Negative Repeating Patterns in Your Career

What might be causing the repetition of bad experiences in your career

One of the biggest impediments to career success is negative repeating patterns. Whether it’s bullying bosses, losing out on promotions, or getting difficult clients, negative patterns can have a profound effect on how your career develops and what opportunities you get.

The first step to tackling these patterns is to become aware of them. Although it’s easy to dismiss certain events as coincidences or bad luck, when things feel uncomfortably familiar it’s worth enquiring what underlying drivers could be at work.

It turns out that it’s often what we do to avoid the outcomes that we’re most afraid of that can cause us to get stuck in a negative repeating pattern. Most commonly, it’s how we avoid things unconsciously that exerts the strongest influence. Psychologist Dr. Hanna Levenson describes three linked processes that often lead to us to repeat a pattern:

  • One. The distortion and misinterpretation of other people’s motives and actions

If we have been hurt by a particular person or event, to protect ourselves in future, we anticipate that same treatment going forward. However, this creates a bias in our perspective, whereby we look for the ways in which the current situation fits our earlier bad experience.

  • Two. The selection of specific individuals and relationship contexts which are familiar and meet our expectations

People seek predictability and similarity in relationships, and the mind often seeks ways to avoid change and the unknown. Our early relationships – above all our parents – become the blueprints on which we model our later choices of friends, partners, and colleagues. Indeed, the very nature of how we relate to them will, in most cases, be strongly influenced by how we learned to relate to those in our family unit.

We also tend to seek out similar contexts in the hope that we can repair a situation, which didn’t work out for us in the past. It’s akin to a kind of search for completeness and resolution. A common example is that of the woman who had a withholding father and repeatedly chooses ’emotionally unavailable’ partners. In so doing, there’s the unspoken expectation that by getting what she wants emotionally out of this unavailable partner, she’ll somehow ‘fix’ the broken relationship in her past.

  • Three. The ‘subtle pressure’ that at unconscious levels invites others to respond in particular ways

Experiencing situations that repeat themselves frames how we perceive and relate to ourselves. Thus, after an impactful negative experience, we may experience a conscious or unconscious shift in our self-identity. As an example: the man who is always passed over for promotion sees himself as the ‘invisible’ employee; he may even begin to consider himself unworthy of promotion. This may cause particular responses at work which align with this self-characterisation. It may also cause others to see him as unworthy or invisible, including his boss. When faced with a promotion decision, his boss may overlook the man again, considering him to be bitter or resentful, or indeed, momentarily forgetting that he is on the team or a possible candidate for the new role.

When facing a possible negative pattern, five questions are helpful to start to uncover what might be going on:

  1. When was the first time I experienced this? (Consider contexts at work and also in your personal life)
  2. How did I feel about it?
  3. What do I do now to avoid this feeling?
  4. What do I do now to stop it from happening?
  5. How does this affect the choices I make at work and in my career?

One of the many assumptions made about these sorts of repeating patterns is that they only occur in the personal sphere. This makes them all the more damaging in the professional sphere, as they are more easily dismissed or discounted. Indeed, the more the pattern is repeated, the more ingrained and pervasive it becomes across all aspects of your life and career.

Johnstone, Lucy, and Dallos, Rudi, eds. Formulation in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Making Sense of People’s Problems. Hove: Routledge, 2014.