Changing patterns, habits, thoughts, responses, behaviors. It is not easy. If it were easy, none of us would have bad habits, over-anything – eat, drink, shop, you name it - or show the emotional parts of ourself that we later find embarrassing or shameful. We would be the best version of ourselves. Apologies would be extinct. Now that would be a change!
We find ourselves somewhere in those 5 things because at the time those strategies worked for us. It certainly seemed better than the alternative, whatever that might have been. And so, we tried that behavior or thought or response again when the situation was similar and if we had a good result (less bad or better than we expected), then the brain registered the action as a success. A less than helpful pattern or habit was born and we may have not been consciously aware of it. That’s what makes change so sneaky.
Patterns of behavior don’t become engrained only when we are young children. We can experience trauma or other difficult situations when we are any age. The brain is our ultimate protector – it does its very best to protect us under all circumstances. That’s another things that makes change so hard.
The brain says to itself, why mess with a good thing? What the brain doesn’t know is that there may be a better thing. How is that possible? Because the brain hasn’t had the experience of doing something different. It just responds with what has been working. It’s logical that way!
There is also another reason why change is challenging. Our emotions. They are not logical. Our emotions always want us to feel better. To resolve the tension or sadness or anger in some way that make us feel less of any of those feelings. And if we feel vindicated or understood in some way, for example, those very powerful feelings reinforce our strategy or our pattern.
So how does real change happen? How do we change the pattern? We need to be detectives and it helps to have a sidekick. Sherlock had Holmes, Scooby Doo had Thelma. Bottom line, ideally, we need another perspective. Someone that we trust. Someone that is able to say, I notice this, what do you think? And we don’t get defensive.
If you don’t have someone like that in your life currently, you are going to have to pay VERY close attention to you and your behavior and feelings. What is the pattern and how do you interrupt it? What keeps that pattern going? How do you feel when the pattern continues or when you interrupt it? What do you tell yourself?
I have a resident who is working so hard in her recovery. She has figured out that when her body says it wants sugar, it’s really those substance pathways that are talking to her. She talks back and says, I don’t need that, it makes things worse. I don’t need to eat ice cream or cookies, it’s just that part of my brain talking. It’s remarkable.
When you have the information, then you have to know what are the circumstances that produce these not so helpful patterns? They may be a little different each time, but there is a theme. You can practice ahead if you know your theme and decide which part of the pattern you want to change. Remember, change in the pattern no matter how small is a change. It changes the pattern.
Don’t expect to be perfect or catch every part of the theme. However, watching you and deciding ahead of time what you want to do differently will make positive change a reality.
By: Gail A. Chester
Psychologist, PhD, LPCS, LMFT., Author