“We all have unpleasant situations in our life that keep repeating in loops and cycles that we seem unable to break. Endless cycles of unhealthy romantic relationships, toxic bosses, debts, health issues, weight gains and losses, addiction recoveries and relapses, procrastination, unfinished projects… and the list goes on and on. Whenever negative events happen in our life far too often to be coincidental, chances are that we are dealing with one of those cycles—or patterns. These patterns are frustrating because no matter what we do—moving out, finding a new job, dieting, making resolutions—it does not seem to matter, they eventually recur, and our problems persist.
Why? Because, according to ancient wisdom from all around the world, there is something we need to learn, a lesson we need to derive from these patterns. And until we learn this lesson, the pattern will keep repeating and playing out in our life. Life feeds us the same meal over and over again until we finally become aware of what it is we are eating (Corneau, 2010). Only when we learn what the pattern wants to teach us will the curse be broken.
I can hear you asking, “are we then stuck with reliving our patterns over and over again until we get it perfect like in the movie Groundhog Day?” The answer is a resounding no! There is a much more effective way to break free from our recurring patterns and that is to neutralize the emotional charges that are perpetuating them.
The first steps in achieving this are to understand (and accept) that we are the source of our own problems and to find the courage to address their root causes within ourselves.
I know that for many of us, this pill can be hard to swallow.
“How can you be the source of emotionally unavailable men in your life? They are the ones who are unavailable, not you.”
“It’s not me who is crazy, it’s my boss!”
“I have had some health issues. I don’t see how I could be the source of it. I have been unlucky, that’s all.”
Here is the twist. We are not the source of—and not responsible for—someone else’s behaviors and shortcomings, of course. But the conditions favorable for these behaviors, shortcomings, and situations to show up and play out in our lives come from within ourselves.
It’s upsetting, I know, because we must “do things [about something we did not do], or at least see things and think about things in a different way” (Meadows, 2008). It’s upsetting, yet so freeing because the solution is in our own hands!
Only by ‘restructuring’ ourselves can we fully resolve our problems and affect lasting changes in our outer reality. ‘Restructuring’ ourselves means to shift our approach from changing the environment around us—finding a new partner, a new job, a more interesting project—to making lasting ‘structural’ changes within our internal environment, within our own system. To use a computer program as a metaphor to illustrate this point, when a software does not produce the intended outputs or results, we do not change the computer’s hardware to get the results we want from the software (from the outside-in), we change its source code—we ‘fix the bugs’ (from the inside-out). When we start seeing ourselves as systems and understand how systems work, when we start seeing ourselves as the creators of our own experience, it becomes much easier for us to understand the root causes of our problems, to find them in our ‘source code’, to resolve them, and to change our life circumstances.
Emotional charges are integral parts of our source code—our programming. They are the main drivers of our system’s outputs: our life experiences. When the emotions associated with a negative or painful experience are not properly processed, they remain attached to the information pertaining to that experience within our programming. These unprocessed emotional charges cause distortions that our system then naturally and invariably seeks to resolve. As Carl Jung’s psychological rule says, “when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Similar situations and people are thus repeatedly recreated throughout our life until we become aware (or conscious) of its unresolved source and are able to process—or neutralize—its emotional charges. Only then does the cycle stop. Almost instantly. And it is from this ‘neutralization’ process that often comes the lesson we needed to derive from the experience.
In my view, this concept is valid for any situation that repeats itself, from the ones of small consequences to the most shattering ones. Whether we repeatedly find ourselves being dismissed or interrupted when we speak, being in conflict with our superiors, surrounded by pathological liars, being unsupported by our colleagues, bullied by passive-aggressive people, not being a priority for the people closest to us, delaying creative projects (either starting or finishing them), being the object of gossip, being taken advantage of, being cut off by other drivers, having items missing from our takeout orders, or waiting for clients and friends who are late, chances are that there are unprocessed emotional charges running the show for us.
Take my friend David for example. A few years ago, David—who is a graphic designer—was working with his business partner Paul on multiple concurring projects with very tight deadlines. Since they did not have a shared office space, they would each work on their tasks from their respective home office and then meet in person once a week to compare progress, brainstorm, discuss any issues, and agree on strategies if adjustments needed to be made. These meetings were extremely important for David since they helped him stay motivated and on track of deliverables and deadlines. He made a point to be present for these meetings even if it meant driving half an hour to get there as he lived out of town. Paul, on the other hand, was often late, and on many occasions, would not even show up. He would message David fifteen minutes after their meeting’s scheduled start time to tell him that he had forgotten about their meeting or that something had “come up” and he would casually ask him if they “could reschedule.” By that point, David would be livid. How could Paul be so unapologetic? How could he not be concerned about the fact that he had hung David out to dry, again? Knowing that David had to drive 30 minutes to come and meet him, why couldn’t Paul let him know earlier that he wouldn’t be able to make it?
Shifting responsibility away from himself was easy for David: it was Paul who was consistently late, not him! It was obviously Paul’s fault. Paul was the person to blame. So as expected, David’s reaction was to try to find a way—any way—to make Paul stop being late or worse, not showing up at all. The problem being ‘outside’ of himself, David could only resort to external means to try to either fix Paul’s behavior or control the situation. Perhaps he could first confirm the appointment with Paul before leaving his office? Perhaps he could make his expectations clearer to Paul? Perhaps he could ask Paul how they could make their meetings more meaningful and interesting for him? Perhaps he could unambiguously express his anger and frustration to him? In the end, David did try all these means to attempt to resolve the problem, but with little to no success.
