You ever notice how new devices come with pre-installed apps? From 20 year old Gateways with AOL Instant messenger to new phones with QR readers, most any device comes installed with something that, theoretically, adds value. Turns out, humans aren’t all that different.
In my clinical practice, I often make use of analogies. One of my favorites goes like this:
“We all come pre-installed with software. Some of it is great, and some of it is not. All of it used to serve some kind of purpose (that’s why it’s there), but at present it might not serve any purpose at all. Or maybe it occasionally serves one purpose, but the rest of the time it’s just there, running in the background, taking up space and energy. Kind of like AOL Instant Messenger, which you only keep around so that you can talk to that one friend who might still use it…”
This means that there are processes running in the background of which we may not even be aware, and yet they impact everything we do. A hyperactive child learns that he gets in trouble when he’s being active, and becomes an adult with a real problem taking initiative. Another child may have an unpredictable, addicted parent, and she becomes an adult who avoids conflict at any cost. Both examples represent behaviors that served a purpose in their time. They allowed the child, disadvantaged in power, experience, and the ability to reason, to improve their world in the best way that they could.
The problem is that these behaviors are no longer as useful as they once were, and yet these old patterns remain, driven by that same pre-installed software. No one really asks for “avoidantbehavior.exe” to be installed, although, in truth, it did once serve a purpose. But that context has passed, and yet there it is, still running in the background, after all that time. You may recognize it as that little voice that nudges us in directions that are familiar, but that we may not want to take. As our lives play out, with these behaviors continuing to run the same old script, we may reinforce the narrative that we have been telling ourselves: that action is dangerous, or that conflict is never productive, or that we are somehow “broken.”
This is where working with a mental health professional can be a big help. When we take a step back, especially working with a guide, we can more clearly see what is still running in the background, and how we should best manage it. Sometimes, simple awareness and some work on developing new habits is enough. Sometimes it takes more intensive work. Everyone is different. But knowing that you do what you do for a reason, even an old reason that no longer works, is a great first step.