In order to gain a deeper understanding of the thoughts and emotions that we feel and experience, it is important to understand two important theories and perspectives.
The Cognitive Perspective
Cognitive theory suggests that individuals make the same mistakes over and over because those mistakes are learned responses. Theorists believe that we have neural pathways in our brains that are reinforced by habit. A good way to visualize this is a dirt road. The more you travel on the dirt road, the more well-established it becomes, and the less likely you will travel on the grassy or wooded part. It is much easier to tread a well-worn path than one covered in rocks and branches.
There is also a physiological explanation of the Islamic principle that the more you practice anything, the easier it becomes. The more you do good deeds or bad deeds, the easier they become. The more often you get up for tahajjud, the easier it becomes, just as the more you look at something you not supposed to, the easier it becomes. This is because the relevant neural pathways get strengthened any time a behaviour is repeated.
Cognitive theory also suggests that bad things keep happening to you because you are trapped in a cycle of making the same mistakes over and over. This does not mean that you are not smart or a good person, but that you don’t know how to break the cycle yet. If you are trapped in a room and the only way you know how to get out is through the door you will spend all your time trying to break the lock free, when perhaps the only way to get out is through the vent in the ceiling. It is possible that the solution is outside what you may be comfortable with or know exists.
A lonely teenager feels hopeless and resorts to taking drugs. His negative filter makes him feel that there is no good in his life and his bias makes him think he may as well do whatever he wants, good or bad, because it doesn’t matter. As he engages in this bad habit, he temporarily feels better and learns that his actions provide relief, although he feels exponentially worse from the consequences of his actions later. He internalizes the idea that it’s better to feel good for short periods of time followed by feeling bad, rather than feeling bad all the time. Over time, he gets stuck in a cycle and doesn’t know how to feel better without engaging in this self-destructive act.
Cognitive behavioural theory suggests that individuals can learn maladaptive ways of coping with their problems, and over time these coping behaviours become habitual. The more someone gets into the pattern of making the same mistake over and over, the more difficult it will be to change the behaviour.
The Psychodynamic Perspective
The psychodynamic theory offers a different perspective on why we fall into the same patterns. According to one theory, individuals keep making the same mistakes over and over because they are trying to heal unmet needs from early childhood development. A person will keep putting themselves into the same predicament because, subconsciously or unconsciously, they want to use the current situation as an opportunity to resolve what has happened in the past. Unfortunately, since the person has not learned better ways of dealing with the situation, they keep making the same decisions over and over, leading to even more unresolved struggles.
This perspective is useful for those who tend to get in the same types of toxic relationships over and over but do not understand why.