Remember the opening lines of Winnie-the-Pooh? “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs.”
Christopher Robin had doubtless never thought of doing it differently, either. It was the way he started every day. Kids don’t think of doing things differently – as I didn’t when I was young. You, too, perhaps.
But grown-up consultants can’t afford the luxury of ignoring patterns – their own or other people’s.
Most of us tend to learn such patterns initially as a way of protecting ourselves in childhood.
As a scrawny schoolboy, for instance, I learned to be polite to – and inwardly resentful of – the apparently capricious nature of teachers. One I recall had a 4ft cane he kept on the top of a cupboard and called Nothing.
When he spotted anyone distracted or furtive in the back of the class, he would bellow: “What do you want, boy?” And if you were flustered enough to stammer “Nothing, sir,” that was what you got – three burning times on each hand.
My fear led me to assume that all authority figures were dangerous.
It grew into a pattern of rebellious behaviour which tended, of course, to ensure that I got on the wrong side of any authority figure I met.
Which served to comfort me in the view that my original assumption was correct. The world thus became, from my perspective, safer because it matched my mental map of it. It was predictable, albeit painful. It was the devil I knew.
And the resulting cycle – of a mistaken belief driving self-destructive behaviour which confirmed the belief – lasted well into adulthood.
And mine is not an isolated experience, it seems. A friend learned early, in the face of an overbearing mother, to give way rather than get run over – and believed, as a result, that he was a hopelessly inadequate outcast and victim.
His resulting behavioural patterns, fuelled by a mixture of fear and anger, initially drove him to fight his way to the top of the business world. But the underlying belief kept gnawing at him. Only when he got fired from two boards, and went through divorce, a heart attack and a nervous breakdown did he learn, finally, to let go of it.
The paradoxical result, then, is that a mental habit set in motion – usually in childhood – by an instinctive desire for safety can, in time, expose us to more harm. And why this is so seems to have to do with the general nature of such habits.
Patterns of behaviour – mental and emotional patterns, as well as physical ones – pose two general problems for all of us.
First, the longer they last, the less we see them and the more we assume they’re true. We stop noticing that they’re based on beliefs which exist only in our own heads. Instead, we start believing that they have some objective reality: in the way the world is; in the way other people are; or in the way we are. Once we do that, the assumptions’ invisibility and apparent validity make them much harder to change.
Second, any pattern is, in effect, an attempt to keep imposing a single repeated interpretation on different events. That means that we tend to discount evidence which challenges the pattern. So, since the world keeps changing around us, it means that our mental map of the world is likely gradually to become more and more inaccurate.
So far, so tricky. It gets worse.
Psychologists define mental health as a spectrum. How healthy an individual is depends on how closely reality matches his or her internal map of it.
A mismatch – most extremely in the form of delusions such as “I am Napoleon” or “The world is out to get me” – is evidence of mental ill-health. A close match – which allows us to deal with events as they are, with few or no preconceptions – is evidence of health.
Psychologists also know something about happiness – though not, it must be said, as much as they know about unhappiness.
Academic research in the field suggests that while human misery takes many forms, there is one striking characteristic shared by almost every happy individual and family. They’re able to cope with change; indeed they welcome change. There is, on this evidence, a deep truth in the old saying: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.”
If all this is so, it follows that whenever we hang on to any unexamined patterns of belief and behaviour, we face two great dangers.
Our hold on reality will become more tenuous, so we’re likely to become less mentally healthy over time. And our ability to cope with and welcome change will diminish, so we are likely to become less happy. The pursuit of safety denies us healthy life and happiness.
This matters acutely to consultants because change is our stock in trade.
Helping clients to change is a subtle and delicate art precisely because they, too, have patterns they’ll want to defend. And we need to learn our own patterns – and take conscious command of them – because they will otherwise keep bending us out of shape, professionally and personally.
Alfred E Perlman, an early 20th-century US railway tycoon, said once: “After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully.
After five years look at it with suspicion, and after 10 years throw it away and start all over again.”
He was talking about the dangers of unexamined business habits – and about the value of rummaging through them regularly. But it’s also a principle we might usefully apply to the bottom drawers of our own minds.
Tony Scott, an independent consultant, specialises in business communication issues.
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