We humans are creatures of habit, right? In some ways, this is good. It helps us create routines that become familiar to us. It also allows us to create traditions in our families, work, and social settings. Some habits and patterns can really be a blessing.
But what about those patterns that undermine the very relationships and dreams we hold most near dear to our hearts? They are also familiar, and despite their ability to create havoc in our lives, they live on, just like the patterns you use to wash yourself in the shower, put your child to bed, and cook the perfect medium-rare steak.
These havoc-wreaking patterns are created in a variety of different ways. Some patterns come from watching, learning and copying those around us. Consider the adolescent boy who watches his stressed-out father come home each night and drink until he passes out, to "deal" with the stress he feels from life. Dad gets nicer after a few drinks, and eventually passes out after "enough." The boy then begins to sneak beer, and finds the same relief from his stresses. He begins to rely on alcohol. As an adult, he requires more and more alcohol to "deal" with the ever-increasing stresses of life, and the alcohol use begins to hamper his ability to be productive at work and in relationships -- eventually bringing him to my office with a failed marriage and multiple DUI charges.
Others patterns come from learning how to best protect ourselves (both physically and emotionally) when we have been more limited in power, resources, and experience. Consider the young girl who learns that when she voices a difference of opinion, she gets hit by a parent. For this young girl, it becomes a pattern of being agreeable in order to avoid physical pain (protecting herself).
This pattern works well enough as a child to minimize the amount of physical pain she encounters from her caretaker. However, this same pattern continues to play out as a teenager, and into her adult relationships. Now she is sitting in my office wondering why she feels so disconnected, exhausted and unhappy. She has become so good at not having an opinion, that she isn’t consciously aware that her needs aren't being met. The needs boil over at unexpected times and don’t seem to make sense to her partner, given the situation they finally arise in. This reinforces her pattern to not voice her opinions (needs) because, to her partner, they "don’t even make any sense" (although her needs make complete sense in the right context).
However the patterns came about, they worked -- at least some of the time -- or we wouldn’t keep carrying them out. I see, hear, and experience these patterns play out in the lives of most people I interact with -- mine included. So, the question is: are we really stuck in these undermining patterns? I loudly say, “NO! We are not stuck with these patterns!”
So, how do we change them? Awareness (of ourselves) and compassion (for ourselves) are key to changing the patterns we’d like to let go of. Become very aware of what is happening both around us and inside us. We have to be familiar with how the pattern looks and feels to help us gain awareness. This awareness allows us to pause and consider doing something different. Heads up: we’ll probably miss the pause a good handful of times at first. This is where the compassion piece comes in! We have to be kind to ourselves when we don’t do it right. Talk to yourself like you would a best friend or a child who came to you to share something they’d failed in. That’s the type of compassion we need. You’ll be mighty amazed at how compassion for yourself will begin to pour out into compassion for those around us, which ultimately helps in breaking those patterns we’d like to change in our relationships.