Having Career or Relationship Anxiety? Change Your Patterns, Not Yourself

Who are you? Good question. Harvard professor Michael Puett explores the idea of the "self", and how what you believe to be your true nature may actually just be patterns you've fallen into.

Michael Puett:  If we often ask ourselves okay, who am I? What’s my true self? What am I gifted at? What am I bad at? Oftentimes we’ll answer that assuming this one authentic self. So I’m just the sort of person who gets angry at little things but I’m also the sort of person who’s very good at tackling big problems. So that’s me. And then we’ll think through okay, what’s a good career for me? What are good relationships for me based on who I am? Now again suppose that’s all wrong. Suppose those are all simply patterns we’ve fallen into. So it may be empirically right to say right now on someone who gets angry at little things and good at thinking big. But that’s just because I’ve fallen into these patterns. That doesn’t mean that’s essentially me, that’s just who I’ve become. Now if that’s right the question you should be posing to yourself is not who am I. The question you should pose to yourself is what are these patterns I’m falling into? Why do I get angry at these little things all the time? Why do I seem to be what I think is at my best when I’m tackling big problems? And you begin to look at those little things you do on a daily basis that are sort of defining how we’re responding to the world. Why these little things make us angry. And you begin to alter those. Why for something we think is good, thinking big, tackling big problems. Well what is it that I think I’m good at there and what am I doing that I think draws me out of my more negative sides, my angers and resentments and getting angry at little things.

What is it about that that I do well? And can I do more of that in other aspects of my life? And you’re constantly trying to get a sense of what are these patterns I’ve fallen into and how do I alter them. Some of them may be good and you may want to develop them and this example, the thinking big. Some of them may be really bad and are probably sort of the tip of an iceberg of something else going on that we spend so much of our lives in anger and resentment and jealousy. That’s not you, that’s a pattern and it’s alterable. So the question they would always say is what are these patterns, how do I shift them, how do I break out of them and how do I develop better ways of interacting around me?

If you take these ideas seriously and I do, I think they’re really on to something. Addiction is sort of the most extreme example of something we’re all falling into. So all of us are patterned creatures that just repeat these patterns endlessly. And addiction is simply an extreme form of this. What this means therefore is in dealing with addictions as in dealing with any of the patterns we’re involved in as human beings it’s a very comparable concern. It’s how do I break those patterns? So with the extreme one of addiction what is it that’s driving this endless repetition just over and over and over again and oftentimes you begin with the breaks at the little things, the little things that you can deal with. Oftentimes it can be the little fears and anxieties that begin to creep in sort of in the middle of the night one wakes up and then in the morning again one wakes up and it brings back those fears and just sort of those begin escalating over the course of the day leading one to return to the object of one’s addiction. So that’s the place to start then. So why are those little fears setting in? Why are there anxieties? Are there little things you can begin to do to break out of those fears and anxieties.

And if you begin with those little things those are the ones that over time begin to escalate and shift your larger scale patterns. Now that’s not to say you also don’t need someone there saying don’t do X, don’t drink, don’t do drugs if you’re an addict. But the reason that can be so ineffective in the long run is you’re not really breaking your pattern. You’re sort of breaking that – you’re trying to break it at too late a stage. Like going through the day with all the anxieties. Now I’ll try to not get that drink. Well good but you’ve got to start earlier. You’ve got to begin with why those little anxieties begin to gnaw at you at 3:00 a.m. when you wake up. Why when the alarm goes off they gnaw at you all the more. That’s where you begin to make the little breaks. And over time that’s how you break these larger patterns.

In our lives, we all spend a heck of a lot of time with one special person – ourselves. We know what we like, we know what we hate, what we’re good at, where we fall short. The world around you may be a complex mystery, but at least you know yourself, right? Wrong. Harvard Professor of Chinese History Michael Puett is riding in on the Eastern Philosophy steam train to shatter everything you think you know about your "true" self.


Firstly, he says, realize that you may think you are a certain way – you have a short temper, but you’re good at thinking on your feet, always have been and always will be. You have probably based your career, your relationships, your lifestyle choices on that information. But what if that is not your true self, but just a series of patterns you’ve fallen into? It’s not essentially you, it’s just who you’ve become.

When you start to examine why you are one way or another, you will find at some point it was a reaction to the world around you, which then got solidified and now that’s "you", but actually it’s a pattern, and patterns can be altered. He recommends that for your shortcomings, you should look deeply into why you have adopted that pattern, where did it start, and then break it at its base. For your triumphs, identify why you’re good at a certain thing or in a certain situation, and try to expand that pattern into other areas of your life.

Puett goes on to discuss this idea in the context of addiction – the most extreme example of a pattern people fall into. All addiction starts with a moment, a sliding doors comment, event, or an anxiety that comes to you and then compounds over time, forcing you to act and seek an outlet for that feeling. But the reason some addiction treatments can be ineffective in the long run is that you’re resisting the outlet, but you’re not breaking the underlying pattern of your addiction. "You’re trying to break it at too late a stage," says Puett. "Like going through the day with all the anxieties, [then saying] ‘Now I’ll try to not get that drink’. Well, good, but you’ve got to start earlier. You’ve got to begin with why those little anxieties begin to gnaw at you at 3am, when you wake up. Why when the alarm goes off they gnaw at you all the more. That’s where you begin to make the little breaks. And over time that’s how you break these larger patterns."

Puett is author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China.

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