I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how we can shift our stuck patterns and habits. I’m weaving together various ideas and applying them to my own life. It seems that there are some pretty universal ways of doing this work that apply to us all, but the way we do it needs to be tailored to every one of us uniquely.
The general approach to shifting stuck patterns and habits is:
- Notice the patterns when they kick in
- Gradually shift them by doing something different
- Make that an everyday practice so that new habits can bed in over time
I’ve written here about some of my current ways of doing this in my everyday life. While the practices offered by therapeutic approaches, Buddhist mindfulness, religious faiths and so on may be very helpful to point us in the right direction, I’ve found that any of these practices applied too rigidly or harshly doesn’t work great.
Pema Chödrön’s comparison of training a dog is helpful here: you get a much better trained, happier, and more flexible dog if you train them with rewards which work for that particular dog (e.g. cuddles, treats, or walks) within a broader understanding of how dogs work. If you just punish the dog whenever they do something you don’t like, and try to force them to conform to what you want, they may eventually do what you want them to do but they will be unhappy and inflexible when situations change. They may potentially become so stuck they can’t do anything if your training is inconsistent as well as harsh.
When endeavouring to change our own stuck patterns, then, it’s great to adapt practices to suit us. I tried – for years – to meditate, but struggled like hell to notice my stuck patterns and bring myself to the present, which is pretty much the point of meditation. However, bringing myself back came far easier to me when I allowed every glimpse of a bird to remind me to return to the present (I live in a place with a LOT of seagulls). It came even easier when I allowed myself to visualise the part of me who had gone back into a stuck pattern, and invited other parts of myself to help that part to come out again, often by talking with him directly rather than sitting in silence.
Three zones of stuck patterns
Something that came together for me today was that we need to draw ourselves back from stuck patterns in three ways. Again this is influenced by ideas from Pema Chödrön, and also Love Uncommon’s emotion thermometer.
It’s easy to feel we’ve done ‘well’ at catching a stuck pattern if we notice the first flicker of falling back into it and manage to say ‘nope’ and bring ourselves back out again. We can feel like we’ve failed if we wake up to ourselves and realise that we’ve been back in our stuck pattern for the last hour or so without realising it. And we can feel the absolute worst when our pattern has plunged us into full-on reactivity: an intense overwhelming response where we may melt down or shut down entirely.
I experienced all three of these yesterday.
Noticing the flicker
In the morning I was being a boss at noticing when flickers of uncomfortable feeling arose. Instead of pushing it down or acting out of it by rushing into doing something, I paused, took myself to a gentle place, and asked myself what the feeling might be about, assuming it was a perfectly sensible response to the situation. Then I gave myself time to tune into what seemed like the best thing to do next with my day, of all the options, instead of trying to force anything.
Falling into the pattern
Later in the day I felt keen to do a work task: working on the blog posts that I shared yesterday. However once I got into this I started to feel self-doubt about whether they were any good, and frustration with how long it was taking to edit them and get them up. Instead of pausing and noticing, I pushed on because I didn’t want to feel those feelings and I just wanted to get the job done. By the end of a couple of hours I felt pretty rotten and it took a while to realise what I’d done to myself, and to bring myself to a kinder place. I took myself for a walk and had an internal conversation about how it was inevitable to fall into stuck patterns sometimes Then I had some gentle time doing something enjoyable when I returned home.
In the evening I tried to confront a situation I’ve been finding very difficult lately: one which triggers really old, deep pain. I forgot everything I’ve been learning about how evenings are my most fragile time, how important it is not to push on when I’ve already had one tough thing happen in a day, and how I need to go particularly slowly and carefully around the ‘big ones’.
I got drawn into trying to come up with a solution to this big, difficult, ongoing issue, and my failure to manage to solve it plunged me into an intense flashback: a combination of panic and toxic shame where I couldn’t stop myself from continuing to try to figure out a solution. I pulled myself back by naming what was happening, doing a minute of intense exercise followed by deep exhales to try to change my bodily state, and telling myself terrible old jokes to make me laugh (the latter worked best!) Then – once I felt a bit calmer – I put myself to bed with comfort food and my favourite current TV show, and later had some more soothing self-talk about what happened.
Working in the three zones
The point here isn’t that it is ‘best’ to notice the flicker and pull yourself back at that stage. Inevitably sometimes we won’t manage to do that and will fall into old patterns (we have practised them thousands of times, remember). And sometimes we will fall all the way into reactivity or flashback. Finding our own ways of drawing ourselves back from each of these places is the key. We could see each of them as an opportunity in that way.
We could conceptualise it like this, as three zones that we can go into with stuck patterns: the flicker of feeling that we’re about to go into them.The innermost circle is our everyday zone where we’re in an okay place with occasional flickers of feeling when our stuck patterns threatening. Our task if we’ve fallen more fully into a stuck pattern is to bring ourselves back to the innermost circle. Our task if we’ve gone into overwhelm or reactivity is to bring ourselves back through regular stuck patterns to the innermost circle.
So in each of the three zones the task is to notice what’s happened and to draw ourselves back from enacting our stuck patterns. But the way we find to do this will likely be different in each zone.
- For the flickers of feeling it may be a fairly brief pause, allowing the feeling and understanding that it’s a sensible response, and reminding ourselves of our aim to do things differently now.
- For stuck patterns playing out more vividly, perhaps we need a longer time out to shift out of the pattern. We could do a practice to really get in touch with the underlying feelings, and/or we could talk/journal with ourselves about what happened and why it makes sense given the stuck patterns we’ve learnt and how ingrained they are.
- For overwhelm/reactivity it’s generally about taking ourselves right away from the triggering situation, not trying to deal with it right now. We might try soothing ourselves and being as kind as possible, which may take some time depending on how intense the overwhelm was. Pete Walker’s list is helpful if you experience this overwhelm as an emotional flashback (big plunge into fear and shame). I also love this four elements idea that I recently heard about from Elan Shapiro. Earth stands for grounding, air for breathing, water for salivating, and fire for visualising something safe and soothing: all things that help to calm our nervous system.
Overall it’s important to:
- Recognise that we will inevitably fall into all three zones at times rather than seeing one as better/worse than another
- Practise slowing down enough to notice when we’re in any of the three zones
- Play with what works for us to do something different in each of the zones – and therefore to shift out of the stuck pattern. It can be useful to inform ourselves about the literature, for example on mindfulness or handling an emotional flashback, but it’s great to find our own ways because these are more likely to work for us, and stick.
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