Patterns. Let’s talk about ‘em. Sometimes they come in the form of an awesome rug at West Elm that you would buy if it weren't so damn expensive. And other times -- most times -- they come in the form of you repeating the same behaviors over and over again, no matter the results you get. Because why not? Who doesn't love a good rut?
CASE IN POINT: Do you know someone who finds themselves in a series of unhealthy relationships, yet no matter how much they complain about their partner, the next time they’re single they can’t help but find themselves another bonafide asshole or bitch to lovingly call their own? They keep thinking this happens because only assholes or bitches exist. But really, what’s happening is that they find comfort in being with assholes or bitches because it’s all they know, and so their brain works overtime to be sure they repeat the pattern that matches their past experiences.
How is it that we can be drawn to things that we know aren't good for us, and things we claim we don’t want anymore?
It’s because our brains are wired for security, not sensibility. And shockingly enough, assholes and bitches can sometimes equal security for us. As can overeating. Or perpetual stress. Or bouts of rage.
The reason we do the things we've always done, despite not liking the consequences, is because it makes our brains feel really good. Our behaviors and emotional responses have become predictable, and predictability feels like a sweet and soothing massage for our brains.
Since birth, your brain has been trying to make sense of the world. It wants to do lots of research and then create this organizational system for you so that you can quickly and easily retrieve the information you need when you need it. And that’s kind of awesome.
But then… all the sudden… the outside world, a world in which you have no control over as a child, bulldozes its way through and becomes the brain-czar. If you’re lucky, the outside world met all your needs. Your parents were perfect in every single way. Your peers accepted and praised you. You excelled at every task in front of you, and if you ever failed, you never let it upset you. No bad experiences ever happened to you.
You’re human though, so that example doesn’t apply to you. Chances are, at least some stuff in your childhood wasn’t ideal. And for many of you, some stuff may have been downright scary. And during this time, your brain was keeping tabs on all these experiences.
And it started picking up on patterns. And it started building little highways to help connect certain experiences with certain responses. It was trying to help you be efficient.
It was trying to say, “Hey! Friend! I’ve got a plan! Since you seem to get picked on a lot and then tend to shut down and go cry in your room… I’m gonna build this awesome highway of connections that will help you remember to shut down and cry the next time that happens. Won’t that be so efficient? You won’t even have to think about what to do the next time you’re picked on -- it’ll just happen for you! Because I love you! Oh, and the best part -- the more you use this highway, the faster the connections will move, and the easier it will be for you to instantly respond by shutting down and crying every time you feel pain. Isn’t life grand?”
And next thing you know, you’re an adult who only knows how to deal with pain by shutting down and crying. Thanks, brain. Your valiant efforts have not gone unnoticed.
So how do we destroy this super-highway we’ve created that keeps causing us to act in predictable, yet unsatisfying ways?
Well, turns out we’ve got to build a new highway that will help us get where we want to be. While it would be nice to just flat out destroy the shut-down-and-cry-highway with one swing of the sledgehammer, it’s much more effective to start building a pretty new highway instead.
Your goal is to basically turn your old highway into I-35 during rush hour: a place you will avoid going at all costs.
So how do you make this happen?
1. Recognize which patterns you keep repeating (that you wish you didn’t). What are the things in life that make you say, “Why does this always happens to me?” Chances are, you’re attracting certain things because you’re living your life on cruise control, traveling down a highway your brain started building when you were a child but that you have now become oblivious to. Maybe you feel like you’re always busy and like life won’t stop piling things on top of you, or maybe you can’t help but yell at your spouse when you feel criticized.
2. Recognize what triggers it. What seems to prompt you repeating the pattern? What sets it off for you? Do you overeat whenever you come home to an empty house, or is it when you’re feeling especially stressed? Do you enter into abusive relationships the moment you’re single, or maybe it only happens when you meet someone who makes you play hard to get?
3. The next time the trigger happens, P A U S E. Now that you know what things drive you to repeating your pattern, become aware whenever you approach your trigger. Do you walk in the door from work and immediately run to the pantry? P A U S E. Say to yourself, “Oh look, I’m feeling the urge to repeat my pattern right now.” You’re not judging yourself for it -- you’re just noticing it. Whether you stop yourself from getting food or whether you decide to overeat … that’s irrelevant right now. What matters is that you become actively aware of the moment when the urge strikes. Create this pause every time you notice the trigger. The most important part right now is heightening your awareness of the trigger when it strikes.
4. Figure out a new response. This is the infrastructure for the new highway you’re building. The reason we suck at changing our patterns is because our brains don’t know that there are other ways to respond. Your brain is not trying to make things hard on you. It just doesn’t know any better. So you’ve got to figure out which way you’d prefer to respond to your triggers. When you’re lonely at home, what alternative feels like a better way to handle it to you?
5. Implement the new response. A lot. And I mean a lot. Now that you’ve become more aware of your pattern, what triggers it, and what your new, preferred response is… you’ve got to actually do it. Yes. Actually do it! --- Your trigger will show up, you’ll P A U S E and notice without judgment what you’re experiencing, saying something to yourself like, “I’m drawn to this guy who is playing hard to get, which typically gets me in trouble. Hmm, interesting.” During this pause, you’ll remember the new way you want to respond. And then you’ll actually use your new response.
You’re not gonna like it at first, as it will feel uncomfortable, but you’ve got to do it over and over again. And then over again, again.
Easier said that done, right? I know. But that’s only because you’re a beginner. That old highway is embedded in you and will call out for your attention all the time. It’ll pretend like it’s a safer highway with prettier things to look at. But it’s lying. Because it doesn’t know any better.
You have the ability to override your brain, though. It just takes practice. Ya see, each time you practice your new response, your brand-spanking-new highway starts getting built. And that means every time you don’t use your old response, that old highway starts falling apart.
The construction crew of your brain is going to go wherever the traffic is, so the more times you practice your new patterns, the smoother the ride on your new highway will be.
But remember, when highways are under construction, they have random obstacles like lane closures or loose gravel. So be patient with your brain. It’ll make that new highway as quickly as it can, just as long as you remember to pay the construction crew.
And eventually, once you start using that new highway for the badass HOV lane it provides, you'll notice that your old highway has gotten all congested with broke-down cars and overgrown shrubbery -- a Jumanji game gone wild, shall we say. And that old highway will start to look just as welcoming as I-35 does during rush hour. Making your brain think, “Yikes! Let’s not take that path anymore!”