As human beings, our tactic of survival has been to stay with the familiar. The pre-historic man would live in groups to ensure survival, he would set up camp and hunt in familiar territories. Our entire civilization was built on this basic principle. We built cities, we built forts, and we created territories and nations based on language, culture, food, etc. Even now, we love to live in familiar areas, go to familiar shops and visit familiar destinations. Safety and survival are the core human priorities driven into our primitive brain. This is why we are fascinated with people who brave the odds, travel to unknown places, take risks, swim in the big ocean, or trek into dense forests.
Familiarity does serve us well when it comes to survival, but in this day and age, basic survival is not much of an issue. Yet our brains always prioritize the familiar, keeping us limited in our interactions with others and controlling our social existence. We never question the familiar, we go one step further and the familiar becomes normal.
But what if that familiar is abuse? Unfortunately, our brain normalizes it to such an extent that we start attracting more of it subconsciously into our lives. I know it seems scary and you can ask why would I seek out something that has hurt me in the past, wouldn’t I have learned my lesson? A valid question, but the power of our primitive brain is too strong and no amount of conscious logical interventions can control it.
‘Familiarity breeds contempt’– this is a saying we all have heard and even experienced. Especially with friends or colleagues and they say this is what happens in most marriages as time goes by. You are so familiar with each other that you get irritated with the smallest gestures or eye rolls. The predictability in a relationship sometimes removes our focus from the love and the reason for us to be in that relationship. All that is good and nothing new I can write about. But there is something else I have observed, familiarity in relationships also defines what normal means to us. If you have not been in many relationships before you got married, or if you haven’t had many types of friends before you joined a group of friends, you would accept whatever is going on there as normal because it gets familiar and familiar is safe (according to your mind) and you don’t really have anything else to compare it with.
Children in some remote parts of Afghanistan which have been ravaged by destruction and poverty are fed aphim/ganja or weed to keep them from feeling hungry. Such is the state of poverty and lack of food, these children grow up addicted to these drugs. That becomes their familiar and that becomes their normal. When they grow up, even if they are given opportunities or moved to environments with enough food and safety, weed or ganja is part of their normalcy. You cannot lecture such a child on the side effects of the drugs, it just won’t make any sense to them.
Growing up in an environment of constant fear and abuse, I had to make myself smaller to avoid being noticed. Living in my home was like walking on landmines, you never knew what would piss off my father, he was really good at keeping us guessing. One day you would get away with losing a gold chain and he never said a word, but another day you could get beat up for changing the TV channel. But I grew up thinking this was normal and this is how a normal family must function. In my head, the father of a family was the ultimate power and everyone else had to obey and fall in line otherwise they deserved the verbal abuse and the terror that followed. Because at that young age, I didn’t compare my life to those of my friends, I did not observe their relationships with their fathers. So, I thought everyone was supposed to be scared of their father, to weigh each and every word before they speak, to never question authority, to hide their true emotions and ride the high of a father’s good moods and bear the brunt of the low moods. I thought that was how one respects an elder. Slowly as I ventured into the world and watched my friends interact with their fathers it was a shock to me. Because the definition of normal or rather my reality was way different than an actual healthy parent-child relationship. It took 30 years to realize that my childhood was not normal in any sense, shape, or form. That is the power of familiarity and how it can induce fake normalcy.
The thing with our understanding of the normal is that it follows us in all aspects of life. This followed me into my personal as well as professional life for many years. When I entered into my own adult relationship, there were behaviors rooted in childhood that subtly controlled my actions. I was afraid to question my ex too much, I was afraid to upset him, I would still weigh each word before I spoke, and I was so afraid of rejection that I never stood up for myself the way a normal person would have. In short, my ex walked away scot-free with everything he did, I never so much even yelled at him. He once told me this during our separation, that we never fought like normal couples do. Not that I like to fight, but the fear of confrontation is so high, and the fear of repercussions that follow is higher, even when my conscious brain knows I am no longer a child. Ironically as I write this I remembered, that this was my father’s favorite word – repercussions, he used it a lot with us.
The point is simple, familiarity DOES not automatically mean normal and it is critical to understand the difference. Familiarity can wreak havoc on our personal growth. It can regulate your actions, and decisions and can actually predict your destiny. It can limit your view of your own capabilities and keep you bound to a small world where you are comfortably ignorant.
I talk to many couples whose marriages are way past the expiry date. They have lost all the love, attraction, common goals, ideas, and at times even respect, and yet they choose to continue for the sake of familiarity. And almost all of them use their children as a shield, the excuse that they are living together for the children. The worst excuse they can ever come up with is that. Remember, children do not listen to you, they observe you and they can sense a lot more than you give them credit. They probably knew before you did that their mom and dad are miserable together. The best thing you can do is own your truth and teach your children to never be afraid of losing the familiar.
I do not blame the parents though; they are not aware of the hold familiarity has on them. It has tremendous power because the mind wants to safeguard you and the unknown is threatening. A known devil is better than the unknown, it is a good quote but not in all contexts. The fear of the unknown, the fear of losing the false sense of normalcy, the fear of society’s questions, and the fear of a hundred different things keep us tied to familiarity, so instead of ripping out the band-aid, we let our wounds fester and rot.
As humans we are creatures of habit, we love our routines and even if we break them, we eventually create new routines. Waking up on the same side of the bed, walking to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, having that coffee, going through the same walking route for your morning walk, etc. Our brains get hardwired, and you can do all these activities even in your sleep. Similarly, do relationships hardwire our brains too? So much so that even the misery seems comfortable, even a better option in front of the unknown? Do we start falling in love with our misery because it is so familiar? Because it has become our new normal? And who does not love normal?
Maybe this is why people often attract the same kind of people in their relationships. Many articles have been written on this that we fall for the same type of people, in some shape or form, because subconsciously we are looking for the familiar in them. This is alarming if you are getting out of an abusive relationship and you do not want to attract another low-life individual into your life. What is the solution then? The key is studying yourself, recognizing your own patterns, and tendencies, and observing them. It is very difficult to control emotions, attractions, and other primal human tendencies, but the brain can act like the Big Boss and sift and sort. You cannot control being attracted to the wrong person, but with awareness, you can control what you choose to do. You have the power to walk away and that is liberating.
This excerpt from an article in the Business Insider on familiarity really explains it well.
“Be careful of falling for familiarity, warns psychologist Perpetua Neo, because narcissists are familiar. “A narcissist can feel very familiar if you are brought up around them or have too many of them in your life,” she told Business Insider. “So familiarity is, for instance, ‘I have this pair of shoes and they are spoiled. They are dangerous and they don’t fit well, but I am used to them. So I feel safe in them but actually, I could fall and they could kill me.””
Even in our work environments, learn to observe who impresses you the most and why. Is it actual positive traits or a familiar pattern of authority pleasing? Are you afraid to discuss issues with your boss? As you afraid of upsetting your boss or are you extremely defiant of everyone? Both can cause harm.
The positive out of all of this is the solution, Self-observation. This solution costs no money, and need not be disclosed or discussed either. You will find yourself very interesting once you start observing yourself. Keeping a private journal is a great idea, writing down your thoughts and feelings over time will help you identify patterns. You may be surprised that you actually are a people pleaser when on the surface you assumed you don’t care.
A lot about yourself will be revealed and in doing so, you sharpen your sword of social existence, giving you a dangerous advantage when it comes to relationships of all kinds. You will learn to set boundaries; you will learn to recognize when you start getting too comfortable and you will not be scared to chase the unknown. That is true freedom and greatness can come through only in that state of true freedom. I hope this inspires you to take a hard look at your situation and take a leap of faith into the unknown.