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The Power Of Mental Patterns

The patterns that we carry around in our heads have an incredible power. If they are strengthened by repetition, and especially if they are associated with strong feelings, they seem to take on a life of their own. This chapter reflects a synthesis from many areas of psychology, but is especially influenced by object relations psychotherapy, in which the "objects" with which we have relations are our internalized patterns.

You carry around, inside your central nervous system, patterns representing every significant person in your life, not only the ones you are close to now, but those whom you were once close to and have been separated from. You carry around family members who have died, old lovers, favorite school teachers, childhood friends, and many, many more... all as patterns.

The Self-Concept Pattern

One of the strongest patterns we carry is the self-concept, which we could also call the self-pattern. This self-pattern is similar to what psychiatrists refer to as ego boundaries. It is the sum total of all the experiences, knowledge and feelings I have about my self, or you have about your self. Just as we instinctively protect our bodies from attack, we also instinctively protect our self-pattern from the invasion of painful data.

For example, a young person who believes that her parents love her will go to great lengths to ward off any information which might challenge this part of her self-pattern. She may be ignored in her adolescent years and be given very little "quality time" by her parents. Still she clings to her self-pattern. These efforts to ward off intruding reality are called ego defenses, and we all have them. But ego defenses learned in childhood can become destructive later in life. They can lead to the denial or avoidance of any kind of experience that might be associated with a threat to the self-pattern, such as agoraphobia, fear of flying, psychosomatic illness, pathological lying and much more. In fact, the effort to defend the self-pattern against "reality" is the root cause of much mental illness.

This self-pattern is extremely complex and multi-faceted, and different dimensions of it may appear under different circumstances. For example, I may speak of my self as the "I", the actor who is in charge of what I say and do. To a large degree what "I" can do is limited by my self-pattern. But it is possible, through an act of will, to override the self-pattern and to choose to take some action which transcends or contradicts the self-pattern. This may be referred to as the existential self because it reflects the viewpoint of existentialism. That is, the very nature of human existence demands that I constantly make choices, choices often based on uncertainty, and I must accept responsibility for the consequences of those choices. To exist is to choose, and to cease to choose is to succumb to the threat of death.

Psychologists also speak of the true self and the false self. The false self is a pattern or mask we wear to impress others the Latin word "persona" means an actor's "mask." This pattern has been learned in order to elicit desired behavior from others. A common example is "the good boy" who is really a little demon inside. His parents see only the good boy and do not believe others who say he is really a little demon. When the false self perpetuates into adulthood, as it almost always does, it can cause many problems. Not only do other people misperceive the individual because of the false self, but also the individual exerts a great deal of energy maintaining the false self, all the while suffering anxiety because he knows consciously or unconsciously that this self is false.

The true self is the authentic self. It is the self which is at one with its true feelings and strengths. It is a consistent pattern, a consistent order of personality and behavior. The true self can be asserted by an act of will or discovered through maturation, but usually uncovering it requires extensive psychotherapy, because we are so adept at deceiving ourselves even more than we deceive others.

Internalized Patterns Of Others

In the same manner as the self-pattern, you carry around experiences and events which were significant in your life or had strong feeling components. Your graduation from high school. Some important victory in athletics or academics. Learning to drive a car. Your first intimate sexual experience. Your marriage or your divorce. Even though I do not know you, I know that you have many such powerful patterns inside you, for this is the essence of being human.

Over time, past-patterns strongly influence present perceptions. Each new person you meet is perceived in terms of patterns of people you have known before. If you are seeking a mate, your perceptions of possible partners are strongly influenced by your internalized patterns of your opposite-sex parent. If you are a woman, you tend to seek a man who had the positive qualities you admired in your father but not the negative qualities you did not like. If you are a man, you tend to seek your mother-pattern in the same manner.

This patterning can exercise some strong forces on our present behavior without our realization. A boss at work may unconsciously remind us of an overbearing father, even in a slight way, but sufficient to bring back into force our anger and hatred that we felt towards our father when we were a child. Even a sentence, repeated often in childhood and by a domineering parent and experienced with pain, such as "What's wrong with you can't you do anything right?", can trigger powerful reactions without our realizing why.

If you have been an employer or supervisor at work, you might have experienced younger staff members relating to you as if you were a parent. You might say something that seems absolutely businesslike, such as, "There seems to be some problem here." But unknowingly, you may be triggering some employee's emotional pattern from the past, and BOOM, they react as if you had said, "You stupid idiot! You can't do anything right!" Actually, they are reacting as if you were a parent who had some behavior pattern that they have internalized in a negative manner.

Patterns And Projection

This process of responding to another person as if he or she were someone else is called projection. It's as if you are projecting the pattern of the past person onto the present person. It is one of the No. 1 causes of friction in human relationships. It is probably the No. 1 cause of divorce in our country. It is very, very difficult, especially for young adults, to relate to present people in the present, free from patterns of the past. If you are able to relate to someone in this present-time, real-person manner, you are able to have an authentic relationship with them. But very few people, unless they have extensive psychotherapy, are capable of doing this.

