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?

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