The reason why David had limited success with these approaches is because they ignored the main feature of all systems: it is the system’s own structure that produces the system’s behaviors and problems. In other words, the system is “the source of its own problems” (Meadows, 2008). So, if the cause of the problem is “in here” rather than “out there,” it must mean that the solution can also be found within the system. How then can the system be ‘restructured’ so it no longer causes this problem?
When David related his situation with Paul to me and asked for my opinion, my immediate response was: “what element within you is causing Paul to be late or to fail to show up to your meetings?” Understandably, his only response was a shocked face expression. How could I possibly suggest that he was somewhat responsible for Paul’s behavior? I know, this can sound quite disturbing because the idea of putting the onus back on ourselves for something we did not do is such an unfamiliar and outrageous concept. Nevertheless, I encouraged David to reflect on his situation by asking him more questions.
“Have people other than Paul been consistently late when meeting with you? Have these people, like Paul, failed to let you know in advance that they would be late?”, I asked.
“Perhaps… yes.” replied David with some hesitation, uncertain of where I was leading him with this question.
“How do you feel in these situations?”, I continued.
“Hmm… let down, disrespected, and angry,” replied David after giving my question some thought.
“Have you ever felt this way before? Not necessarily in situations involving people being late?”
“Yes and… yes,” acquiesced David.
“What would be the earliest event you can recall where you felt this way?”
To David’s utmost surprise, the memory of the event materialized in his mind within nanoseconds, as vividly as if he had time traveled back to that exact moment in his past.
“I was about five years old. I was with my parents, visiting their newly acquainted friends, when I suddenly developed a high fever. My mother asked her friend for a thermometer. She had one, but it was a rectal thermometer. Unmoved by this apparently insignificant detail, my mother grabbed the thermometer, unceremoniously pulled both my pants and underpants down, and inserted it in my rectum… in front of everyone! Seemingly unalarmed by the fact that my butt was naked in front of complete strangers, she patiently waited for the whole three minutes required for a mercury thermometer to read the temperature. Needless to say, those were the longest three minutes of my life! I was so embarrassed! All I wanted to do was disappear from the face of the earth. But because I did not want to be seen as a baby (at five years old, I was now a big boy!), I swallowed my embarrassment and neither cried nor said anything.”
“Did you feel anything else underneath the embarrassment?” I asked.
“Yes. I felt utterly let down, disrespected, and angry. How could my mother possibly do something like this to me, her beloved son?”
There were the infamous unprocessed emotional charges. The same ones he would feel when Paul would act disrespectfully toward him. In that moment, David could feel these emotions as acutely as when the event had happened. I suggested that he remained present with them, relaxed the part of his body where he could sense them, and allowed the feelings to be fully felt. If this process required him to scream, cry, hit a pillow or hammer a piece of wood to vent the anger, then to go for it! The more he could stay present with his feelings, honor what they were trying to communicate to him at the time, and let his body do the work it needed to do, the better.
By allowing full expression to his feelings, David was eventually able to process and release the emotional charges associated with this experience, forty years after the actual event. Through this process, he understood that somehow this past hurt, an open wound, was sending out a signal that it was okay to behave in a disrespectful manner with him. And although this does not excuse his mother’s behavior in any way, he was able to recognize that in the moment, the world around them had become completely blurred for his mother, her sole concern being her son’s welfare. It most probably never even crossed her mind that something in this situation—other than David’s severe fever—was totally wrong. David’s emotions, however, were letting him know that something with this situation was indeed ‘totally wrong.’ Their strength and power were trying to compel him to do something about his mother’s complete disregard for his privacy and as a result, the violation of his boundaries. But he was a big boy, obedient to his mother, and he had remained silent, and waited for the moment to pass. Not provided with an appropriate outlet, the emotional charges had until then remained unprocessed and ‘active’ in his system.
Once the emotional charges were neutralized and the wound healed within David, however, Paul was never late nor ever missed a meeting again. Not only was Paul never late with David again, but nobody has ever been late with him since. At least, not without apprising him of any potential delays well in advance so he could rearrange his schedule in a manner that worked for him. It was not David who had been constantly late, of course. But the hospitable conditions for Paul’s unpunctuality to manifest in David’s life came from within David himself. In some intricate way, Paul was responding to David’s open wound signaling that this type of behavior was acceptable. Paul’s unrespectful actions were symptomatic of something much deeper. They kept reoccurring as an attempt to bring David’s attention to his unresolved past experience. Paul’s lateness was a starting point, an opportunity for David to recognize the presence of unprocessed emotional charges driving some of his life experiences and to neutralize them. By ‘restructuring’ the information within his own system, David was able to effectively affect changes in his outer circumstances.”
 Groundhog Day is a popular movie from the early 1990’s about a self-centered TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again when covering the annual Groundhog Day event. He tries different things, but no matter what he does, each morning he wakes up in the same day, unable to progress to the following day. It is only when he understands that he can use the repetition to make himself and the world better that the time loop that spanned nearly 35 years finally breaks.
 We might not be ‘broken and need fixing’, but we do need resolution. Resolution is our way back to being free, our way back to love. More than a way… it is our own Autobahn back to who we really are! (The Autobahn is a German highway system known for having no mandated speed limit.)
(Excerpt from the book manuscript Radical Freedom by Isabelle Goulet)
Corneau, G. (2010). Revivre! Les Éditions de l’Homme.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.