We are creatures of familiarity. We tend to seek out the same experiences, over and over, regardless of whether those experiences are fulfilling. We can be quite dissatisfied, frustrated, anxious, or depressed, and yet we tend to repeatedly turn to the same solutions.
Even when we boldly try something new, it seems our efforts are too often ineffective. We keep recreating outcomes that we do not want, do not like, and cause us pain. Why is that?
How Thoughts Repeat Themselves
First, research suggests that we tend to have many more thoughts per day than you would imagine. How many? Scientists offer different estimates, from 12,00 to 70,000 thoughts per day. Regardless, we have an abundance of thoughts moving through the brain.
And of those 70,000 thoughts we have today, 97% are estimated to be the same thoughts we had yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that, and so on.
In other words, we devastatingly tend to repeat our thought patterns. And in these thought patterns, most are critical, judgmental, and negative, thus producing a rather pessimistic view of life. This is not true for everyone, but this is the norm, unfortunately. And in this ‘norm’ for the human brain, these habitual thoughts are the result of neural connections firing in familiar ways, day after day.
So, imagine, we wake up every day and are barraged by tens of thousands of thoughts. Our feelings derive from those thoughts. Most are the same thoughts from yesterday, which drive the same actions as yesterday and end up creating all the same feelings.
Thus, it is no wonder that change seems so difficult.
Why Don’t We Break These Patterns?
For many, we end our days doing the same things we did yesterday. We read or watch similar material, close our eyes with similar thoughts, and then perhaps dream similar dreams. The next day, most of us roll out of bed looking at the same things we looked at yesterday and engaging in the same habits. We tend to follow a routine because it is easier to not be thinking about each little step of the day.
Yet, each small piece of the environment is typically remarkably familiar to us. The familiar environment immediately fires off familiar thoughts, many of which go by completely unnoticed.
Once the familiar environment (i.e., spouse, kids, news, coffee pot, view in the mirror, etc.) cues up a few thoughts, we then tend to react to those thoughts with the same words or actions we took yesterday. This, of course, creates a similar response from the world we live in, which is feedback to our brain: It’s time for the next reactive thought or action.
This process goes on over and over, automatically, and reflexively. We engage with a familiar environment, thinking the familiar thoughts/actions thus creating the same familiar response from the environment. When you can appreciate this, it’s easy to understand why we hit ‘repeat’ each day and find it hard to get out of familiar patterns.
Why Don’t Our Intentions Work Better?
No doubt, many of you have thought about being kinder, more loving, more active, or more playful. Or perhaps you just want to be happier, more inspired, or more satisfied with life. Regardless of the intended change, most humans find change difficult.
There are many ways we get trapped in the status quo, but one of the most common is the trap of familiarity. We cling to the same beliefs, want the world to change first. We cling to the same habits, wanting those habits to produce a better result. We cling to the same emotions; despite the pain they bring.
How do we do this? Through familiarity. On the technical side of things, we would say there are neural loops that are wired together (i.e., remarkably familiar with each other), and these are easy for us to activate day after day.
Thus, while it may bring us pain and misery, oddly we will heavily lean toward doing what is familiar, even though the familiar has proven to be painful or limiting. This is truly human nature. It leads to quite a bit of consistency in our overall life pattern, but it cannot lead us to freedom and growth.
Break Free of the Familiar
For today, I invite you to look carefully at patterns that do not seem to change in your life and notice how any change ‘feels’ uncomfortable or weird or unfair. These are traps of familiarity, as the brain argues against doing something or anything differently, even though it might bring ease or more joy into your life.
Contrary to trendy belief, a positive change will likely not feel comfortable or ‘right’ or ‘fair’ early on. Ignore that sense of wanting what feels comfortable right away, and move toward the higher principles of growth, love, acceptance, and movement toward what you truly desire. Just remember, it will likely feel odd. Embrace this novelty. It’s the first step. And then next week, I will introduce five specific ways to break these familiar patterns. Until then, be diligent in noticing all that your brain clings to-despite the poor results that flow from that clinging.