Why old patterns return and how to break them [Wise Wednesdays]
“Why have I fallen back into that old pattern?”
Have you ever experienced this? It’s something we discussed at length in the Presence Power Possibility coaching-mastermind group and I want to share some insights on how to address old patterns fully and whether it’s even necessary to get rid of old patterns to live a full and vibrant life.
Let’s take people-pleasing - a pattern that’s so prevalent among those who care.
Let’s say you finally understand that people-pleasing doesn’t serve you and that guilt is not a good guide to decision-making. and You start noticing that when you say ‘no’ or speak up for yourself, people don’t generally get angry, and that in fact they respect you more. Perhaps you notice that life feels a little easier because as you start asking for help instead of taking on more problems to solve, people help you and you’ve got more room to breathe and enjoy life.
But then you start a new job with a strange boss or meet an old family member and your people-pleasing comes rushing back!
In the evening, you feel that you’ve let yourself down somehow and chide yourself (which is totally unnecessary by the way).
Why does this happen?
There are a few reasons including:
· Individual reasons: you’re tired or distracted and therefore not present enough.
· Environmental reasons: you’re exposed to more stress because it’s a new environment or an increasingly challenging one.
The thing is the people-pleasing pattern is still serving some function in your life. The habit-reward loop (i.e. the benefit derived from the pattern) is still active.
So how do you break out of patterns definitively?
1) UNDERSTAND YOUR MOTIVATION - DEEPLY
First, let’s acknowledge that you don’t have to eradicate your patterns entirely to be happy, healthy and authentically successful. Most things humans do, don’t have to be eradicated. Excessive eating may lead to obesity. But you don’t have to stop eating altogether (in fact, it would be highly detrimental to the purposes of living!) Taking out your anger on people is not a good idea. But it doesn’t mean you should never feel angry. Anger is a useful compass for your values and ethics and can be an initiator of wise action.
Understanding why you do something – really understanding – means that the habit-reward loop (i.e. the link in your mind between the pattern and its benefit) can finally be broken.
Really understanding means knowing where the impulse for the pattern comes from and what fuels it in terms of stories and emotions.
So old patterns return because there’s something further you need to understand about your motivation for the pattern, in other words: why and how is this pattern benefitting you? What are you really trying to achieve with this behaviour?
A part of you knows the answer, and wants to tell you about it, if you’ slow down and take the time to hear what it has to say.
Let’s take people-pleasing again. You might try to make others feel comfortable at the expense of your authenticity. You might believe that people-pleasing is a helpful lubricant for social relationships or to move a project forward. But when you look closely, you find that it leaves you drained and feeling small. You might remember how you adopted this pattern in childhood to fit into your family because you had to take on the pacifier role to keep the peace and protect your nervous system from a total meltdown. You may identify what this has cost you over the years and how you’re no longer willing to play this role. You may start to realise that relationships work better and projects move faster when you’re more direct and self-contained. And then life takes on a whole new vibrancy!
The insight into the full depths of your motivation will release the pattern closer to its root. You’ll start to see more clearly the error in the thinking and your mind will start to get curious and creative about alternatives. Your natural desire to learn will start to replace the old pattern that doesn’t serve you anymore now that it’s totally disinvested from the story and emotional reward behind the old pattern.
CONTEMPLATION: Think of a pattern you know it’s time to outgrow. How did this pattern serve you in your childhood, adolescence and/or adulthood? Every time you see a piece of the puzzle, say thank you and release it. Take your time, as some of your motivation for the pattern will be hidden from your awareness for a reason. Be gentle but persistently curious.
2) MASTER YOUR STRESS RESPONSE
Second, let’s go to the core of all behaviours: the basic instinct for all action is stress reduction – either:
- reducing the stress of not having something you want; or
- reducing the stress of not wanting something you have.
You may have a powerful insight into the motivation behind your behaviour but you need a second thing: repeatedly breaking the pattern in vivo (i.e. in real life, not just in your meditation, journal or practice group, or as a one off on a good day).
This is why a transformational coaching process needs to take place over the long term – so that you have time to integrate an insight and practise new ways of behaving in the wild! You have time to experiment with new decisions and behaviours and wire in your new way of being, for example as a decisive and fair leader instead of a people-pleaser.
Moving through the full shift out of an old pattern cannot happen if you don’t know how to manage your stress response i.e., the tendency to activate resistance, anxiety, fear when things aren’t looking or feeling exactly as you want them to, which is inevitable in the process of pattern breaking.
Tactics alone won’t do – you have to know how to move through the stress of change.
It’s your ability to drop back into a state of calm stillness that ultimately breaks through the patterns. From there you can move through change more effectively and create the life that represents the magnificent adult you are today – not the one that represents the old patterns of the younger you.
Your willingness to drop into your calm stillness consistently is directly proportional to your ability to break out of limiting patterns that no longer serve you.
Why? Because this ability breaks the dopamine-reward circuit and uncouples it from your imagination. In other words, the link between the pattern and the perceived benefit it gave you is scrambled, repeatedly and therefore – for good. Forgetting to reconnect with your calm stillness i.e. manage your stress - can reactivate the pattern.
The good news is that there are plenty of activities that reduce your stress response and connect you to this inner-stillness - like self-care, meditation and a supportive coach and community.
One of the simplest but most powerful tools for this is the 4Rs of mindfulness:
- Recognise (the pattern)
- Refrain (from the pattern)
- Relax (release the stress of not giving into your pattern)
- Resolve (to continue being present to the process and do the personal development work)
Of course, the application to your specific situation is where you might like some help.
CONTEMPLATE: How do you connect to a sense of inner-stillness or calm, relaxed-alertness? How much time are you willing to devote to it each day?
REPETITION COMPULSION: CUTTING THROUGH WITH PRESENCE
Freud believed that you’ll tend to put yourself in the same situation and relive old patterns until you break out of the urge to act out your pattern – what he called repetition compulsion. So changing environment, job or relationship to fix a pattern doesn’t work. It will return when the conditions trigger it again. An intellectual understanding of the pattern won’t be enough either.
The intellectual understanding must: 1) translate into a deeper insight into your motivation; 2) into behaviour change over time. And what gets in the way of that? Being stuck in stress which cuts you off from your higher cognitive faculties (like insight) and misdirects your energy.
But help is available all around you. The entire personal development industry is helping you do just that: master your stress response. It’s what spiritual traditions have been teaching for thousands of years through a single concept: let go or surrender.
Where do you start?
At the heart of Freud’s approach was bringing a certain quality of attention to all the dreams, memories and stories his clients brought to him. He called this quality: evenly suspended attention which sounds a lot like presence or mindfulness to me. So whatever approach you want to take, the beginning is always the same: bring your calm, non-judgemental, peaceful attention to your experience and your next steps will be revealed in good time.
Have a great week,
PLUS whenever you’re ready to go deeper:
1) Get a free chapter to help you shift your mindset from stressful goal-setting to flowing creative cycles from the Award-Winning book The Success Trap: Why good people stay in jobs they don't like and how to break free [Download here].
2) Learn more about Presence Power Possibility, a 3-month small group coaching programme designed for high achievers to redefine their path and advance their leadership. If you’re interested in joining the next round [learn more here].
3) Transform your career and create the life you really want 1:1 coaching: Work with me privately to align your career and life with your true aspirations and fulfil your deepest potential with more ease and fun. If you’d like to have an Exploratory Coaching Conversation [book a time here].
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