Addressing stuck patterns when stuck in alone

Addressing stuck patterns when stuck in alone

This blog post outlines ways in which we might address our relationship patterns if we’re stuck in alone during Covid-19. There’s a post discussing the reasons why we might want to do so here, and one about what we can do if we’re stuck in with others here.

So what if you’re stuck in alone? This is the situation that I find myself in, so I’ll probably be blogging a fair amount about this in the coming weeks and months. I feel fortunate that – for me – I had already decided to live alone and to take a break from certain kinds of (romantic and erotic) relationships for a while in order to address these patterns, before social distancing/isolation hit. It must be much harder for those where this hasn’t been an intentional choice. However I think that solitude can be an opportunity for us all to do this work. Maybe reframing it in this way can be helpful for you if solitude and isolation hasn’t been something you’ve historically welcomed.

The opportunity here – if we want to take it – is to take an intentional break from any kinds of relationships where we get drawn into these patterns in a big way. For a lot of us these are partner, family, and cohabiting relationships. We get drawn into such patterns there because we’re often around each other a lot, and because – whether consciously or not – we tend to look to partners and families to provide us with the kinds of love we lacked or lost when we were younger. Our stuck patterns often emerged as an attempt to get ourselves care and protection from others and to prevent people from abandoning us or hurting us.

So here’s a great chance to go cold turkey on problematic relationship patterns! In a similar way to the way that, for some of us, the current situation enables us to have a period of not doing our job in the way we used to and perhaps addressing some of our stuck patterns around work, it also enables us to have a period away from intense relationships. Of course, just as we could fill our time with other kinds of work, we could fill solitude with online relationships, continuing to date, have online sex, speak to family every day, etc. However, I’d like to suggest the alternative of taking this time as permission to step away from being caught up in intense relationships for a while.

You won’t be surprised to hear me stress the need for gentleness around this kind of cold turkey. While I’m no fan of addiction models, there is something to the analogy between drug addiction and the kinds of compulsions we’re acting out when we long for love to heal or save us. We can expect some detox pain, withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and relapses. 

For me the hardest part of this process of trying to shift old patterns of relating to myself and others has been an initial period where everything felt a whole lot more painful and difficult. It’s hard to have the faith needed to keep going when you’re not getting any rewards for the work you’re doing and when there’s a lot of uncertainty – and no guarantees – about what’s on the other side. Again a whole shedload of gentleness and kindness towards yourself is key. I’ll be blogging more about that in the coming weeks too, but it’s worth remembering that you can’t shift these kinds of patterns the same way they came into being, i.e. through treating yourself harshly.

Also this kind of work can’t be done quickly because it takes a lot of time to bed new habits into our bodies. Physiologically it’s like there was a deep channel through which the rainwater made its way off the roof and down to the ground. We need to wear a new channel deeper than that old one before the water will automatically follow the new channel.

Noticing and shifting stuck patterns by yourself

So the aim is to notice and shift these patterns in our ways of relating. Initially we won’t even notice the patterns because they come so habitually to us. Then – by bringing our attention towards them intentionally – we’ll start to notice them, but we probably won’t manage to do anything differently. This is often the hardest part: realising how much we do this stuff and feeling unable to change it. If possible at this stage it’s great if you can reward yourself for just simply noticing. That, in itself, is a huge shift. This is followed by a period where you can sometimes manage to do things differently when the old pattern kicks in, although it probably takes a lot of effort.

Eventually there will come a time when the new pattern feels as easy as the old one did. Here it’s useful to remind yourself of times you have changed other – perhaps more minor – habits in this way. You can reach that point! This is just how learning works. Portia Nelson’s poem of the hole in the road, or the visual model of unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence can be helpful reminders.

So what are we noticing if we’re alone without close people around us to keep pushing our buttons? Fortunately (!) even if we’re completely isolated our stuck patterns will kick in plenty. They’ll play out when we get a tricky email, or have a rough exchange on social media, or when a tough memory comes to mind, or a song reminds us of something hard: probably many times a day. Certainly the degree of uncertainty in the world and the frequent changes we’re having to make will probably bring out our familiar patterns. 

I’ve found that increased solitude has helped me to get a way more vivid sense of what it feels like when my fawn/flight pattern kicks in. This helps me to notice it more and more – including the smaller everyday versions of it as well as the big crisis versions. For me – as for many I suspect – the underlying feeling behind my patterns is one of fear combined with shame. However, initially we may be more likely to notice the feelings that tend to get layered on top of that feeling: anger and blame if we tend to fight, busyness and speed if we tend to flight, lethargy or scatteredness if we tend to freeze, or guilt and self-criticism if we tend to fawn. 

