We’re Most Comfortable With Whatever We’re Most Familiar With

It’s a fascinating principle of human behavior that we are often most comfortable with whatever we are most familiar with – even if we don’t like it.

One simple way to illustrate this is when I hand you a pen and paper and ask you to write your name.  Without a conscious thought you will take the pen with your dominate hand and write your name in less than two seconds.

Why?  Because you have done it that way thousands of times before.  In technical terms you have created a neuropathway in your brain that, in non-technical terms, is almost like a groove.  When the stimulus of being asked to write your name triggers your neurons they send messages to your arm, wrist, hand, fingers, etc. to respond in a very predictable manner.

It’s actually a thing of beauty that we don’t have to think about how to do everything each time we perform a behavior. 

But it is this very principle of behavior that is responsible for much of the misery found in people’s lives.

Take Barry for instance.  He never knew his father.  His mother was an alcoholic who was more interested in chasing men than in being a mother to her children.  She might be gone for days, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.  Often there was no food in the house.

Occasionally his mother would bring home one of her boyfriends to live with them for a while.  One of these boyfriends sodomized Barry repeatedly.  When Barry told his mother, she called him a liar and told him to quit trying to make trouble.

Sometimes violence would breakout between his mother and a boyfriend.  He watched as a gun was put inside his mother’s mouth and the hammer pulled back.  His heart beating as fast as a rabbits, Barry was both terrified and petrified.  With his adrenalin system running full tilt, he felt rage, powerlessness and shame – shame because he could not rescue his mother.

Regularly Barry was pelted by the stones of hurtful words – stupid, worthless, useless, a mistake, sissy – all of them modified with numerous vulgar adjectives.  The resulting wounds were worse than the bruises left on his body by abusive men.  They were the kind that make the spirit of a child threadbare.

Three words Barry never heard were “I love you.”

It’s a childhood that many of you cannot imagine.  It makes you uncomfortable to read about it.  It makes me uncomfortable to write about it. 

But it is a childhood that some of you will recognize as too familiar.  If it has triggered some of those supercharged memories of your past, I apologize.  Pause right now, close your eyes and take a few slow breaths.  Then look around your surroundings and notice the colors and shapes of things.  Ground yourself to the present.  You are safe.  That was then; this is now.

So ask yourself, what was Barry most familiar with while growing up? 

My list looks like this:

  • frequent adrenalin rushes
  • chaos
  • violence
  • neglect
  • being taken advantage of
  • having his boundaries obliterated
  • fear
  • shame
  • rage
  • depression

Now at the age of forty-three Barry has four children by three different women.  He has never been married.  The longest relationship he has had lasted for eight years and he can’t count the number of women he has been with “for a year or two.”

There have been four counts of domestic violence against him.  He’s spent time in jail for various misdemeanors (bad checks, driving on suspended license, DUI, violation of probation). 

Currently he sits across from me with tatts and piercings prominently displayed.  There’s mud on around the soles of his boots.  His face is permanently flushed from years of drinking.

But what oozes from his spirit?  What is it that my spirit senses?  This is a sad man.

I take a slow breath and let it out even more slowly as I wait for him to begin his story for I know it will not be an easy one to hear.

He begins simply, “I don’t know what is wrong with me.”

Then he asks a question that perfectly reflects his view of his life, “Why do I screw up everything that I touch?”

It is exactly the right question, the perfect question that can eventually lead to a new life.

I then carefully lead him into telling his violent childhood story above.  While my version of his story is sanitized, his is visceral and in 3-D.  It’s a story that he’s reluctant to tell, but one that he is eager to tell so that, he hopes, he can quit choking on it.

Why has Barry’s adult life turned out the way it has?  Simple answer?  It’s what he’s most familiar with, even though he hates it.  He has surrounded himself with all those elements that are comfortable to him.

Over the next several weeks Barry begins to connect the dots between his past and his present.  He starts to recognize that he is where he is because of the road he has traveled.  There are many “Aha” moments during our conversations.

Now here comes the exciting part, the part that still fuels my love for what I do.  One day Barry pauses, cocks his head to one side and says to me, “I don’t have to keep doing things the same old way, do I?” 

It is a eureka moment!  The moment at which a person makes a slight turn of the kaleidoscope of their life and suddenly sees something they’ve never seen before.  It is the anchor that might save this man’s rudderless life – HOPE!

Barry made the bold decision to face and accept the truth of his life.  It is a paradox that the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.  Admitting the mistakes and damage you’ve done to yourself and others feels horrible.  But until we admit the truth we’ll never respond to it.

Now Barry faces the most difficult work of his life; to live an unfamiliar, uncomfortable life that is the result of change.  Just as people who have suffered a stroke have the challenge of creating new neuropathways in order to relearn how to do a familiar task, Barry will have the same arduous task.  BUT it can be done!  Millions have done it.

{If you know someone with a story similar to Barry’s, suggest they read this story.  Throw them a life line with hope on the end of it.}


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