me actual safeness, understanding, freedom?
Again, we will answer these questions “wrong” sometimes. And that is OKAY. That is part of the process. It is part of the learning. It is part of getting to know ourselves.
Remember that first step of developing some self-compassion? Yeah, that. We always fall back on that.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t do the repair work we need to do when we cause harm in our relationships, in our world. We do that too. Having a history of trauma is not an excuse to cause harm and does not give us free pass to perpetuate harm.
We can be gentle with ourselves as we journey through this work. As we enter into, then retreat from, then enter into again, the unknown territory of breaking patterns and cycles, of learning what it is to be in truly loving and freeing relationships. Of owning the ways we cause harm to ourselves and others, and doing the work of repair without shame, but rather with the true intent and motivation to create change, within ourselves, within our relationships, and out in our world.
This was originally published in my weekly(ish) newsletter on February 17, 2020. It has been revised and edited for publication here. To receive my most recent essays you can subscribe right here.
We will be learning ways to break patterns and cycles, to slow down and self-regulate, to come into our bodies and reclaim them as our own in the six month Trauma Informed Embodiment™ for Sexual Trauma Survivors (TIE STS) program that beings March 16. To learn more click here.