Why do people do things over and over again that just don’t work? Take Zvi Cohen for example. He is astonished by his wife’s way of keeping a schedule. Batya uses an enormous wall calendar to keep track of all of her appointments. The calendar hangs on the kitchen wall where she can see it easily.
Zvi finds the system ridiculous: “What if you’re in the car and you need to check the address or telephone number for the appointment? All the information is on the wall in the kitchen! How is that going to help you?” Batya responds that this is never an issue for her. Once she has written the information on the calendar, she is good to go.
The scheduling process is not a problem. What is a problem is the conversation that Zvi and Batya have with each other several times a week, every week of the year for decades on end whenever Batya marks an entry on the calendar. It goes like this:
Zvi: “I can’t believe you’re doing that again! Why don’t you use a device or at least a notebook?”
Batya: “Don’t tell me how to run my life — I’m a grown woman!”
A few days later:
Zvi: “I can’t believe what you’re doing!”
Batya: “I can do what I want — leave me alone.”
And the next week:
Zvi: “I don’t understand how this can work for you!”
Batya: “I’m not telling you what to do, don’t tell me what to do!”
And on and on and on. If you found this annoying to read, just imagine what it feels like to do it over and over again for twenty years straight!
In psychology there is a concept called the Repetition Compulsion. It refers to a human tendency to keep doing the same thing repeatedly in order to make the final result better than it was originally before. Trying to fix something by repeating it might seem odd, but it’s actually very much the way we normally learn. For instance, if we’re learning how to write the alphabet, we keep writing the letters over and over again until we perfect them.
Our natural learning process tells us “practice makes perfect.” If so, why not continue to try to be heard and acknowledged by our spouse or child? Perhaps, if we keep saying the same thing repeatedly, they’ll finally get it and the communication will end “correctly.”
The problem is that the “practice makes perfect” adage refers only to our own, individual behavior. Once we involve another person, an entirely new process is required. This is because our repeated behavior does not trigger a new response in our spouse or child. In fact, it triggers the exact same response that it triggered on previous occasions. When you want another person to change his or her response to you, you must change your own communication or behavior.
Getting Out of the Loop
Let’s say that Batya is finally getting tired of the calendar ritual (after twenty-two years or so). She can be the one to break the cycle by changing her response to her husband. Instead of giving him her usual retort, she can say nothing at all when he complains about her method. Although this isn’t a fast way to extinguish someone’s behavior, it is a fairly successful way. It isn’t going to be nearly as rewarding for Zvi to comment on his wife’s habit if she offers absolutely no response. And, after twenty-two years or so, what more is there to say really?
The only problem with this solution is that it can be very difficult to implement. Whenever Zvi comments on the calendar issue, Batya’s brain is triggered into offering an automatic retort. To break the very real, very physical brain circuit that connects his comment to her response, Batya can enlist the help of a simple acupressure maneuver: she can firmly touch the area between her two eyebrows (at the top of her nose) with three fingers, while replaying her husband’s annoying remarks in her imagination. She should notice how agitated the replay makes her feel and rate its intensity between one and ten. She should then keep imagining the scene over and over again, continuing to notice how strong her agitation feels — until she rates it at zero intensity.
The whole process usually takes just a few minutes and can be repeated as often as necessary to completely stop a triggered response. Once there is no emotional charge, it will be very easy not to respond in real time to a provocation. After repeated experiences of no retort, Zvi’s behavior will eventually diminish (it’s no fun fighting with oneself!) and the dysfunctional interaction can be put to rest once and for all.