Changing Patterns

In this essay I outline ways to change personal behavior patterns.

But first, some words from a former President of the United States:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.

So before we start chopping, let’s sharpen the ax.

When it comes to changing patterns, the ax we must sharpen is the language we use. We need to talk some about the words we are using.

In this essay I am using ‘pattern’ to mean complex behavioral sequences that are somewhat automatic or routine. Some psychologists might use the word ‘habit’ or ‘behavior’, but to me ‘pattern’ allows the definition to be broader and more complex. A pattern could take just a few seconds or more than a few days to unfold, whereas most psychologists will use the word ‘habit’ to refer to behavioral events of relatively  short duration.

And then there is that word “change”. ‘Changing patterns’ implies that something we are doing (a pattern) is not working the way we want it to, so we want to do something else, a new pattern or a slight modification of an old pattern so that we will get the results we want.

Here’s the sort of language that most of us use when trying to change: “There good patterns and bad patterns. I want to get rid of bad patterns and do the good patterns”.

Unfortunately, this is not the most helpful way to define the problem. Rather than talk in absolute, rigid terms, in the black/white language of opposites such as ‘bad/good’ patterns, it is more helpful to talk in relative, flexible terms such as patterns as being ‘more’ or ‘less’ helpful.

So when we examine the personal behavior patterns in our lives, a more effective way to articulate the questions might go something like this:

“What usually happens when I live using this pattern? What are the probable long- and short-term results? How do these results fit into my values and goals? Do I want to go where this pattern seems to be taking me? If I don’t want to go where the pattern is taking me, then what’s my best guess about what I should do differently?”

It takes a lot of words to explain something that is basically a wordless process.

For the purposes of this essay, we will use the terms “more helpful” and “less helpful” in this way:

A more helpful pattern is one which, in the long term, makes your life richer, fuller, and more meaningful.

A less helpful pattern is one which, in the long term, decreases your vitality and reduces your quality of life.

Thus, watching a lot of TV, sleeping in, procrastinating, eating junk food, drinking alcohol, or never leaving home are not ‘less helpful’ patterns in and of themselves- it really depends on the context. They can only be evaluated as ‘less helpful’ when they reduce the quality of our life over time.

OK, I hope the ax of language has been sharpened enough. Let’s start chopping down the tree.

Steps toward change

These steps are useful for changing any sort of pattern, everything from overeating, getting drunk, yelling, procrastinating, relating poorly, or acting shy.

Step one: identify the costs of this pattern.

What is at stake here that makes it worth investing time and energy to change this pattern?

What is it costing you in terms of health, vitality, relationships, money, time, and thoughts and feelings?

What important aspects of your life are you missing out on, throwing away, or reducing the chances of, if you stick with this pattern?

Make this assessment very honest and real- the quality of your life depends on it. Be painfully honest with yourself. If you want to change a long-established pattern, you’ll need some serious motivation.

A Big Question: Is this pattern costing you enough that you are willing to put some hard work into changing it? Are you willing to experience some discomfort to change this pattern? If not, why bother?

Step two: identify the barriers to change.

Part 1– What keeps the pattern going? Patterns persist only because they somehow work for us, they provide something we like. Patterns make us feel better by increasing positive feelings, decreasing negative feelings, or both.

Patterns might give us a short term positive experience. We do the pattern and we feel better. Examples might be things like smoking, eating, drinking, sleeping in, taking recreational drugs etc.

Patterns might also give us some short term relief from unpleasant experiences- Examples might be things like procrastinating, zoning out in front of the TV, sleeping excessively, nail-biting, avoiding a potentially tense interpersonal encounter, etc.

Patterns can, of course, increase pleasure and increase relief at the same time. For example, if someone chooses to skip school and hang out with friends instead, it could increase both pleasure (having fun hanging out) and relief (Yay! No boring classes for me today!).

Write down or think about the benefits you are getting from the pattern.

Then, think about this: are there any possible alternative ways to get the same effects that will enhance your life in the long run? Or, if there are not alternatives, are you willing to let go of the short-term benefits for the long-term benefits of improving the quality of your life?

Part 2– What stories does the mind create that help maintain the pattern? Common stories include: Too hard. Too busy. Too tired. Too ____ . Won’t work. No point trying – I’ve tried before and always failed. Can’t be bothered. Too complicated. Will start next week. I’ve got no control. I’m not ready to change, I can’t do it until ____ . That’s just the way I am. etc., etc.

Are you willing to defuse, to detach from these stories? Which means, FYI, to mindfully notice them, mindfully name them, and mindfully let them come and go while mindfully not buying into them?

Step three: identify the ‘triggers’ for this pattern.

See if you can identify the contexts in which a pattern generally occurs. Notice the thoughts and feelings that show up immediately before or just as the patterns starts.

A helpful technique here is to take a mindful pause. Here’s how:

Just pause briefly for a few moments when you become aware of the pattern starting. Notice sensations in the body. Notice thoughts in the mind.

Once you have mindfully paused, feel free to go ahead and complete the pattern if you still want to.

At this point I am not asking you to stop the pattern. Simply pause, become aware, and notice the sort of sensations, thoughts, or feelings that tend to ‘trigger’ this response from you.’

