Nearly everyone has a way of thinking, feeling or a behaviour they want to change.
Why do we get stuck repeating things that cause us problems?
Why do we do things we don’t want to do?
How come our efforts to change don’t work?
The answer? Patterns.
As humans, we go through life learning how to respond. As we develop we learn ways of thinking, feeling and responding that then become patterns. We respond in a certain way, respond that way again, and practice until the response is automatic. Once we’ve practiced enough, that response will run automatically. It becomes a habitual way of responding, and the more we use it, the more automatic it becomes. It is like a skill we master. Practice and repetition make it automatic and effortless. When you get on a bike, the bike patterns run. You don’t even have to think about it. So is the case with all our patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.
When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? I bet it’s a pattern – same thing every day!
When you walk up to a door, you reach for the handle and turn. Automatic.
When you’re driving and the light turns red, you slow down and stop. It’s a pattern.
When you get dressed, you get dressed in a very specific order. Pattern!
What’s a pattern?
A pattern is any way of thinking, feeling, behaving or relating that is automatic, unconscious, predictable and habitual. We have patterned ways of responding to almost everything. How do you respond to challenges and problems? How do you respond to failure and mistakes? How do you respond when meeting new people? To bad news? Good news? What about when you succeed, impress yourself, receive a compliment or a commendation. Each of us has typical ways of responding to things, people, situations and circumstances. These are patterns.
As creatures of habit (pattern!), we rarely even think about our habitual and automatic ways of thinking, feeling and responding. We get swept away by them, let them run us and don’t even see them. That’s why patterns are unconscious.
What are your patterns?
Most of our behaviour is patterned.
We rarely have to think about what to do in a given situation. Usually, we’ve been in similar situations before and so we simply function on automatic. Somewhere along the way, we all learned how to respond to all kinds of things, people, situations and stimuli.
When you are attracted to someone, how do you respond? Probably in a patterned way. You’re either excited or afraid, confident or frozen. It’s a pattern.
When you see an authority figure, how do you respond? Probably the same way every time.
When someone criticizes you, how do you respond? You’ll have a habitual way of responding to criticism that gets triggered anytime you’re criticized.
If in all these situations we have to think about how to respond, life would be tedious. We’d always be sitting around telling people to hold on a moment while we consider what would be the appropriate response. Hold on while I think about how to greet you. Do I need to shake your hand? Am I supposed to smile here? No, people aren’t like that.
As humans, we acquire patterns to help us navigate the world. If a response gets us a result, our mind installs it as a program to free us up to focus on other things.
When you think, feel or respond in a certain way, in essence you are practicing. Your nervous system is getting used to that response and you become skilled a producing that response. As we engage in and practice any way of thinking, feeling or responding, it becomes easier and more automatic. Soon it drops out of awareness like any skill we’ve mastered. You don’t have to think about what to do when you drive because you’ve mastered the skill. It happens effortlessly and automatically.
Patterns are often unconscious.
We have habitual ways perceiving, interpreting, evaluating, feeling and responding that were practiced until they dropped out of awareness. We then run a pattern without realizing what is happening. The pattern is in our blindspot. When under the influence of a pattern, we might perceive and evaluate things in a certain way, convinced that that is the way things are, without even considering how we are perceiving and evaluating things.
Just like an old Jukebox that keeps playing the same track, we run the same patterns in the same situations. Someone put a coin in and choose a different track already!
When I’m working with people, I’m always asking myself:
What’s the pattern?
I am looking for patterns of thinking, perceiving, evaluating and responding that the person is caught in but unaware of. If I can uncover the pattern and show them, they can have a look for themselves. Usually, when I find the pattern and make them aware of it, there’s an almost magical change.
One day, while working with a client to resolve her anxiety, I listened while she despairingly told me about all kinds of frightening things she was worried. I stood back, listening patiently and when she had finished, I looked at her and responded emphatically: “Doom and gloom!”
What happened? She burst out laughing! Yes, she didn’t know she was caught in a pattern of envisioning worst-case scenarios. Showing her her pattern interrupted it. She said that wad the first time she’d laughed in months, and it was a breakthrough in our work together.
All change is interrupting patterns.
Many of the patterned ways we have of responding are useful. They get us results. But sometimes, patterns become problems. So what do we do to change? How do we put an end to a harmful pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving? We interrupt it!
You can’t put new data on a CD. Why? There are patterns of information on the CD that give the same result every time. If we don’t like what the CD is playing we need to scratch it until it can’t play anymore. Then we can replace it with a new track.
I used to get really down every time I had a problem. When I had a problem I responded in a certain way, wanting to fix and solve the problem, wishing I didn’t have it, wondering why I had it. Responding this way was all I’d learned and it was so automatic that while I focused on the problem, I never considered how I habitually responded to problems. I didn’t know it was a pattern… and an ineffective one at that. When in the moment, we can’t step back enough to see the pattern of responses over time. Every time you’re in X situation you respond with Y. That’s a pattern! Instead, we’re run by the pattern and blind to it.
Any way of thinking, feeling or behaving you want to change is a pattern. It is something learned at sometime in the past that was practiced and reinforced until it was automatic. It might have been really useful back then, but now that it’s automatic and effortless, it runs even thought it’s causing a problem.
A problem can be simple, in which case it is made up of one or just a few patterns. Complex problems like anxiety, depression or an addiction are usually made up of many patterns. These unconscious and automatic patterns lead to symptoms that we then mistake for the problem. We try to fix the symptoms without being able to see the patterns that are causing them.
To solve problems, we need to identify the hidden automatic patterns and interrupt them. We need to break limiting patterns before we can learn something new. We need to scratch the CD until it cannot play that same track.
All change is interrupting patterns.