They look different for all of us, but the overall pattern is always the same: suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation which triggers old, automatic reactive patterns within, and we do “what we’ve always done”.
Maybe we enter discussions which we’re not really interested in having. Or we might be temporarily unable to speak at all, despite the fact that we’d very much like to retort. For some of us, there’s a compulsion to help, or to explain, which we launch into quite automatically — and so on, and so forth. The automatic patterns may differ, and it’s not always obvious to an outside observer that that are indeed automatic.
Sometimes, this small detail escapes our own awareness, too. But whether we are conscious of the pattern emerging or not, it can still make us feel bad, and sometimes we notice in retrospect that we drove off into the ditch — again. Just like we always do (or so it feels). And just like we decided, perhaps, to not do next time when a similar situation came along … And yet, there we were, back again.
Regardless of which automatic behaviours (our paralyses) you have, I’m sure the concept is familiar. It’s like these patters lodged themselves into the deepest layers of “you”, and at this point, it all happens quite by itself. Sometimes, it’s even happening by itself while you’re actively noticing. At those times, it’s almost like having another part of our consciousness standing next to us, sighing, Hellooo — erm, again …?? or, For the love of god, SAY something!!
Navigating the patterns as best we can
Maybe we try different tricks to change our behaviours, and sometimes we even succeed. But the steps we take in the moment — biting our tongue, or counting to ten, or use some other tool we picked up — do nothing to dissolve the pattern. Sure, willpower and strategies can take us some of the way. But sooner or later, something happens that’s enough to make us forget all our good intentions, and in a flash, we’re back in the old response pattern again.
Of course, this might feel discouraging. Is it really not possible to change such old reactive patterns? Yes. It’s entirely possible. It’s just that dissolving a pattern is different from circumventing it. To actually dissolve it, so there’s nothing left to activate it next time the same triggers come along, we need to start with — drumroll, please 😎 — awareness.
This begins with gently exploring the reaction. What might be the purpose of this learnt response? Assuming the patterns originated to actually be helpful, what good does it do (or so it would seem) to have the same old discussion with my cousin yet again? In what way could it ever be considered helpful to prevent me from opening my mouth when people start using a certain tone of voice? What is it that I want to avoid by entering into my pattern? The way out starts with curiosity and non-judgemental openness.
Taking an interest and being curious, assuming the original intent was being helpful, is much more productive than assuming that the pattern is a personality curse, or that we’re just stupid or self-destructive or unconscious. Beating ourselves up, even if under the guise of changing for the better, is not conducive to lasting and positive change. Allowing, listening, and exploring is.
The past: an excellent training ground
At first, it’s easiest to practice exploring the reactions after the fact, rather than in real-time — that is, in the situation that sets them off. When you get some time to yourself, sit down and feel into the emotions, fears, interpretations, and conclusions that seem to arrive in no time in these situations. (And notice the phrase: feel into. Just thinking about what tends to happen and cognitively analysing it isn’t all that helpful.) How does it feel? When does it start? As soon as you lay eyes on your cousin? Or is it when the person seems to be implying something about you? What are the different parts of the automatic pattern? What seems so be the purpose? What would you prefer to happen in the situation? Again, be curious. It’s like you’re your own little version of Sherlock trying to unravel an inner mystery; judging is unhelpful; curious exploration is helpful.
Watch out for more “help” 😉
Now, such exploration might sound like a good idea. Quite reasonable. Interesting, even. “Sure, I’ll explore this next time it happens”, we might think. But then the exploration sort of … doesn’t happen. This is usually because the whole dynamic is connected to some discomfort — in fact, the pattern exists precisely to allow you not to feel these things. What good does it do to dig into that old stuff? asks the ego mind. It’s just uncomfortable anyway, and it’s not like I can change what happened before lunch/yesterday/in my teens.
But while it’s true that we can’t change the past, neither is this the goal. We want to allow for future changes. Also, regardless, you can rest safely assured that any reluctance to explore is completely unrelated to whether we believe it will “work” or not. We’re just simply afraid of looking closer. When the pattern first emerged, its job was to protect us from an experience that, at the time, felt overwhelming. We have invested a lot into shielding ourselves from going there, and doing so on purpose seems inordinately stupid — not to mention unnecessary (since, you know, we can’t change the past, etc, etc).
But the thing is today is different. To the extent that I can allow myself to experience the feelings that the pattern has been obscuring or holding off, the pattern’s hold on me weakens. Also, we don’t need to “go back” and “dig up” childhood experiences. It’s enough that we feel what we feel now — but, again, it needs to be how it FEELS now, not what we think or reason around those feelings. The more of my feelings I regain access to and reclaim, the greater my freedom to choose my response in the moment. Now, it’s no longer a matter of willpower or self-control. I’ve changed the actual terrain from which the pattern emerges, and I no longer need this automatic “saviour”.
But it’s important to note, we’ve talking about two things here: 1) What we do in the moment to navigate the situation, and 2) How, later, we explore our own experience. Both parts are meaningful, but remember that any strategies we use in the moment to directly change our behaviour only affect that particular moment. It’s our subsequent, conscious processing that decides how the pattern continues to evolve — or dissolve 😉❤️️