If you are willing, keep track of the pattern for a week. Track the triggers by noting when they occur in a notebook, on a computer, smart phone, whatever works for you.  Document the situations, thoughts and feelings that typically accompany the pattern. Often, just tracking triggers leads to pattern change by bringing mindfulness to the behavior, instead of just operating on auto-pilot.

Now and then you will find yourself deep into the pattern before you realize it. If that happens, no worries. Relax. As soon as you notice what you are doing, mindfully pause for a moment. Become present to your experience in the moment. Notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

Then gently recall your previous moments. See if you can identify the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that triggered the pattern.

Step four: differentiate ‘triggers’ from ’causes’.

Triggers, certain sensations, feelings, and thoughts, usually arrive just before any pattern begins. While these sensations, feelings, and thoughts may serve as triggers for patterns, they do not actually cause the patterns.

An example: When driving an automobile, seeing a red traffic signal in front of you is a trigger to stop. The red light does not, however, cause you to stop. What causes you to stop is your mostly automatic (unconscious) decision to take your foot off of the accelerator and press the brake pedal. Pressing the brakes instead of the accelerator makes you stop. (If red lights caused us to stop, no one could ever run a red light).

There are many other patterns available for us to choose in response to triggers if we happen to be awake, if we are mindful.  If I am aware of my sensations, feelings, and thoughts that trigger the tendency for me to start an less helpful pattern, then I have a much better chance of choosing my response. But, on the other hand, if I’m on mindless auto-pilot, caught up in my thoughts, lacking self-awareness, then I will tend to blindly do the same thing I’ve always done.

Now and then a client will insist that ‘I have no control. I can’t help it.’

I reply, ‘So, OK, I hear you. Your mind clearly says to you that you have no control. I’m not going to argue about the stories that your mind comes up with to explain things to you. However, if you and I are stuck with having to go along with that story, what can we do? Where can we go from here?’

At this point clients sometimes wake up.  They understand deeply that nothing will change as long as they are blindly fused with the mind’s ‘I have no control. I can’t help it’ story.

And that point the door is open just a bit for me to inquire, ‘So, could you let the mind have that story and do things differently anyway, despite the mind and whatever stories it happens to create?’

Step five: practice mindfulness to transform triggers.

Notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that typically show up before the pattern starts.

Learn to defuse from the stories the mind creates.

Breathe into and make room for the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise.

When you are working on changing a pattern, try this: Just sit mindfully for thirty seconds without enacting the pattern no matter what the mind is saying. After some practice, extend the mindful sitting to a minute.

When you sit mindfully with your urges for a minute or so, you give yourself some breathing room. This can enable you to connect with your values and consider some alternatives that would be more helpful to you than would indulging in your less helpful pattern.

Step six: use values to generate alternative patterns that are more helpful.

To absolutely stop a less helpful pattern is a ‘dead person’s goal’. A ‘dead person’s goal’ is any goal that a corpse can achieve better than you.

For example. To ‘never smoke again’ is a dead person’s goal because a corpse can be guaranteed to never smoke again, no matter what. A living person can’t guarantee that.

In contrast, a ‘live person’s goal’ is something you can do better than a corpse. Thus, instead of smoking, a live person might stand up, have a good stretch, and take a few deep breaths. A corpse can’t do that.

So use values to create alternative, life-enhancing patterns which you can consciously enact as an alternative response for the moments that triggers show up.  

To choose a new pattern, you need to be:

1. in the present moment
2. aware of your reactions
3. defused from your stories
4. making room for your feelings and urges
5. connecting with your values.

Then you can choose a new, more helpful pattern instead of your old, less helpful one.

Step seven: clarify the benefits of  the new pattern.

How will the new pattern enrich your life? What differences will it make to your health, vitality, relationships, finances, self-talk, etc?

Keep your eye on the prize. Think long term, think about the big picture.Use the benefits for daily motivation. In other words, come back to it and reflect on it when the going gets tough.

Some find it helpful to formally reflect once or twice a day on the benefits that can come as a result of enacting the new pattern over time- something that looks like meditative reflection or contemplation.

Others find it helpful to reinforce their motivation before encountering triggers. For example, a person who is working toward changing an eating pattern might reflect on the benefits of the new pattern before meals or before a social event that has a lot of food.

Step eight: work toward a compassionate and pragmatic attitude.

No one ever completely changes all of the less helpful patterns. The pragmatic reality is that most of us will stumble over and over again as we travel along the path that is our life. Improvement is possible, and even probable, for those who can mindfully persist.

So, when working toward changing our less helpful patterns to more helpful ones, let’s be compassionate and pragmatic. We are all fallible human beings. When under stress we are all more likely to fall back into our old patterns of behavior.

And when that happens, there’s really no point in  beating ourselves up. After all, if beating ourselves up was an effective technique to get rid of our less helpful patterns, we would all be perfect by now, wouldn’t we?

At those times when we stumble, we need to accept our disappointment, show ourselves some compassion, reconnect with our values, and start again. …and again, and again, and again…

*Note: Some of the ideas and structure of this essay come from The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. I have taken those ideas and built them into something of my own. I highly recommend The Happiness Trap.

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