September 29, 2013

Pattern Projection

Mental health tip: Experiences can make you feel the same way without being related.

When we go through a string of negative experiences (e.g., socially, professionally, romantically), our tendency is to review them as a group and search for patterns. This can be a worthwhile exercise: identifying patterns helps us establish what went wrong and determine whether or not there's something we could be doing differently. On the flipside, though, identifying a pattern where none exists can be quite unhelpful:

One of my clients has been looking for work for months and becoming progressively discouraged. Last week, after another promising interview failed to result in a job, he concluded that since "this keeps happening," he must be doing something wrong. At first glance, this seemed like a reasonable hypothesis; but when we took the time to explore the evidence for the idea that "this keeps happening," we failed to find a pattern. The most recent position my client interviewed for was filled by an internal candidate. The job before that fell through after the organization didn't received the grant needed to fund the position. Prior to that, my client was offered a part-time contract position that he declined because his daughter has a chronic medical condition and he needs health benefits to cover her medical costs. For the position prior to that, my client was short-listed but the first-choice candidate simply had more years of experience. In short, although none of the leads resulted in a job, there was no pattern.

One of my friends had two painful romantic experiences in the past six months. In the first case, a close friend for whom he harboured romantic feelings admitted that she'd always had a thing for him, too--and then promptly met and fell for another guy. In the second case, my friend ended a promising new relationship after a frank discussion revealed that the woman he was dating doesn't want to have children. These back-to-back experiences left my friend feeling pretty discouraged; he concluded that "this keeps happening" and that therefore there must be something wrong with him. Thinking of my client and his job search, I encouraged my friend to consider the possibility that he was projecting a pattern onto a patternless pair of experiences. He thought it over and acknowledged that the first situation was attributable to bad timing and the second to long-term incompatibility. That is, even though both relationships ended, there was no pattern.

How does realizing there's no pattern help? Finding patterns where none exist generally involves distorted thinking, including overgeneralization ("this always happens"), personalizing ("it's happening because of my own personal flaws and has nothing to do with external factors"), disqualifying the positive (e.g., my client ignoring the fact that he was offered a contract position; my friend dismissing the heartening facts that both women returned his feelings). Distorted thoughts make us feel bad, whereas identifying and reappraising our distortions alleviates the pain. 

Why do we project patterns onto patternless experiences? My theory is that we assume that experiences that make us feel the same way are related. My client felt discouraged and rejected each time a position didn't work out. My friend felt lonely and hopeless both times the relationship ended. But the respective HR departments made completely independent decisions not to hire my client--based, it turned out, on entirely different rationales. They weren't related. The two women my friend dated didn't know each other and didn't know of each other, and the relationships ended for entirely different reasons. They weren't related.

Both my client and my friend felt less discouraged once they stopped projecting a nonexistent pattern onto their experiences. The next time you're looking for a pattern in a string of negative outcomes, consider the possibility that there is no pattern in the experiences, only in the way you feel about them.

Does it help?

September 03, 2013


Lovingkindness is a Buddhist practice that involves wishing well to ourselves and others. It encompasses generosity, good will, friendliness, compassion, and benevolence, and is often cultivated through meditation. When I teach mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), we do a lovingkindness meditation in the session devoted to relationships and relationship conflict. The rationale is that practicing lovingkindness helps cultivate patience, kindness, and acceptance--which can have only positive consequences for our relationships.

The lovingkindness meditation involves sitting quietly and "sending" well wishes, starting by sending them to ourselves. When I guide the meditation, I say the following phrases out loud, one by one, and participants repeat them silently.

May I be safe and protected
May I be happy and peaceful
May I be healthy and strong
May I live with ease and the joy of wellbeing

We then send lovingkindness, in turn, to someone we love, someone toward whom we feel neutral, and someone with whom we're experiencing conflict.

May he/she be safe and protected
May he/she happy and peaceful
May he/she healthy and strong
May he/she live with ease and the joy of wellbeing

I warn MBSR participants beforehand that they might not necessarily feel loving or kind during the meditation--in fact, that they may feel resistant or unwilling--but it doesn't matter. Compassion is being cultivated even if we don't feel it in the moment, and it's always interesting to observe what happens when we practice lovingkindness, even if what happens is struggle.

What's the impact of lovingkindness meditation?

Many people cry when they first send lovingkindness to themselves. Self-compassion isn't always easy and, for some, it's the first time they've ever expressly wished themselves peace, ease, and joy. MBSR participants variably describe the experience as a warm sensation in the chest; a feeling of the heart opening up; a softening; and a movement towards seeing themselves as fallible but worthy and okay.

What's more, the lovingkindness mediation seems to provoke a similar softening toward others, including people with whom we're experiencing conflict. Following the lovingkindness meditation, MBSR participants report that they feel more open and compassionate. Even if they experienced resistance to sending lovingkindness to the person causing them distress, they still feel less angry and confrontational, and more prepared to interact with that person.

How does lovingkindness work?

One way that the lovingkindness meditation seems to work is by snapping us out of the endless cycle of you jerk you idiot how could you I can't stand you. When we're angry or otherwise upset with someone, it's easy to get stuck in a cycle of rumination, telling ourselves stories about how wronged we were, how hurt we are, and how awful that person was to do what he or she did. Whether we're upset with ourselves or with someone else, sending lovingkindness forcibly snaps us out of the rumination cycle. 

A second way that lovingkindness seems to work is by interrupting our tendency to demonize others. When someone upsets us, our minds can turn him or her into a monster who is purposely trying to hurt us or make our life difficult. My experience has been that when I force myself to wish for safety and protection, happiness and health for someone who's hurt me, two things happen: First, my mind retorts I DON'T WISH THAT, I HATE HER; second, I realize that I actually do wish those basic experiences for all people--even someone who's hurt me. This realization shrinks that person from a monster back to a human who is hurt or struggling, dealing with her own issues, and probably doing the best she can--not expressly trying to hurt me or ruin my life.

Developing compassion for ourselves and others via lovingkindness makes us more accepting and forgiving, whether we're dealing with a longstanding conflict or with someone who cuts in line at the grocery store. Lovingkindness doesn't have to involve formal meditation, but can be practiced any time you're self-flaggelating or ruminating about a conflict with someone else. Simply take a quiet minute or two to repeat the phrases above to yourself, and see what happens.

NB: An extra trick that helps me develop compassion is to picture the person with whom I'm in conflict in bed at night. Imagining him curled up under the covers in his pyjamas helps me remember that he--like me, like everyone!--crawls into bed at night wearing comfortable clothes and seeks rest. He is as vulnerable and human as any other person (and is not staying up all night plotting ways to make me miserable!).