Over time I’ve found it possible to identify the earlier flicker of discomfort in my body which precede the pattern kicking in. When I turn my attention towards that, instead of trying to deny that anything is going on as I might have done in the past, I can usually now address it before the bigger pattern kicks in. I’ve started to ask myself why this particular trigger puts me in a fear/shame place, and to consider what it might be like if I looked at it differently. My process is something like this:

  • Message comes in asking me to do something I don’t really want to do
  • Sense of discomfort
  • Turn towards sense of discomfort instead of pretending it isn’t there or acting immediately on the message
  • Ask myself how this is a fear/shame thing for me
  • Realise that I feel shame if I imagine saying ‘no’ to the request because someone may think badly of me, but I feel fear if I imagine saying ‘yes’ because I know that will hurt me because it involves me overriding my self-consent
  • Consider other options beyond the binary of no/shame and yes/fear, such as explaining to the person why it’s tricky for me, offering something else that is a ‘yes’ for me, giving myself more time before responding, etc.
  • Feel the sense of discomfort ease and a sense of peace replace it

For me personally, because I work in a plural way around everything, I found it helpful to locate the part of myself who gets stuck in the fawn place and the part who gets stuck in the flight place. I realised that my fawner is the one who is freaking out in the background trying to figure out what to do in the face of this fear/shame double bind, and this makes my flee-er jump to attention and try to do something immediately, often hurting and exhausting themself in the process. I now speak directly to my fawner when this happens – from a kind part of myself. I conceptualise this process as helping my inner fawner to step out of his prison: something I drew in comic form last year, which has been a helpful visual touchstone for me.

What I’m suggesting here is that, by slowing down and attending to these things intentionally, particularly when they kick in in small ways on a daily basis, we can get a detailed sense of the anatomy of our patterns and how they play out for us. Then we can get creative about how we shift ourselves out of them, eventually coming up with a range of tools which help us to do something – anything – differently when the patterns kick in.

Addressing blocks to this work

One thing which can really block us on doing this kind of work is fear and shame around it. 

Fear: We often don’t want to go anywhere near it because it will involve confronting who-knows-what damage our patterns have caused to ourselves and others over the years. We fear what we might find if we attend to ourselves and our patterns so we don’t go near them.

Shame: In a culture which is utterly rooted in shame in order to sell projects and police our behaviour, we’re terrified of confronting anything which might validate the sneaking suspicion which has been implanted in all of us that we’re unacceptable ‘bad’ people. Certainly admitting to our stuck patterns and the damage they have done is a radical act in a world where being seen to have behaved badly can result in public call-outs and cancelling.

There will be more blog posts and podcasts from me on this topic because I think that shifting the culture of frightening and shaming (ourselves and others) is another of the urgent things we need to do right now. For now let’s focus on how we might personally lift the block of fear/shame in order to enable ourselves to do the work of noticing and shifting our patterns.

I find it useful to remind myself of the following things in order to avoid getting frozen in the fear of what I might find if I address the patterns, and to avoid defending against shame by blaming others instead of looking at my stuff.

  • Everyone has stuck patterns which hurt themselves and each other, not just me. This is not something I should feel specifically bad about, but something which connects me with everyone.
  • If I turn towards these patterns and the impact they have I stand a much better chance at halting my part in toxic relationships, systems, and cultures.
  • If I can learn how to do this stuff maybe I can help others to do it too and that will be good work to do (getting my inner fawner and flee-er on board!)

Another useful practice which I’ve written about before are regret rituals. If we come up against painful memories where we have been hurt and hurt others then we can make deliberate space in our life to feel the grief and regret around those times. Doing this regularly can help us to feel less overwhelmed. It can help us in the hard work of forgiving ourselves and the others who have been caught up in these dynamics with us. This relates to the idea of embracing both our inner survivor/victim and our inner oppressor/abuser which many intersectional feminists suggest. We’ve all been both of these things and we need to grieve and regret them as part of addressing our patterns.

Finally I’ve recently come up with this process for thinking through any situation which comes up where we feel a lot of shame about our behaviour, often because we’ve acted out of our stuck patterns. It helps me to get my own personal role in perspective so that I can then be accountable for that without becoming so lost in shame that I can’t engage helpfully and responsibly. 

I assume that the following elements will be involved in any occasion where somebody feels hurt by another’s behaviour. I work through the specific situation considering what I know each element to be in this situation – or what I can imagine they might likely be when I don’t have all the information.

How did each of these things contribute to the situation?

  • Who I am, what my patterns are, and the stuff that’s happened to me to result in my patterns
  • Who they are, what their patterns are, and the stuff that’s happened to them to result in their patterns
  • Relational dynamics that often get acted out between people like the drama triangle or the four horsemen or the kinds of objectification of self and others that I wrote about in the Rewriting the Rules chapter on conflict
  • The wider systems and culture around us
  • Random chance

Then I can consider how best to address my part in it without taking too much responsibility, or too little because I can’t handle the shame.

