Stepping Out of the Pattern

"Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain. "
Mary Catherine Bateson

Persistence has its merits. If you want to accomplish things, you need to stick with your goals. On the other hand, it is also important to know when to stop throwing effort at a losing proposition. Sometimes success lies in knowing when and how to make a transition, to shift from one action, process or state of mind to another.

Schismogenesis is a word coined by heavy weight social scientist Gregory Bateson that he used in describing relationship processes among people. He defined it as a “process of differentiation in the norms of individual behavior resulting from cumulative interactions between individuals.” An example would be escalating violence among parties in conflict. You step on my toe and I push you. You push back and I slap you. You punch me in the nose. On and on it goes with increasing violence. As long as behavior continues along the same lines, things just get worse until the process is interrupted by some condition that interferes with it. Someone is too hurt to continue or the police come, for instance.

Here is another example of schismogenesis. A person who is highly suspicious and mistrusting of other people will behave in such a way that other people may want to keep their distance. Observing people withdrawing and talking about him, he feels less secure and more suspicious that others are against him. His own behavior generates responses in people that reinforce his beliefs. Similarly, some people form the opinion that the world is a dangerous place filled with people who don’t really care about anybody but themselves. Having that opinion, they behave toward others with mistrust and anger and others naturally distance themselves. Finding people distant, the person’s worldview is reinforced and his world becomes colder and ever less friendly.

This process of schismogenesis can lead to runaway processes of a dangerous kind. We can become caught in up in conflicts and arguments that we really don’t want to have, but somehow our behavior makes them persist. We can find ourselves in uncomfortable complementary relationships that cause suffering and take us away from what we really want.

One of the characteristics of successful marriages is the ability to shift destructive arguments before too much damage is done. Rather than escalating the argument, the partners have the ability do repair work that shifts them to a more agreeable state of mind. Some, depending on the circumstances, might use humor, a statement of feeling, an apology, a request to stop, or a statement of appreciation. The repair attempt shifts the process from a cycle of mutually assured misery to a healthier process.

In relationships and in our inner lives, it is important to learn how to shift out of a process that will only increase suffering. If we can learn to shift from anger to calm assertiveness, from fear to self-assurance, from selfishness to compassion, we can reduce the amount of suffering we generate for others and ourselves.


This week pay close attention to your emotional states. Observe what keeps them going. Look for thoughts that generate the emotions. Try on a different thought, perhaps a more generous or confident one, and see if the emotion changes. You may need to work at this for a while to notice the change. Be less of a victim of your emotions and more of an observer of them. Seek to know the conditions that give rise to your feelings.

In your relationships, if things seem to be going badly, look for patterns. She if you can identify the behavioral dance you and the other person are doing. Notice if the tension is escalating. Make an effort to step outside the pattern and do something to interrupt it. When there is defensiveness seek to insert kindness. Where there is anger, seek to increase empathy. If you are bristling, try for more soothing of yourself and the other person.

Look for cyclical behaviors that go nowhere good. Practice stepping out of the cycle. 

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© 2003 Tom Barrett