There is another "hidden" aspect to patterning that has a powerful effect on human behavior. Not only do we all tend to react to present people as if they were other people from our past through projection, but we also tend to react to present people as if they were the same as an internalized pattern.

Patterns And Marriage

Let me explain. If you are married, for example, you have developed inside your brain a very strong pattern of your spouse. That pattern is so real that you can practically experience your spouse's presence even when he or she is gone. Now here's the scary part, the dangerous part: If you have been married for some time, say a year or more, you are really married to that pattern, not the person. That pattern has become so strong that you perceive your spouse here-and-now through the filter of your internalized pattern. If your spouse does something that fits the pattern, you see it. If the spouse does something that doesn't fit the pattern, you have a tendency not to see it.

Again, this is a powerful source of friction in marriage and of divorce. One partner changes and the other refuses to accept the change. One partner tries to do things differently and the other partner refuses to go along. Even when one partner is trying to make the marriage better, the other partner unless he or she is involved in the same effort is very likely to persist in the patterns of the past.

This is especially true of marriages because repetition and feelings tend to make the internalized pattern so strong. But it is also true in many other human relationships friendships, work relationships, parent-child relationships. Anyone that you have spent a lot of time with, especially if you have had strong feelings in that relationship, is likely to become an internalized pattern, making it very difficult for you to perceive them as a present-person. Even if you become aware of the all-pervasive aspect of this pattern-persistence, you can hardly avoid it without concerted mental effort.

Patterns And Dreams

Dreams are another powerful form of patterns. From our previous discussion of internalized people-patterns, you can perhaps see that dreams are filled with re-experiencing patterns of people and events. In his insightful book, Decoding Your Dreams, Dr. Robert Langs explains how dreams are a recounting of the meaning of the previous day's events, or rather, of the mental patterns of the previous day. (In some cases dreams may go back further than a day, but not often.) Once you get the knack of decoding these dream patterns, it is remarkably easy and enjoyable to analyze the meaning of your dreams.

For example, you might dream you are riding in a train. This will invariably be linked to an experience of the day prior to the dream. The train pattern could be cued or "encoded" by traveling in a car, by seeing someone who reminded you of a friend you traveled in a train with, by eating something you once ate on a train, by associating a train with male sexuality, by a sound that reminded you of a train whistle, by something you read in the newspaper, or even the word train, such as a training class or the train of a wedding dress.

Decoding your dreams is like opening up a giant database or file cabinet in which every association you have ever had with the word, image or experience of "train" is linked to every other word, image or experience of "train." This is exactly, precisely how the neurons in the brain are linked by ganglia, researchers believe. And when a dream image is fresh in your mind, it is remarkable how your brain can scan through its "database" of patterns to help you decode the dream.

Of course if you are repressing a certain memory pattern, it may be hard or even impossible to "call it up" from the past, especially from the distant past when you were a very young child. There is no way you can read this book or any other and have infallible insight into the meaning of your dreams. But you can analyze many dream patterns once you understand how the mind works, and you can analyze many more if you develop more self-knowledge through psychotherapy.

Patterns And Order In The Mind

Although our discussion of the functioning of the mind has largely relied on the aspect of order known as pattern, no discussion of human perception would be adequate without noting the mind's own innate striving for order. Whenever we are confused or puzzled, whenever we experience what one psychologist called "cognitive dissonance," we seek instinctively to resolve the confusion and achieve a mental balance of order.

Again there have been many debates over the years as to whether order is entirely a projection of the human mind on a chaotic world or whether the world actually possesses order. I hope that the earlier chapters in this book have indicated that the world indeed does appear to have a high degree of order. But whether this order is independent of human thought can never be answered. This is what philosophers call "begging the question." In other words, the question, "Does the world possess order independent of the human mind?" is a question that itself presumes a mind seeking order.

Given the fact that our minds are resident within our bodies, and our bodies are systems which are driven to seek internal balance, it is probable that our instinctive drive for order is unavoidable and completely determined. Even the insane person whose mind seems chaotic has created his own inner world of order to balance his tremendous internal tensions.

Let us remember that the order we are discussing in this book is not mechanical order but probabilistic order. And it is highly probable that the human mind has evolved instinctively seeking order in its environment. And that probability is all we can know. There is no certainty.

The significance of order and patterns for psychology could fill volumes. What I have tried to demonstrate in this chapter is some of the more salient instances in which these concepts apply, especially in areas that are not as well known among the general reading public. I could not possibly cover the whole field of psychology.

In the same manner, in our next chapter we will touch on some of the more interesting and less-known aspects of patterns in relation to human communication. Although we have touched on this subject under the heading of information theory, there is much more that can be said concerning order and patterns in communication.

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