Finding inside what you’ve looked for outside

Another useful way of addressing your patterns alone involves finding inside yourself the things that you’ve been looking for outside yourself. I mentioned earlier that when we form relationships from a place of still having these patterns we’re often trying to find – in another person or people – things that we struggle to find in ourselves, perhaps because we lacked or lost them in painful ways earlier in our lives.

For example, Pete Walker suggests that many survival strategies come into being because we’ve lacked or lost care and/or protection. This means that it’s hard to be kind towards ourselves (due to lack of good models of care) and to keep ourselves safe (due to lack of good models of protection). We could see the antidote to our shame as care, and the antidote to our fear as protection. Pete suggests ‘reparenting ourselves’ as a way of addressing this. Instead of searching for others to provide a kind of total care and protection which is probably impossible for anyone to give, we could cultivate our own capacities for self-care and self-protection.

Working as I do from a plural perspective I’ve found it useful to consider what my inner carer and protector look, sound and feel like, and to intentionally bring them into dialogue with other parts of myself so that they can become increasingly accessible in a way they certainly haven’t been for much of my life. 

However you don’t have to work with it in quite this vivid a way. It could just be about talking to yourself – internally or externally – in a kind and/or protective way each time you’re struggling. If this feels impossible it can be an area where ‘acting as if’ is helpful at first. Imagine if you did have such a kind/protective inner voice. What might it say? What would it say to another person in your situation? Again even glimmers of being able to treat yourself in these ways are impressive to begin with, and can build into something much more available and constant over time.

It can be good to consider what else you may have been looking for in external relationships which you could use this opportunity to find in yourself. You could list some of the things you’ve been drawn to in the people you’ve had close relationships with and see if you can access those aspects of yourself. For example if you tend to romanticise or eroticise rescuing vulnerable people, can you find that vulnerable part of yourself to rescue? If you’re drawn to cocky confident clowns, can you find one of those in you? If you get together with people who feel a bit dark or dangerous, maybe there’s a dark, dangerous part of you who needs some love and attention. Again I hope to blog and zine more about how to do this work, but the initial plural zine gives you some tools.

I’ve been asking a lot lately what it might be like if the kind of love which I have projected out onto other people could be turned in towards myself. There’s a lot of fun, pleasure, and interest to be had in experimenting with this, and it seems to expand with practise too. I’d recommend playing with this yourself, if you can, because we need these processes to feel good in some way if we’re going to remain committed to them. Hopefully the peaceful feeling of addressing our patterns, the lifting of shame involved in regret rituals, and the joy of turning the love in, can help us to stay on this path over time. Justin and I have resources on self-love, joy, and love in the time of Covid-19 which may be helpful.

Gradual relationship practice

I’ve explored a lot of things that we can do alone to shift our patterns and to turn our solitude into something potentially immensely valuable to ourselves and others. However there’s a limit to what we can do alone.

First, it is very hard – if not impossible – to do solo work without systems and structures to support it. This is why I’m so critical of the ideas of self-help and self-improvement, and why many are shifting their language from self-care to community-care.

Secondly, the point here is to shift our relational patterns, and we do need to practice those in relation with others. Pema Chödrön gives the example of a hermit alone in a cave practising patience. Another monk visits him and starts joking that it’s all a ruse the hermit is using to look good and to get people donating things to him. Eventually the hermit explodes in anger and tells the monk to piss off, at which point the monk asks ‘where is your patience now?’

While we’re in this time of solitude it’s worth asking ourselves how we can cultivate systems and structures to support our solo work, as well as how we can engage in relationships in ways that enable us to practise what we’re learning. One bonus of this time – if we’re stuck alone – is that it can be relatively easy to ensure that we have a lot of spaciousness and slowness around all our relationships in which to process what happens and act intentionally rather than quickly from old patterns.

Relationships you might consider building in online while isolated, if you can, include:

  • Peers who are also engaging in this kind of work to share how it’s going and to support each other 
  • Small groups where you all have time to share what’s going on for you at the moment and be heard
  • More explicit forms of one-to-one peer support or therapy (Time to Think gives one useful model for this)
  • Professional support if you can afford it (therapy relationships are one place where it’s explicitly intended that you notice your patterns playing out and practise different ones)
  • Contact with people in your life who offer you care and/or protection (Pete calls this ‘reparenting by committee’)
  • Engagements with authors and communities who are discussing how to do this kind of work – and supporting each other around it – at this time

For more about how you might go about shifting stuck patterns with others, check out my post on being stuck in together. There’s more about what the patterns are – and where they come from in this post. There’s more about shifting stuck patterns when they are fleeting, entrenched, or overwhelming in this post.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.
Plural tag: This post was written by Beastie.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).